Hanging on a wall in Jeff Allen’s office is a constant reminder of some of his most notable recent work, a picture of Kenyan Drake stretching across the goal line during his iconic touchdown in the 2016 national championship game.
Sitting in his office before a recent Alabama practice, Allen looked at the picture and reflected.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top that moment in my career in terms of the pride and just the feeling I had for him to see him make that play,” said Allen, the Crimson Tide’s head athletic trainer. “Literally, just talking about it gives me chill bumps.”
That play, that critical moment in Alabama’s win over Clemson wouldn’t have been possible without the behind the scenes work of Allen and the Tide athletic training staff.
Two months before the game, Drake broke his right arm against Mississippi State, his second serious injury in as many years.
Even after receiving a favorable prognosis from one of Alabama’s team doctors, Allen was still skeptical that Drake would be able to return at any point that season. Until talking to the then-senior running back after surgery.
“If you don’t want to try to do this, don’t worry about it. I understand,” Allen remembers saying to Drake. “You had an injury last year. You had this injury. You’re going to go play in the NFL. I want to do what you want to do.”
“My career at Alabama is not going to end this way,” Drake responded adamantly. “I’m not going out like this.”
So, Allen constructed an innovative plan to get Drake back as quickly as possible.
Countless hours were spent doing special wound therapy to expedite the healing of the seven-inch scar on Drake’s arm. After his daily rehab, Drake would go home and be hooked up to a bone stimulator or sometimes a cryotherapy machine.
Allen also worked with Alabama’s engineering department, using a 3D printer to make a form-fitting splint out of a lightweight Kevlar material that was both protective and flexible enough that Drake could bend his arm and handle a football.
It typically takes six to eight weeks to recover from a broken arm. Aided by Allen and the athletic training staff, Drake was back for the SEC championship game just three weeks later and is using that right arm in the picture on Allen’s wall, reaching the ball across the goal line with the arm he broke just two months earlier.
One of Alabama’s team doctors, Norman Waldrop, paused while describing Allen and his value to the Tide program.
“People may laugh at me saying this,” Waldrop said, “but I honestly think you can credit several wins and at least a large portion of credit towards a national title to Jeff and the training staff. I don’t think we would have won as many games over the Saban era without Jeff and the training staff being as good as they are. I feel very firmly about that.”
Allen is that good, an unsung hero and core member of the Alabama football program who is widely considered one of the best and most innovative athletic trainers in the country.
“I think he’s as good as there is in the business as an athletic trainer,” said Lyle Cain, one of Alabama’s other team doctors.
Only three members of the football staff have been with the Tide since the beginning of the Saban era. Allen is one of them, hired after three years as the head athletic trainer at Central Florida.
The introduction to Saban came from former Alabama outside linebackers coach Lance Thompson, who worked with Allen at Central Florida.
Knowing Saban needed a new head athletic trainer, Thompson recommended Allen.
Allen interviewed in June 2007, expecting to have to wait before hearing anything more about the job.
Instead, a member of the Alabama staff told Allen as he was getting ready to leave for the airport, “Hey, coach Saban wants to meet with you one more time. He wants to offer you the job.”
So, Allen called his wife and told her, “I think he’s about to offer me this job. Are you OK coming to Tuscaloosa?”
She was, and Allen accepted the job when it was offered during that subsequent meeting.
Allen has been at Alabama ever since, the driving force behind the Tide continuing to be likely the best in the country at injury prevention and injury recovery.
“He’s one of the rocks,” Waldrop said. “He’s not as big of a name as some other guys, but he’s invaluable. It’s impossible to overstate his value.”
In March, Allen posted pictures on Twitter that showed one of his current projects.
Allen is working with Alabama’s computer science and engineering departments to develop virtual reality rehab, trying to find a way to use virtual reality games to help players work back from injuries.
Allen recently tested it out on an Alabama player rehabbing from a knee injury. Playing an art game, the player had to paint the alphabet while bending the knee and doing mini squats.
“It’s something to get them engaged vs. just laying on the ground,” Allen said. “These kids are so technology-oriented, so we’re going to get a virtual reality system with games that we think will translate into rehab. Plus, it gives me a score. Our rehab, I like to have a scoreboard mentality. Think about a player. They’re constantly looking at a scoreboard. I want to give them a score in rehab like ‘Hey, man, you got beat today’ or ‘No, you’re better today than you were.'”
That’s part of why Allen is so respected. He’s a creative, outside-the-box thinker consistently finding new ways to prevent injuries and expedite the healing process.
Last year, Allen wanted to find a way to cut down on hamstring injuries. That was accomplished.
Allen found a machine called the “NordBord” that tests hamstring strength and shows whether a player is more at risk for a hamstring injury. Allen and head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran then worked together to improve hamstring deficiencies for at risk players.
Aided by that, Alabama’s hamstring injuries were down 75 percent last season compared to 2015, Allen said.
The Tide also continues to use the sideline medical tent created by Allen and the school’s engineering department in 2015, which allows Alabama’s athletic trainers and doctors to privately evaluate injured players on the sideline during games.
“He’s always looking for that new device or that new development or new technique to help the players get better quicker and get back on the field sooner and do what they want to do,” Cain said. “He’s open-minded. A lot of people that have been in the business for 15 to 20 years, they get kind of set in their ways, but I think Jeff does a really good job of investigating and evaluating new techniques and new devices that are available to help the players.”
Drake is one recent success story. Cam Robinson is another.
In 2014, the former Tide star offensive lineman sustained a high ankle sprain, an injury that typically sidelines players for six to eight weeks and sometimes even longer.
Robinson didn’t even miss a game, playing against LSU two weeks later thanks largely to an aggressive, individualized rehab program designed by Allen.
Playing two weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain was fairly unprecedented at the time.
Two days before the game against LSU is the only time Waldrop has been called into Saban’s office.
Saban wanted to make sure Waldrop felt comfortable with Robinson playing.
He was. So was Allen. So, Robinson started against LSU and helped Alabama beat one of its biggest rivals.
Like with Drake, that likely wouldn’t have been possible without Allen and the athletic training staff.
“We’ve been very fortunate in getting our guys back quickly, and that’s a testament to Jeff and the training staff,” Waldrop said.
Allen and the medical staff are particularly prideful about Drake and the storybook ending to his college career after the two serious injuries.
In addition to the picture on Allen’s wall, there’s also a mural of the touchdown inside Alabama’s doctor’s office that shows Drake using that right arm to reach the ball into the end zone.
“That picture embodies everything that we’re trying to do in here every day,” Allen said. “That one moment summarizes our total philosophy.”