How a former NFL All-Pro and an ex-UFC fighter teamed up to help wounded veterans


Jared Allen entered U.S. Bank Stadium’s field last year the same way he went into retirement — on horseback. Cowboy hat on his head, sport coat over his massive upper body, the legendary Minnesota Vikings defensive end was back home to be inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor.

The three-time Pro Football Hall of Fame nominee sat on his horse at the 20-yard line, took off his hat to thank the crowd before dismounting and giving a speech. Moments earlier, a video about his life showed his accomplishments on and off the field. In the stadium were his fans, his family and his friends — a football life fast-forwarded into a 15-minute ceremony. Many of the guests he expected. One was kept as a surprise.

Allen knew Sgt. Colin Faust for over a decade. They initially met during Minnesota Vikings training camp, when Faust was a temporary employee in Mankato, Minnesota. They reconnected again when Allen and his foundation, Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors, offered to build Faust a house. Now he was here, part of the celebration of Allen’s career, one that allowed him to do the very thing that brought them together after Faust had his left leg amputated following an IED explosion in Afghanistan.

“I was there to kind of represent his off-the-field work, his off-the-field legacy, and totally surprised him,” Faust said. “It was a really cool moment.”

Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors’ mission is to build mortgage-free, American with Disabilities Act-compliant homes for veterans who have been severely injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since its beginning in 2009, the nonprofit has built or committed to build homes for 27 veterans, growing from Allen funding a home out of his own pocket to former President Barack Obama attending one of the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Allen said 89 cents of every dollar raised goes to a home construction. In its latest public 990 form, from the 2021 fiscal year, the foundation reported revenues of more than $2.6 million and assets over $4.3 million.

The organization is listed among those that can help veterans by Military OneSource, a website run by the U.S. Department of Defense. To be listed on the site, an organization must pass a three-step process and businesses generally “have an official agreement or contract with the Office of Military Community and Family Policy.”

Charity Navigator and CharityWatch, two watchdog groups, have both raised concerns about the lack of an independent audit of Allen’s charity. Former UFC fighter Alex Karalexis, the executive director of the foundation, told ESPN it is in the process of having its first independent audit completed.

“I want to be good stewards of other people’s money,” Allen said. “And I want people to see the impact they have on those recipients. It’s a constant evolution.”

It’s a jump from the roughly $100,000 investment Allen initially made and the checks he continuously wrote the first couple of years to stay afloat. The foundation has become self-sustaining, although Allen said he still donates funds, including the money he makes on Cameo, a personalized video messaging app.

Faust was among the veterans who received a home in the first ground-up build the organization did. So began a relationship symbolic of those Allen and Karalexis form with many of the veterans they work with. The charity has faced its share of challenges, including a contractor allegedly stealing from it, but the perseverance of Allen and Karalexis has changed the lives of many.

“From the very beginning [Allen] just kind of took me in as kind of like his little brother, because he’s like, I don’t know, six, seven years older than I am,” Faust said. “He’s just always been there.”

ALLEN STARTED BUILDING homes because of a chance meeting at a country music festival in the mid-2000s.

He got into a conversation with James Stroh, a member of the National Guard, and Stroh explained the gaps in adaptive housing for amputee veterans. Allen always felt a connection to the military because of his grandfather and other family members who served, but he didn’t know what to do to help.

In 2009, he went on a USO tour and met veterans, and when he came home he recalled the conversation with Stroh. He started researching and brainstorming with friends about the concept of the American Dream.

“House, white picket fence, 2.4 kids and a dog, right?” Allen said. “And then it’s like, what’s home? Home is your most safest place at your most vulnerable time.”

When veterans come home after losing a limb, their needs aren’t necessarily fully covered. There is help but often not enough. Veterans can end up in homes that aren’t ADA-compliant, which can impact accessibility and make everyday tasks more difficult.

This need became Allen’s passion. Having already moved from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Vikings and well into his four-time All-Pro career, this was his way to give back. They would create ADA-compliant homes for amputee veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He called Stroh, who became a co-founder. By October 2009, Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors began.

In 2013 he hired Karalexis, whom he met years earlier when Karalexis was still fighting and lived in Las Vegas. For a while, Karalexis and Allen trained together during NFL offseasons. Allen even cornered Karalexis for one of his final MMA fights, against Anthony Pettis in 2010.

With a background in carpentry, a similar mindset to Allen about veterans and a desire to turn their friendship into nonprofit work, Karalexis joined the organization as lead project manager in 2013. In 2016, he became executive director. Before Allen and Karalexis worked together, they were close; now they might be each other’s closest friend.

“He spoke the language, right,” Allen said. “And then he was able to connect through all these building trades and connect us with the union.”

Seven years later, Karalexis travels across the country on site visits, meeting with builders and veterans, making sure their needs are handled, his thick Boston accent permeating every sentence. Before Karalexis made it on “The Ultimate Fighter,” which launched his MMA career, he was a carpenter in Boston fighting on local shows.

This job brought him back to his roots. Karalexis is often the one most in contact with the veterans, working them through the day-to-day of the process.

He is the on-site lead for each house, often having to balance what the veteran wants with the reality of what the contractors can do. The projects have become such a large portion of his life — if he’s having a bad day, he’ll watch or read about some of the work they’ve done to bolster his spirits — because of the veterans they’ve been able to help.

“He was a dream to work with,” said Todd Stragier, vice president of Neff Construction, one of the firms that helped build a home for the foundation in California. “… I’m an ex-wrestler so we would go round-and-round on that stuff, but to work with Alex, it was fantastic.

“The guy was really understanding, always had [the veteran receiving the home] in the front of mind.”

The homes the foundation funds are built from scratch and mortgage-free, meaning the cost to the veteran and the veteran’s family is nothing other than property taxes once the home is completed and they have moved in.

Veterans and their families select essentially everything, from the plot of land they want to interior design, appliance preferences and other intricacies. If the request is for something special, there needs to be a practical use.

After experiencing firsthand the challenges that come with remodeling the first four homes it worked on for veterans, Allen’s foundation began starting from the ground up in 2014, making the decision shortly after Karalexis came on board.

FAUST JOINED THE Marines in 2009 and on Oct. 15, 2010, was on foot patrol in Afghanistan when he heard a “ping.” He was flung 10 to 15 feet in the air after an improvised explosive device blew up underneath him. By the time Faust, then 21, hit the ground, he realized what happened.

Faust felt he had a 50-50 chance of survival. Because of the danger in the patrolled area of Afghanistan, he had to be moved a half-mile to a medical helicopter for evacuation, first to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, then Germany and then the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

His fellow soldiers helped save him, but his left leg needed to be amputated — first at the knee and later above it. His right leg was “very shredded, very destroyed.” His left arm was ripped open to the bone from his wrist to his elbow; he was fortunate that it wasn’t blown off.

Faust consented to experimental surgery in Maryland to try to save his right leg. At the time, Faust said it was the “most severe limb salvage they had ever attempted.”

Faust underwent nearly 50 surgeries in a three-month period — the majority on his right leg — from orthopedic work to cleaning out wounds. He had an infection in his wounds from dirt in Afghanistan and contracted pneumonia. During one surgery, Faust said, his heart stopped on the operating table. Faust was 165 pounds when he was injured. At one point during his recovery in the hospital, he weighed a little more than 100 pounds because of the surgeries and restrictive diets. “I just wasn’t expected to live, even when I got to the United States,” Faust said. “And I didn’t even know that until way after.”

FAUST SPENT ALMOST two years rehabilitating after he left the naval hospital, the last year at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Surrounded by other veterans with similar experiences, he bonded with them and strong friendships were formed.

For the first time since his injury, Faust was optimistic that he’d be OK. Then, discharged from the Marines, he returned to Minnesota.

Faust went from being surrounded by people who understood his situation to enrolling in college at Minnesota State Mankato and living with his brother in an apartment not outfitted for someone with an amputated leg.

While he had focus while in rehab, he felt lost returning to his home state. Faust went from a soldier who felt invincible to an older college student needing a wheelchair or prosthetic with a significant limp to get around.

Faust bounced from job to job while enrolled in college, including working in construction and at Vikings training camp, where he briefly met Allen. Neither knew how connected their futures would become. Faust went to school during the day, partied at night and searched for purpose after having a very clear one for years.

“I was kind of in a dark spot,” Faust said. “Or at least that discharge kind of initiated a dark spot in my life.”

Faust never went to therapy, but started adapting to his new situation, accepting that his initial plan when he joined the military might need to be altered. Never a religious person — although he remembers praying in the moments after he stepped on the IED — he found his faith and leaned into it.

At the same time, his mother, Sonja, made two decisions impacting her son. She set him up on a blind date with a college student at Creighton named Julia. And with his permission, Sonja applied to an organization she’d heard about that built homes for wounded veterans.

LIKE SO MANY others tired of scams and telemarketers, Faust doesn’t answer calls of numbers he doesn’t recognize. Sonja warned him that if he received a call soon after she’d sent in the application, he should pick it up.

Faust had no idea organizations like Allen’s existed prior to Sonja’s application. He’d been a Vikings fan forever and when he picked up the phone, he recognized the raspy voice instantly. Allen asked him if he could build Faust a home.

During his time in the hospital, Faust had met celebrities and even a president. Yet it was Allen who left Faust “a little starstruck at first” as he processed what was being offered. It still didn’t seem real until the groundbreaking ceremony on the 10 acres of land Faust bought near his hometown in Minnesota while he was enrolled in classes at Mankato. (Typically, the foundation will purchase the land, but Faust had bought his before he even knew the group existed and it helped move things along.)

Allen or Karalexis would then call the veteran and go through the process. One of the stipulations is a deed restriction of 15 years, meaning veterans can’t sell the home in that period without clearance from the foundation. That helps protect the investment the foundation and donors have made, and also the veteran in case any issues arise. There are exceptions, such as instances when a family outgrows the home or a new job comes along in a different city. “We obviously want these to be forever homes,” Allen said. “But we understand life changes. And we want to be there for them.”

Once everything is agreed upon, Karalexis and contractors offer suggestions and recommended options and ask veterans to list their needs and wants. Julia, by then Faust’s girlfriend, handled the interior design for the rustic look Faust wanted. Faust wanted a basement, but in a wheelchair that could be difficult. An elevator was donated to make it work.

“To be taken care of in a really radical way like that, it’s part of your rehab,” Faust said. “Like having a home that you can feel comfortable in and navigate and not have to be stressed out about and exert yourself to just be mobile.”

As the home was being built, he split time between Mankato and Nebraska to visit Julia. Over the two-year project, he checked on the house’s progress biweekly. For the last five months, he was there daily, moving into a small condo nearby after having transferred from Mankato to Crown College, where he eventually graduated.

THE FINAL STEP is what Allen and Karalexis call the key ceremony: the ribbon-cutting official handing of the house keys to the veteran and his family. “The best moment used to be calling the veteran and saying, ‘Can we build you a home?'” Karalexis said. “Then the keys to the home. Now, it’s just the beginning. You see where they go.

“They got that f—ing swagger back.”

For that day, Faust had a plan. He had always had a penchant for trying to turn negatives into positives. He would turn an already landmark day into something memorable.

Feb. 7, 2015, would be epic. He and Julia had been dating for a while and Faust hadn’t really lived anywhere on his own. So he asked Julia if she wanted to stay the first night with him.

At the key ceremony he told a reporter his plan: to propose to Julia that evening. It was a surprise that was almost ruined.

Following the ceremony, Julia’s sisters — who were in on Faust’s bigger plan — took her to get her hair and nails done. A story on Faust and his plans ran on television while they were in the beauty salon. The sisters distracted Julia from seeing it.

Faust decorated the home with flowers and a candlelit entrance. Julia came over. Faust proposed. She said yes.

“In terms of emotion, it was just, I don’t know, it’s just kinda like you get your dream house,” Faust said. “You go from living in Marine barracks to that. … It’s just kind of surreal.”

On Oct. 15, 2016, Julia and Faust were married. Six years earlier was his “Alive Day,” the day he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan, sending him on a life-changing journey.

The selection date was purposeful. Faust turned one of the worst days of his life to one of the best.

“That’s kind of a theme in my life,” Faust said. “Where I transform a day really meaningful to me, about me, to something about another person.”

LATE LAST YEAR, Faust was in the front of the Wright Lecture Hall speaking to class after class. A month earlier, he’d been hired at St. Thomas Academy, an all-male private school with a military background in Minnesota as a Catholic theology teacher.

His passion for religion landed him a career. And now, in front of the room, he told his story to students over the course of several days in hourlong segments. Faust would share his story — from why he enlisted in the military to the explosion, his recovery to how he ended up finding religion and teaching. And about his family — he and Julia now have two children.

His presentation included multiple slides featuring Allen and Karalexis, their organization and what they do for veterans. There’s the picture of the key ceremony and of Allen and Faust hanging out. They’re still in touch — if the veterans want to keep in contact, Allen and Karalexis remain part of their lives, going to weddings and birthdays and receiving baby announcements.

Faust thinks of Allen’s organization and the home built for him as part of the reason he has been able to recover. “It’s just a tremendous blessing,” Faust said. “It’s way beyond just, ‘Hey, I’m financially getting a house.’ It’s a critical part of rehab.”

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