SINTON, Texas — Sinton’s Tom Allen never was the kind of coach who yelled at his players much.
So, when the head football coach and athletic director raised his voice forcefully to make a point, he commanded attention. But these days, Allen, 49, is forced by a medical condition to adopt a different tact. He’s got Multiple System Atrophy, which is similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“You know, it’s funny,” said the man who’s been synonymous with Sinton football for 12 years. “Now when I speak softly they really lean in and listen more closely. I don’t yell as much because it’s difficult to project my voice. But I think I’m still effective. When I’m no longer able to get my point across, that’s when I know its time to leave coaching.”
Multiple System Atrophy is an incurable degenerative condition that can cause problems with movement, speech, balance, and other autonomic functions such as blood-pressure regulation and breathing, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The disease does not affect cognition.
Allen first suspected something was wrong about four years ago. One of his assistant coaches noticed a hitch in Allen’s step while following him to the practice field. The younger coach couldn’t resist spouting a good-natured jab at his mentor.
“He asked me if I’d been drinking,” Allen said. “Of course, he was joking, but he’d noticed what I had already noticed. I couldn’t even make a simple jump shot. And I was a pretty good basketball player.”
Allen immediately went to a doctor in Corpus, who recommended a doctor in Houston, who recommended the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After his diagnosis, Allen’s wife, Dana Allen, an assistant superintendent at Sinton, researched the clinic’s treatment of her husband’s disease.
Allen said seeking treatment in Minnesota was an easy decision, mainly because of the clinic’s innovative trials involving stem cells.
Allen told the team about his illness two years ago. He felt they needed to know why he might not be on the sidelines for every game. That was tough.
“I tried to put myself in their shoes, but I really couldn’t,” Allen said. “I told them I’ll be their coach as long as I can. This year, I don’t expect to miss any games, but I might miss practice. The other coaches have stepped up to make my life as easy as possible.”
Among those assistants is Allen’s son, Brian Allen, his wide receiver coach.
Not becoming a burden to the team or his staff is among Allen’s major concerns. But his considerations go beyond coaching.
During practices, Allen gets around with the help of a golf cart. During games, he uses a scooter on the sidelines, which somewhat cramps his spirited coaching style, says long-time Sinton assistant coach Swift Fletcher.
“He’s usually pretty animated on the sidelines,” Fletcher said. “He gets excited, and jumps around. He was really athletic out there. The kids feed off that and respond when he gets amped up. He’s never been a Tom Landry on the sidelines.”
Fletcher said part of Allen’s sideline personae involves his interaction with referees. Before, everyone at the games knew when Allen disagreed with a call, including the officials.
“Tom could sure get their attention when he wanted to,” Fletcher said.
Today, when Allen disputes a call, someone on his coaching staff approaches an official on his behalf. But Allen still does the talking.
Allen said working around the symptoms of his disease may have altered his physical behavior, but it has not dampened his zeal for coaching. If anything, Allen said his condition has given his life new meaning by revealing different ways to inspire his players.
“I see this as both a limitation and an opportunity,” Allen said. “It might be far fetched, but my goal is for everyone on the team to get the most positive experience possible from this journey. I know it won’t be the same for everyone, but I hope they each learn that what matters most in life is the people you influence along the way.”
Allen said more than ever, he wants his players to put the game in perspective and to understand what’s really important.
“I want them to know their legacy should be based on how they treat people,” Allen said. “Not how many games they’ve won or lost.”
Allen said he also plans to use his stage to educate people about his rare affliction. He wants them to know that while survival may not be possible, the symptoms progress at widely different rates. Time remaining is not a given. So make the best of it.
“A friend told me he knew someone with the disease, who only lived for a year,” Allen said. “But the lifespan can be anywhere from five years to 18 years.”
Allen said he’s far too focused on life to worry about death. This doesn’t mean the little things he’s lost go unnoticed. He simply doesn’t dwell on them.
“Before practice I would walk up to the press box, just to look over the field to make sure everything was in place,” Allen said. “I can’t do that anymore. But at the same time I’m finding value in things I took for granted before. I’ve learned a lot from being in this position.”
Among those lessons, Allen said he’s noticed since going public with his illness that when people ask how’s he doing, they really mean it. He tells them he’s doing fine. And then he shows them, Fletcher said.
“Tom’s always been a tireless worker who gives without counting the cost,” Fletcher said. “And he still tries to do things that are physically taxing. No job is below him. He’s always willing to get his hands dirty.”
Fletcher said Allen’s character and behavior set a good example for his players and for others in the community, where he’s regarded highly.
“Despite his high profile, Tom is humble in his success,” Fletcher said. “He could dictate from on high, but he doesn’t. He’s not one to pontificate. The kids know he’s there for them, not by his words but by his behavior.”
Allen views his circumstances, both medically and professionally, in somewhat spiritual terms. He’s not a victim. The disease simply places him in a position of greater responsibility.
He actually refers to certain repercussions of his situation as silver linings. He’s been reflecting more lately about positive influences in his life. Alongside his parents, Allen credits a high school coach for guiding him toward his career path.
“I’m still modeling my coaching after him,” Allen said. ” And because of the position I’m in now, I recently told him so.”
Allen’s situation also has prompted some of his former players to do the same for him.
“That’s been a blessing,” Allen said. “They ask me what they can do to help. I tell them they’re already doing it. You played well for me and then you turned out the way you should have. That’s all I can ask. Many of those kids have gone on to do great things. It’s very satisfying.”
Allen said he finds great comfort in these conversations. Learning how people feel about him while he’s around to enjoy it is a gift, he said.
“Usually they don’t say all those nice things about you until your gone,” Allen said with a smile. “All the stuff they say in the eulogy is for everybody else.”
But seriously, Allen said he knows his coaching career will be cut short. But he doesn’t speculate on when it will end.
“My goal in the beginning was to see my youngest son through his senior year,” Allen said, referring to his son Jackson Allen, who plays wide receiver and defensive back for Sinton. “He’s a junior now, so we’re only talking one more year. But who knows? My main obligation is to the team. I have to be sure I can still give them my very best.
“One thing is certain. This is where I belong. And this is where I wanted to end my career.”