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Ex-Jefferson star now sidelined Saint

A knee, not Katrina, threw this New Orleanian for a loop

NEW ORLEANS -ESPN recently logged its biggest audience of all time when nearly 11 million people tuned in to watch the New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta Falcons.

The game, touted by New Orleanians as the 'Monday Night Super Bowl,' received worldwide media coverage, featured an opening performance by U2 and Green Day -two of the biggest rock bands in the world -and was visited by dozens of celebrities, from Spike Lee to former President George H.W. Bush.

One of the participants on that grand stage should have been James Allen, the former Jefferson High and Oregon State football star drafted by the Saints in 2002. But instead of sending his 6-2, 245-pound body into Falcon receivers and running backs, Allen was lounging at his suburban Kenner home, watching ESPN with friends in town from Portland.

Allen is getting paid on the one-year contract he signed in March, but he is in a precarious position - a seasonlong spot on the Saints' injured reserve list.

From OSU to injured list

His future once seemed much more secure. After playing organized football for the first time during his junior year at Jefferson, Allen, an eventual three-sport letterman, was an all-PIL pick as a senior linebacker for the Democrats. At Oregon State, he lettered four years and was a three-year starter at outside linebacker.

In 2002, the Saints drafted him in the third round (82nd overall). After two seasons languishing with little playing time, he got his moment in 2004. Allen started 10 of 16 games and posted a career high in tackles.

But in 2005 he suffered a knee injury that kept him on the sidelines for all but three games. Then, on May 23 of this year, he ruptured a patella tendon.

'It was a pass defense drill. It wasn't no pads, no contact, nothing,' he recalls. 'I just cut one way and my foot stayed in the grass and my knee gave out.'

Like many people in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city he has called 'home' for the past five years, Allen is uncertain about his future.

'I've been hurt for two years. I'm a young man who is trying to come back and establish himself in a career and get a job on the field,' he says. 'But there are hundreds of healthy bodies eagerly waiting to do the same thing that I say I can do.'

Others might not have the same motivation, however. Allen, 26, has three very important reasons to make good on his word: 4-year-old son Jontae Allen, who lives in Portland, as well as son Jakieh, 1, and daughter Aajeh, 6 months, who both live in New Orleans.

NFL career is on the line

The morning before the Atlanta game, Monday Night Football announcers Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theisman, along with the producer and director, met for their final production meeting.

When the crew filed out, they left three dry-erase boards filled with notes. In big bold letters, MNF Executive Producer Jay Rothman had written 'Rebirth/Reality.' Those words, he later explained, were to set the stage not only for the game and broadcast but for New Orleans and its people.

They could also be a mantra for Allen, who is hoping for a rebirth next season but concedes realistically that his career as a professional football player is in jeopardy.

'Right now, I'm on the sideline,' he says, his voice dropping a few decibels. 'It's a saying in the sports world - 'when you're hurt, you're dirt.'

'But I hope and pray that based on my past play and my assets they will bring me back on.'