As a second-term Congressman Colin Allred carefully respects the traditions of his hallowed workplace.
“You can’t even step on the floor without a suit jacket on,” he told CNN Sport via a remote link from his office in Dallas.
But on January 6, 2021, after witnessing the horrors of a deadly, armed insurrection at the US Capitol building, he deemed that – in that moment – such a tradition was no longer appropriate, or indeed practical.
“When I heard the attackers trying to get in,” Allred explained, “I took off my suit jacket coat, stood up and was prepared to fight or do whatever I had to do if somebody got on the floor.”
Allred knows how to look after himself; he spent five years as a linebacker with the Tennessee Titans in the NFL and thought he’d seen it all – until January.
“It was surreal, it really was. I’ve played in some really tough atmospheres; I’ve had things thrown at me and people cursing at me, but I’ve never seen anything like the rage and mob mentality that we saw that day.”
Allred had heard the glass breaking, witnessed the doors being hurriedly fortified and knew the Capitol building had been breached for the first time in more than 200 years.
“It really is the heart of heart of our democracy,” the 37-year-old Democratic lawmaker said. “And to see violence come to that place, to see Americans using the American flag to attack police officers, the Confederate flag being walked through the halls of Congress – something that never happened during the Civil War, I was very sad that day.”
Eventually, Allred and his fellow lawmakers were evacuated to safety, but he said his fellow Democrats were glad to have him on their side.
“A number of my colleagues told me afterwards that they felt comforted I was there and that they planned on being behind me.”
He did, however, wonder how that scenario might otherwise have played out. “I thought, well, I didn’t have any weapons or anything, you know?”
Allred describes the insurrection as “really led by President Trump,” and “a near-death experience for our democracy.”
He was horrified by the violence in the Capitol, but equally disturbed by the animosity later that evening when the lawmakers returned to the Chamber to certify the results of the US presidential election.
Tensions were still high, as Republicans were accused of inspiring the mob with lies.
“There was a back and forth between some members on our side and on their side. One of their members dove into the aisle and basically said something along the lines of: ‘Let’s fight.’
The scene played out but was off camera. It was witnessed by a CNN producer.
Lawmakers from either side of the aisle yelled at each other to “sit down,” a tense exchange that resulted in at least a dozen other members bench clearing from their sides.
According to CNN’s Kristin Wilson, who was in the room, the situation diffused fairly quickly but tensions were high.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland, confirmed the incident in a statement.
“Nothing physical ever happened, or was going to happen. Mr. Allred stepped in only to ease tensions at the end of a difficult day,” he said.
“This is about 3 a.m.” recalled Allred. “And I was just so incensed at the idea that, even after all the violence we had seen that day, that this guy had not had enough.
“And so, I said to him, ‘Are you serious? Have you not had enough violence for one day?’”
Not for the first time in his career, Allred found himself playing defense, putting his 238 pound frame on the line for his team.
“I got in his way and of course, he’s not going to try and get past me. I thought I left a background in the NFL where you handle a disagreement by putting someone on the ground.”
Growing up in the 1980s in Northern Texas, Allred wasn’t unlike many other young boys dreaming of being a professional athlete.
“I didn’t really think I was going to become one,” he noted, “I was very realistic about it, but I wanted to be a centerfield baseball player for the Texas Rangers.”
He was raised by a single mother and baseball was her favorite sport, but she didn’t care much for his athletic career.
“I’d come home and say I had a great game,” he recalled, knowing that he’d inevitably be met with the response, “OK that’s fine. How’d you do on that test?”
Allred knew he’d need to rely on his education. He considered being a doctor and then a lawyer, but his dream of being a professional athlete didn’t go away.
“Just kind of turned out that my body type and my talents were better for football,” he said.
Allred attended Baylor University on a football scholarship and was fully anticipating a transition to law school when it was put to him by a scout that he could still make it to the NFL.
Allred was so unsure of his own potential that he said he would selflessly offer to introduce the scouts who were looking at him to his teammates, because he thought they would have a better chance of making it.
In the 2006 NFL Draft, Allred was overlooked and undrafted, but was subsequently picked up by the Titans and stayed there for five years.
Recalling his time in Tennessee, it’s clear that the pressure and expectation prepared him well for a life after sport.
“I learned how to grind it out,” he explained, “how to really focus every single day on accomplishing the task ahead of me.”
Allred had to fight for every single year in the squad: “You may have 10 to 12 linebackers who are there, but there’s only going to be five or six who are going to make the final roster.
“You’re going to have to compete with those guys, but you’re also going to have to work with them because you’re going to be part of a union, a unit.
