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The Ex-linebacker Trying to Sack a Seat in Congress

Colin Allred spent years in the NFL avoiding being a “distraction.” Now that he’s retired, he’s ready to distract the Trump administration with a run for a spot in the House.

AP Images/Collin Allred’s Facebook Page

Last week, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress related an unusual bit of campaign biography:

“We were playing the Jets,” said Colin Allred, a former linebacker with the Tennessee Titans. “It was a really physical game. … [James Ihedigbo], who was a safety — a big, jacked-up guy — he ran into me on a kickoff return. When he hit me, I lost [the feeling in] my hand — I couldn’t close my right hand. I came over to the sideline and said, ‘Coach, there’s something wrong with my hand.’

“The next week, in a game against Jacksonville, on a kickoff return my entire right side just shut down. That’s when I knew I had a neck problem.”

Every politician can tell you a story of adversity that — at least according to them — proves their mettle for high office. Few of these stories involve a kick return. Allred’s collision with Ihedigbo happened in 2009. The next season, against the Dallas Cowboys, Allred ran into Martellus Bennett on a power running play. “I was lying on the turf,” Allred said. “He was like, ‘Hey, man, are you OK?’ I was like, ‘No, man, I’m not OK.’ I just knew that was it.” Allred could no longer help the Titans. But if things go right, he might help the Democrats.

One of the curiosities of Donald Trump’s presidency is how much pressure he exerts on athletes. Last month, Bennett and other holdouts skipped the Patriots’ White House visit; on the other side of the aisle, Curt Schilling has followed Trump into the postfactual Upside Down. Allred, who is 34 and lives in Dallas, belongs to a third category of athlete: He is actually running for something. Allred’s congressional race is fascinating not just because he’s an emissary from the sports world but because the seat he’s running for is the kind Democrats need to win if they’re going to take back the House.

A Dallas native, Allred played his college ball at Baylor, where his official bio had a higher ratio of academic awards to all-conference honors than he probably would have liked. In 2006 Allred tried out for the Titans. When he was cut after training camp, he applied to law school at Berkeley and prepared to move on with his life. But the Titans invited him back to camp the next season, and Allred deferred law school to take another shot at football. This time, he made the practice squad, then the team.

“I was never the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest,” Allred said in a video released three weeks ago that announced his campaign for the House of Representatives. “I’ve had to outwork everyone my whole life. And that’s the same commitment I’ll bring to Congress.” Thus, through the magic of politics, a four-year career as an NFL special-teamer and spot starter becomes the stuff of voter outreach: I’m an underdog, just like you.

The 2008 Titans went 13–3 but didn’t win a playoff game. “We lost to the Ravens in a B.S. game in which we got some bad calls by some bad refs,” Allred said. He thought he was close to getting a crack at a starting job when injuries got him. In 2008 he landed on the Titans’ injury report with a concussion. The next year, he told a reporter that his short-term memory was already beginning to erode. “I was always concerned throughout my career about a head injury,” Allred told me. “This is before it became a big deal nationally and people really knew about it. Because I said, ‘I want to do things with my brain.’” (He said he suffers no side effects from the concussion today.)

I asked Allred what he made of Trump’s line, delivered last October, that the NFL was sending players to the sidelines with “a little ding on the head.” “It’s a reflection of this lack of understanding that it’s not just entertainment or driving ratings or something like that,” Allred said. “These are people’s lives. … I thought it was typical Trump — bluster and a lack of empathy for the human behind it.”

After his collision with Martellus Bennett, Allred had two of his vertebrae fused — the so-called “Peyton Manning surgery” — and told Berkeley he was ready to claim his spot in law school. In 2013, he became a 30-year-old intern in Barack Obama’s White House counsel’s office. Jonathan Su, who was special counsel to Obama, remembers peppering Allred with questions about football; guys who’d played with Vince Young didn’t often walk through the door. Su also remembers Allred having a politician’s ability to establish an instant rapport with anybody. “When I look at his Facebook page and see him meeting lots of new people, I believe he really enjoys it,” Su said.

By then, Allred had fully morphed from a player into a Democratic politico. Obama appointed him to be a special assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he worked under Secretary Julián Castro. Last November, on Election Day, Allred managed poll watchers who were defending voting rights in Virginia. (“If you talk about how everybody should be able to vote — I don’t think that’s a radical, liberal position,” he said. “But apparently it’s become one.”) Later that night, Allred and wife Alexandra watched the returns on TV. When Trump was declared the winner, Allred was more distraught than he’d ever been about an election in his life.

What bothered Allred was handing the reins of government to a band of insurgents that “we thought was going to be hostile to all the things we believed in doing,” he said. “We would not have thought the same thing if it had been Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. We would have been upset, but not this shock about, What’s going to happen? Is government going to continue to function the way it has?

After the election, a lot of national Democrats felt they ought to “do something.” Allred spent a few months thinking about what doing something might mean. In March he and his wife moved back to Texas. A month later he announced he was running for Congress.

