A downside of skipping a curling team of former NFL players is the team photo, says Jason Smith.
“I hate taking pictures with them because I look like a little kid,” the Minnesotan told The Canadian Press.
“I can’t shave now because I will look like their kid. And I’m not that small. I’m six feet and I look like I’m four-foot-three.”
Defensive end Jared Allen, who played 12 seasons in the NFL, formed a curling team of retired football players in the spring of 2018.
Allen, Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Michael Roos, St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck curled in a national championship qualifying event last season with Allen at skip.
Smith, who played third for the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2009 world championship, was recruited for this season to accelerate the football players’ learning curves.
“When I was skipping, I told the guys ‘listen, we can make all the shots we want, but if we’re throwing the wrong shots, that’s not helping us either,’” Allen said from Nashville, Tenn.
“I’m not too proud to say what I know is not nearly enough to get us where we want to get, so why don’t we bring somebody one that can help us get to that point?
“It expedites our learning curve on the strategic part of things because now we get to see why the shots are called and it’s like having a coach on the ice.”
Allen, Roos, and Bulger fly weekly from Nashville, where there is no curling ice, to Blaine, Minn., to train with Smith.
Bulluck couldn’t commit the time and travel to the team this season.
Allen throws third stones. Lead Bulger holds the broom for Smith, so six-foot-six, 240-pound Allen and six-foot-seven, 300-pound Roos can apply their size and strength to sweeping.
“You’re not shorting a lot of draws with us,” Allen said. “That’s where we have a decisive advantage with our size and the amount of weight we can get on the broom, especially as we learn better technique.”
The football players are charging up a steep learning curve.
“I’ve always been a baptism by fire type of guy,” Allen said. “It’s a challenge that we’re so far out of our element. It’s the finesse of the game. That’s what I like.
“The camaraderie afterwards, win or lose, they buy you a pint and you call it a day.”
Some skills in their athletic set transfer from football to curling.
“It’s the ability to learn fast,” Allen said. “In football, we’ll put in new defences every week. Marc might have to learn a new offensive scheme.
“We don’t forget skills very much either. Our practice sessions, where we have a five or six hour practice session, hopefully this doesn’t come off in an arrogant way, we’re just very used to having to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time and retain that.”
Allen, 37, compiled 136 sacks during his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers. He played in the 2016 Super Bowl and retired that year.
Roos, 37, started all 148 games he played for the Titans before retiring in 2015. Bulger, 42, led the Rams to a 12-4 season and an NFC West title in 2003 during his eight seasons in St. Louis.
Surges of adrenalin are useful in football, but counterproductive in curling.
“The biggest thing is curbing emotion, right?” Allen said. “Football, the adrenalin is great. You have a bad play and you get pissed off, that adrenalin is going to help you execute with violence.
“Curling, you can’t do that. I’ve already snapped one broom. I don’t need to snap any more.”
The team took its lumps to start this season going winless in two World Curling Tour events in Minnesota.
The foursome won a couple games in their next two tournaments. They then came through a tiebreaker to reach the final of November’s Dakota Challenger in Lakeview, Minn.
“They are doing a lot better than I ever expected them to do,” Smith said. “They’re way further ahead than most curlers who have only played for a year or two.
“They know what it takes to put in the work to get better at something and they don’t like not being good at something. They have the drive to practice and work hard.”
They’ll compete Jan. 2-5 in the Men’s Challenge Round qualifier in Grand Forks, N.D., where the top four teams advance to men’s nationals.
Allen’s dream is to represent the U.S. in curling in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“That should be everybody’s goal right?” he said. “That’s the pinnacle of that sport.
“I didn’t go into a football season saying ‘I’m not trying to win a Super Bowl.’ It is always a reality? No. Is that our ultimate goal? One hundred per cent.”
The annual Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel, known as the MCA, invited Smith to the tournament in January.
They’re not planning to curl in Canada this season, however.
“We haven’t ventured north of the border,” Allen said. “I’m assuming next season we’ll take some trips up north.”