(Reuters) - A group of former NFL players who took up curling with Olympic-sized dreams may not have struck fear in opponents’ eyes like they did on the gridiron but they still consider their inaugural campaign a sweeping success.
Former Minnesota Vikings great Jared Allen and his team had no curling experience between them when they formed last March but that has not deterred them from chasing the lofty goal of representing the United States at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
“You tell people that and they think that’s very boastful, very aggressive. But setting mediocre goals is setting yourself up for mediocrity,” Allen told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“I always like to shoot for the moon and see what happens.”
That drive led Allen, who terrorized quarterbacks during a 12-year NFL career that ended in 2016, to recruit former St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, Tennessee Titans linebacker and offensive tackle Keith Bulluck and Michael Roos.
The quartet, who were all Pro Bowl selections during their National Football League careers, shared the desire of competing at either the summer or winter Olympics but they were not initially sure what sport they would pursue to try and reach their goal.
Allen, 36, said the original plan was to take up badminton, an idea that was quickly abandoned after he realized just how nimble and agile players need to be.
“After watching videos of badminton it was like ‘man these guys are actually pretty darn athletic.’ They were flying all over and diving on the hard court and I was like I don’t think my back would hold up,” said Allen.
“So we went to a less physically taxing sport, and I figured when the winners have to buy the losers a beer as a customary tradition (in curling), how rough can that sport actually be.”
The Nashville-based team, who practice on ice provided by the city’s National Hockey League team, will compete at the Feb. 21-24 Mile High Open in Colorado to cap a campaign in which they failed to qualify for the U.S. national championships.
Known as the All Pro Curling Team, the quartet have come a long way from the first handful of times they stepped foot on a curling sheet, when Bulger says simply trying not to fall was the main goal.
While the team are confident they will soon master the sliding technique and physical demands of sweeping, they need to focus mainly on strategy, admitting it is difficult for them to see what seems obvious to their more experienced opponents.
“When I first watched curling ... you just think you are going for the button, the center of the house, every time. And that’s not the case,” Bulger, 41, told Reuters. “There’s just so much more to it and so that’s our biggest thing.”
But Bulger said that what his team mates lack in experience on the pebbled ice, they more than make up for it when it comes to having to handle outside pressures given their former careers competing in America’s most popular sport.
“We had TV cameras following us and media (while we were playing in the NFL) and unless it’s the Olympics there’s never really that attention around the curling circuits,” said Bulger.
“So people get a little nervous around that but we are so used to it and kind of thrive on it. Even on pressure shots we thrive on it.”
The four have come quite a long way in a short period of time and while they have not experienced much success when it comes to winning actual matches, they say competitors are often surprised that they have only been curling for less than a year.
Bulluck said opponents have not looked down at the former NFLers’ attempt to make some noise in the curling world and instead have welcomed them with open arms, offering tips and advice along the way.
While some onlookers might not consider a group of newcomers much of a threat, Bulluck suggests his team possess a different type of advantage given the never-say-die mindset the former professional athletes honed in the NFL.
“We were All-Pro caliber players in the NFL, which means at some point we were the top players at what we did. We are able to focus and put in the time that it takes to become elite at something you do,” said Bulluck. “So we are kind of banking on that.”
The team’s first pro tournament came last November when, without the services of Bulluck and Roos and in their place a pair of regular curlers, they were easily beaten 11-3 by the reigning U.S. Olympic champions.
But the former NFLers were undeterred and despite tempered expectations, they remain committed to booking a spot in Beijing, which means by the 2020-21 season they need to be earning enough points at World Curling Tour events to qualify for the Olympic trials.
“Having no preconceived notions about how this was going to go, I think it was successful in terms of just getting started and figuring things out,” Roos told Reuters.
“We’re definitely at that point now where we’ve got to put more effort in and work hard and really, really start to develop our skills if we really want to make this a legitimate chance.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar