July 18, 2013

Wall of Fame profile: Damon Allen ahead of his time

Mike Beamish
Vancouver Sun

Striptease artist Sally Rand was arrested four times for indecent exposure the first time she appeared at the 1933 World’s Fair. But it was all an illusion. She actually wore a flesh coloured body suit that made her appear naked.

Still, her fame lives on today in one of the more colourfully-named formations in modern football – the Sally Rand, i.e. the naked bootleg.

Nobody perfected the art of the Sally Rand better than quarterback Damon Allen, who wore clothes but was as much of an illusionist as the famed fan dancer. The former BC Lion will be honoured Saturday night at halftime with his induction into the team’s Wall of Fame at BC Place Stadium, along with former coach Don Matthews.

Though Allen played seven of his 23 seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Lions – more than any of the five other teams he played for – his special abilities were never more in evidence than on the night of Oct. 29, 1993, playing against the Lions, and for the Edmonton Eskimos, in a game at BC Place.

Fluidity, accuracy, unstoppability, and the Sally Rand…Allen had it all working for him that night.

Reading off the defensive end, keeping the ball instead of handing off, when he sensed the defence was breaking containment, Allen romped for 170 yards in a 54-14 thrashing of the Lions. It was a CFL rushing record for pivots in a single game, breaking the mark of 166 set by former Eskimo Tracy Ham, and later eclipsed by Nealon Greene. He also executed a wide array of throws, tossed two touchdowns and made the Lions defence look as naked as Sally in the altogether.

Lions current defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler, then a member of the Eskimos coaching staff, was there to enjoy the ride.

“There’s talk of a revolution in the NFL, with running quarterbacks like RG III (Robert Griffin III), Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson,” Stubler said. “Heck, Damon was doing that 20-25 years ago. They’re products of what he did. They designed a play strictly for him, like the one RG III is running now – the Sally Rand. That was the naked keeper. That was born with Damon.”

“I believe there is some truth to that,” Allen agreed. “I was somewhat before my time, when it comes to the trends in the quarterback position now. If I came out of college today, I may have had a chance to be a first-round draft pick. But when I went to the NFL combine after my senior year (Cal State-Fullerton), most of the teams wanted to look at me at another position, even though I showed well in the combination of running and throwing. They wanted nothing to do with an option quarterback, plus the fact that I was a buck 50 (150 pounds). Even the Eskimos, who signed me, were worried that I might get hurt.”

In the 1980s, Edmonton was an incubator of greatness and creativity in professional sports. Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers were the biggest act in town, but a specialness also resided with the Eskimos. At one point, they had three future Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the same roster – Ham, Allen and Matt Dunigan.

Watching Allen was to glimpse a touch of Gretzky’s magic and lightness. He used sleight of hand to overcome his slightness of build.

“I could get small,” Allen said. “I had to elude hits because of my size. When I ran, I could go in any direction, north-south, east-west, without losing a step. I could make cuts at the same speed.”

Allen went to three Grey Cups with the Eskimos. Though he has yet to be honoured by the CFL team in the city where he got his start, Allen hopes his placement on the Lions’ Wall of Fame might provoke a similar response in Edmonton.

“It’s ironic that the Lions are playing the Eskimos (Saturday),” he said. “It’s giving them a little wink, as if to say, ‘It’s your turn next.’ Of course, it would be nice to be honoured by the team that taught me so much about being a quarterback, being a leader and how to manage a game.”

Allen joined the Lions in July 1996, following the dispersal draft of the CFL’s ill-fated excursion into the U.S. He played the previous season with the Memphis Mad Dogs.

The Lions had three different owners in his first season in BC, and the bigger question was not so much whether Allen would thrive but whether the team could survive.

In 1999, he passed for 22 touchdowns and ran for eight more as the Lions finished 13-5, but his only cup in B.C. came the following year, when he led an 8-10 team to the franchise’s fourth championship, the same year he became the CFL’s all-time leading passer. Allen was gone after the 2002 season when the new regime of Bob Ackles and Wally Buono decided he “wasn’t selling tickets”, and Toronto virtually picked him up for nothing.

He had more than a few good moments in the subsequent five seasons. At age 41, the senior statesman of CFL quarterbacks delighted in leading the Argos to victory over those same Lions in the 2004 Grey Cup.

A year later, Allen was named the league’s most outstanding player for the first and only time.

Payback was sweet, but the taunts and slights of his former days in B.C. will not be on his mind when the man who perfected the Sally Rand returns to his old stomping grounds Saturday night.

“I’m very proud that the Lions thought of me,” Allen said. “I hope fans remember me like a painter, an artist whose talents weren’t always appreciated until he was well out of the picture.”

What few doubters remain can kiss one of his four Grey Cup rings. He was the MVP in every one of those games.