“I was always being challenged by a new draft pick, a younger, cheaper player coming in or a free agent who was maybe expected to take my position,” he remembered, noting that a professional team athlete is expected to be both selfless and ruthless in equal measure.
“I always took the attitude that I’m going to compete with these guys, I’m even going to teach them how to play my role, but in the end – I’m going to beat them out.”
After a neck injury forced his early retirement, Allred got around to completing his law degree, then went to work in US President Barack Obama’s administration as a Special Assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He was also among a group of Obama Administration and campaign alumni who heeded the call of the 44th President in his farewell address to “Grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
Allred must have felt like he was back in the Titans’ locker room as he topped a crowded field of Democratic challengers in 2018, before gaining the nomination for Texas’ 32nd Congressional district in a runoff and then finally beating the 11-term Republican incumbent Pete Sessions later that year.
At the age of 35, Allred quickly realized that his first career had unwittingly prepared him for his second.
“If you walk into any professional team’s locker room, you’ll find the strangest friendships,” he told CNN. “You’ll find folks from very different walks of life, who find a way to be friends, to work together.
“I wish that every member of a legislative body had to play team sports before they joined that legislative body, because you learn so much about how to interact with sometimes really difficult people and still work towards a common goal.”
The former NFL linebacker arrived back in Washington halfway through Trump’s presidential term, with the country riven by vicious and hyper-partisan politics.
While it may appear that some lawmakers treat government like a game, Allred says there is a problem with making such a comparison these days.
“In sports,” he observes, “there is accountability. You can watch the film and see exactly what happened on any given play. You can say whose fault it was, why it did work or why it didn’t work and everyone on the team accepts that common set of facts.
“Unfortunately, in my experience, we have not had a common set of facts. We have not been able to agree on even just the problem before we start talking about the solution. I think it’s very difficult for democracies to function when you’re not agreeing on the facts.”
After the NFL, Allred became a voting rights lawyer and he is now deeply troubled by Republican-led proposed legislation sweeping through state capitals all over the country that would make it much harder for many people to vote which critics say is targeted to suppress voting in minority communities.
“What we’re going through right now is really unprecedented,” Allred lamented. “It’s something that we haven’t seen in the United States since the bad old days of Jim Crow discrimination, which was very explicit about who was and who wasn’t a full citizen.
“That’s how you lose your democracy that’s how you slip into something else. We have to make sure that the game is open to everyone.”
They used to say that “sport and politics shouldn’t mix,” that sports stars should “stay in their lane,” but that seems like a fanciful ideal today.
As athletes have seen the communities they represent harassed and downtrodden, intimidated by police brutality and silenced by voter suppression, they’ve harnessed the power of their social media platforms and are no longer kowtowing to the call of “shut up and dribble.”
They are silent no more.
From Colin Kaepernick in the NFL to LeBron James in the NBA, to the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka and the Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, athletes are leading the fight for social justice and racial equality globally.
“I’m so proud of the athletes today,” Allred told CNN, “because I know how difficult it is to be an athlete at the very pinnacle of your sport. That takes so much focus and, at the same time, be able to express yourself with any kind of clarity on societal issues.
“They are working on being the best they can be, but they’re insightful enough, intelligent enough to still comment and respond to really ridiculous things that are said to them.”
Allred singled out the Manchester United star Marcus Rashford for praise, a young footballer who’s shone a light on childhood poverty in Britain and who pressured the British government into a U-turn on policy in 2020.
“What he’s done for kids in the UK is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen an athlete do,” said Allred.
“And it’s the kind of model that I think a lot of athletes will see and learn from and apply.”
Allred is expecting other athletes to follow his journey into politics when their sporting careers are over, but he said it won’t necessarily be the ones who are getting all the attention now.
“There are folks who are leaders, just because of the force of their personality,” he said. “People think of quarterbacks, people who are high profile. But that’s not the guys I’m thinking of.
“It’s the quiet leaders in the locker room who are doing the work in their community, who have the respect of their teammates, have the respect of the journalists who cover them. Those are the ones who I think would make great members of Congress, city councilors, mayors. Because we need people who are in it for the right reasons.”
Allred hasn’t been in politics for long and he’s preparing for a long, hard fight in the years – if not decades – ahead.
“I used to have a coach,” he recalled, “who said the one thing about rock bottom is once you get there, you can always have something to push back against on your way back up.
“I’ll never give up on us. No matter how dark it gets, we are fundamentally good people and we have a fundamentally decent community that I think will always rise to the top.”
This story has been updated to provide greater clarity to what happened during 3 a.m. incident.