Texas’s 32nd District sprawls across the northern part of the state, from suburbs like Garland west toward George W. Bush’s home in Dallas. For 14 years, the district has been represented by a staunchly conservative, if fairly bland, Republican named Pete Sessions. “He’s not really, I don’t believe, that philosophically aligned with Trump,” said Martin Frost, a former Democratic representative who ran against Sessions in 2004. “But as part of the Republican leadership, he’s got to do Trump’s bidding.”

Indeed, after Sessions signed on to the GOP’s first attempt to repeal Obamacare, he went to a town hall event and found a fired-up crowd of more than 2,000 people. “Pete must go!” they chanted. “You don’t know how to listen,” he scolded them. Thursday, Sessions voted in favor of the revised Obamacare repeal bill that passed the House. (Sessions’s communications director, Caroline Boothe, didn’t respond to an email.)

Lashing a representative like Sessions to an unpopular president is a time-honored strategy for off-year elections. But what makes Sessions’s seat a greater object of desire for national Democrats was what happened in November. Back in 2012, Mitt Romney won the 32nd District by 16 points. In November, Hillary Clinton beat Trump there, 49–47. It was one of 23 Republican-controlled districts across the country that Clinton won. And of those 23 GOP representatives, only 14 voted for the Obamacare repeal. That got the 32nd put on Nancy Pelosi’s wish list.

Frost said the 32nd is roughly analogous to Georgia’s 6th District, where the Democrats are trying to win a runoff next month. The electorate is mostly white, highly educated, and wealthy; the median income is more than $66,000 a year. “This is not a blue-collar district in the Midwest some place where a bunch of people that had previously been Democratic are now voting for Trump,” said Frost. “This is a district where there are a lot of Republicans who don’t like Trump.”

“If Democrats pick up a number of seats, it’s not going to be in the rural areas,” Frost continued. “Those people are gone to the Democratic Party for the time being. … The natural place to gain seats for Democrats are in districts like this one.”

Predicting that Texas, or some chunk of it, is turning purple is a surefire way to get an op-ed assigned at a national outlet. Within the state, there’s enormous skepticism this is happening. In 2018 Trump will be replaced at the top of the ballot by Republicans who haven’t lost a statewide race in more than 20 years. When I asked local lobbyist Drew Campbell what a winning Democratic campaign in the 32nd would look like, he said, “I can’t imagine that. I really can’t. I’m not trying to be facetious. … It would have to be a 1994- or 2006-style tsunami wave for that to happen.”

In other words: It wouldn’t matter that Colin Allred was a personable ex-linebacker with a good résumé. What would matter is that Trump’s party was being swamped across the country, and that Allred had a “D” next to his name on the ballot.

On the issues, Allred sounds like a feisty member of the anti-Trump resistance. Allred said Trump’s proposed border wall is “insulting to our neighbors in Mexico” and “wrong in every possible way.” The tax cut the GOP has planned is a gift to the wealthy that even Trump voters didn’t sign up for. On the Republican health care bill: “This isn’t who we are in North Texas. We don’t believe in taking health care away from our neighbors to score political points.”

To have a shot, Allred will need to raise millions; Sessions is an expert fundraiser. Allred will have to climb out of a dogpile of a Democratic primary that already includes more than a half dozen announced candidates. He will also have to use sunny, Obamaesque biography (“I never knew my dad, but I was still lucky”) to unbind suburban Republicans from their party. When Allred and I spoke, the attempted unbinding was already underway: “The Republicans I grew up with wouldn’t be OK with banning an entire religion from entering this country. They wouldn’t be OK with stigmatizing Latino immigrants.”

The athlete who hangs up his cleats and runs for office is a long-running, mostly unrealized fantasy of Texas politics. (Nolan Ryan and Roger Staubach were to the Lone Star State what Colin Powell was to the presidency.) Allred said that since announcing his candidacy, he has talked to lots of his old Titans teammates. When former NFL players call each other, the first thing they ask is, “How’s your body?” Only after Allred and his teammates have offered updates on their achy knees and backs does Allred get around to talking about his political career.

When Allred played in the NFL, the locker room was an activism-free zone. “The NFL is generally a conservative institution,” he said. “It’s got a lot of coaches and general managers and owners whose mantra is, ‘Avoid distractions, avoid distractions.’ For them, talking about politics or talking about social issues is a distraction.”

In the Age of Trump, politics is no longer a distraction in the NFL — the only question is how politics manifests itself. One player takes a knee during the national anthem, another tries to cadge votes in Dallas’s Lower Greenville neighborhood. I asked Allred what he made of Trump’s recent boast that he was keeping Colin Kaepernick out of work.

“President Obama said whether you agree or disagree with what Kaepernick is doing, at least as an American you respect his right to do it,” Allred said. “That’s one of our fundamental rights. It’s our First Amendment. There’s a reason why it was first.

“For a person sitting at the head of government to single out an American and say he’s glad he’s having some repercussions for expressing his First Amendment rights, to me, that’s disgusting.”