When Jacob Allen steps onto the field at the Alamodome this weekend, he’ll be defying a series of steep odds.
Allen, a sophomore lineman at First Baptist Academy, is one of the top 600 underclass high school football players in the nation who were invited to the National Combine in San Antonio, Texas. The Combine, which sent invites to 16 players from Southwest Florida, is Friday and is a precursor to the All-American Bowl senior all-star game.
According to doctors, Allen shouldn’t be on the football field at all, much less among the best of the best.
As recently as six years ago, the 6-foot, 270-pound, strong-jawed teenager was a sickly child, stuck in the bathroom vomiting or confined to the couch for his breathing treatments, or simply in agony from repeated ear infections.
Just 14 months ago, Allen was homeless — his family lost their house in Hurricane Irma.
Allen is out to prove himself against the nation’s best at the National Combine, and he won’t be intimidated by the competition. He’s been proving himself all his life.
Wisened and matured past his 15 years by his tribulations, Allen says he’s not in San Antonio in spite of his struggles. He’s there because of them.
“To prove to people who said to my face that I’d never become something, that told me I’d never play football,” Allen said. “It drives me, everything in my past. Everything people said I couldn’t do, that’s what I’m coming for.”
Watching Allen pancake a defender or take down a quarterback on Friday nights, it’s hard to imagine him as a frail, undersized baby in and out of the hospital. However, Allen had trouble from the start of his life.
He spent the first weeks of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit in a Virginia hospital after being born prematurely. His lungs were underdeveloped and he struggled to breath. The baby also suffered from severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), causing him to projectile vomit nearly all food.
Jacob and his mother, Angelica, moved to Naples when he was an infant. They joined his father, Chris, who had taken a job with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office shortly before Jacob was born.
Jacob spent his first 10 years rotating through doctors, specialists and emergency room visits as they tried to find a cure for his breathing problems and his vomiting. He took steroids and did breathing treatments with a nebulizer multiple times a day. He developed asthma, which doctors believe was caused by the GERD.
In elementary school, Allen spent as much time in the bathroom or clutching a waste basket as in class. He would throw up multiple times a day, including at night.
“He was scared to go to sleep,” Angelica said. “Imagine the anxiety of trying to go to sleep only to wake up gagging. And he couldn’t scream for help. (Chris and I) were sleeping in shifts (to monitor him).”
Doctors also found Jacob had perforated eardrums. He had to take painful ear drops and wear plugs until surgery to correct the holes inside his ears at the age of 9.
“I realized I’m not going to be a normal kid,” Jacob said. “I wouldn’t be able to do the stuff I wanted to do. I saw normal kids go out and play with friends, go to parties, and I was stuck there in the bathroom.
“I remember praying at night for it to stop. ‘Why is this happening to me? I’ve had enough already.’”
Stepping onto the field
Jacob yearned to do what normal kids did. To him, that meant playing sports. Medically, though, it was out of the question.
“Doctors told him he would never play sports,” Angelica said. “They said he’d always have trouble breathing. We went (to doctors) from here to St. Pete to Miami. We went everywhere, and they all said the same thing.”
He did well enough that the Allens decided to give football a try. The parents took all the necessary precautions – inhaler on the sideline, frequent breaks, informing the coach of his health struggles – and Jacob flourished.
“Absolutely,” Chris said when asked if he was nervous. “But as a father, sometimes you have to take that risk. Sometimes you’ve got to push it.”
Jacob started in the Naples Gators youth football league when he was 5 and later moved to the First Baptist Beacons. He had an asthma attack on the field around sixth grade, but that was the only issue.
Around the age of 10, Jacob’s maladies began to dissipate for seemingly no reason.
He could breathe better. No more asthma attacks. He didn’t need the steroids or the nebulizer. Perhaps biggest of all, the GERD went away.
At 10 years old, Jacob ate his first slice of pizza. Certain foods still upset his stomach, but Jacob has learned what he can and can’t eat. He keeps it basic – mostly chicken, vegetables and 1-percent milk. Still, it’s a huge improvement from when he lived mostly off PediaSure, a protein drink that helps children gain weight, the first 10 years of his life.
“It’s just been a miraculous turn because it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Angelica said. “All the specialists said he was not supposed to outgrow his asthma and the acid reflux problem would always be severe, and it’s not.
“God has worked in tremendous ways.”
Jacob finally considers himself a normal kid. He’s learned to monitor his body in case of asthma or GERD attacks and take the necessary precautions.
After getting through physical struggles early in life, the Allen family has weathered another storm, one they’re still getting through.
By the time the flood waters receded and the trees had been cleared, it was 14 days later before the family could get into the house they bought when Jacob was 3. All their possessions were destroyed.
“I was in shock,” Jacob said. “That was my entire childhood in that home. There were a lot of memories. A lot of suffering, but a lot of happiness with my family, too. I had to be there for my mom, so I didn’t let it get to me, but it built up inside of me.”
Angelica and Jacob spent more than two months after Irma moving from house to house, sleeping in friends’ guest bedrooms, couches and sometimes floors. Chris, a detective with the Sheriff’s Department, spent much of the time, especially the first few weeks, at work helping clean up the community.
To make matters worse, the Allens did not have homeowner’s insurance. Angelica said their insurance company recently had dropped them for too many claims in one year, although the family made two claims for the same leak in their roof.
Just as he had done as a sick child, Jacob turned to football for normalcy.
“Anytime I would go to football practice, I would love it,” Allen said. “I would hope it wouldn’t end because when it ended I would go to some stranger’s home to sleep on the ground.
“Football was my way out. It was what I put all my anger into. My teammates felt my hits for a couple weeks.”
It took almost three months, but the Allens found a new home in late November 2017. They bought the house sight unseen because affordable houses were selling so quickly in Naples. The family has spent the last year saving up to furnish the home piece by piece. For Christmas, Jacob received a bedroom set.
In Jacob’s newly furnished bedroom hangs a picture of a football player holding a ball under the words “All men fall, but only great men rise again.”
It’s a paraphrase of the Bible verse Proverbs 24:16, and it’s a motto Jacob has lived by.
Were Jacob a normal health boy, maybe he wouldn’t be in San Antonio this week. He credits his constant illnesses and ailments as a child with giving him a high pain tolerance. When he’s tired and winded, Jacob reminds himself that it’s nothing compared to the struggles he once faced.
That attitude has given Jacob a tremendous work ethic, which shines in the weight room.
Attacking his workouts with ferocity allowed Jacob to mold himself into a varsity offensive lineman as a freshman. He started at left tackle as a sophomore this past season, but he played all five positions on the line when needed. Jacob also had 20 tackles on the defensive line.
“He enjoys the weight room,” First Baptist Academy football coach Billy Sparacio said. “Those who really have a knack for (lifting) and enjoy it and apply themselves benefit so much. Jacob has been one of those guys. He’s found a home in there.”
Jacob’s goal is to use football to repay his parents. He hopes to earn a college scholarship so his mom and dad don’t have to worry about affording his education after all the medical and Irma-related costs they’ve incurred.
The path to college, he hopes, begins in San Antonio. Jacob also recently was invited the Blue-Grey All-American Combine. Like the National Combine which is tied to the All-American Bowl, the Blue-Grey combine in March in Daytona Beach coincides with the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl. Both bowls are national all-star games for high school seniors.
Jacob said his job in the next few months is to get noticed by college recruiters. Meanwhile, he and his family continue to be amazed that he can even play football at all after the struggles in his life.
Southwest Florida players invited to the FBU National Combine, Jan. 3-5, in San Antonio, Texas:
Name School Pos. Year
Terry Lindsey Bishop Verot RB JR
Brandon Benjamin Dunbar RB JR
Jadarius McKnight Dunbar DB JR
Jacob Allen First Baptist OL/DL SO
Brady Dean First Baptist QB SO
John Coleus Fort Myers DB JR
R.J. Rosales Immokalee QB JR
Charles Toombs Immokalee DB JR
Dominic Mammarelli Naples TE JR
Devin Moore Naples DB FR
Dominic Ponder Naples QB FR
Malique Dieudonne Palmetto Ridge WR SO
Kamonte Grimes Palmetto Ridge WR SO
Justin Mathieu St. John Neumann DB JR
John Paul Raiger St. John Neumann DB JR
Cayden Baker SWFL Christian TE JR