Coach leads inspirational Crusade
Allen battles rare affliction from sidelines
By WAYNE COFFEY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Holy Cross coach Dan Allen endures trying season, on and off field. A few minutes before 12:30 yesterday, on a bright, blustery afternoon in the Bronx, a sandy-haired man in a purple hat and gray jacket was lifted out of his wheelchair, and took his spot in the press box at Fordham's Jack Coffey Field.
Nineteen seconds into the game, Dan Allen had already seen his team pull off a surprise onside kick, and score a touchdown. Allen smiled. He spent the next three hours talking on the headset, directing his team, coaching hard near the end of the worst football season of his life, one that has included nine defeats, and a body in full, neuromuscular revolt.
"He's been such a great inspiration," senior wide receiver Ari Confessor says. "He's put so much into it. He's out there at practice every day, and he's the last one to leave."
Adds senior safety Ben Koller: "To battle adversity and to continue to do what he loves, it's what makes a person heroic."
Dan Allen, 47, is in his eighth year at Holy Cross, and his second being ravaged by a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, an affliction that has left his body virtually useless from the neck down, imprisoned by mysterious toxins, and helplessness.
Allen can't bathe himself, feed himself or sip a drink himself. He can't hug his kids, or hold his wife. He first suspected something was wrong two years ago, when he suffered from a severe headache and numbness in his toes. He took a midseason leave for a month. The condition kept getting worse.
MCS is typically triggered by exposure to environmental toxins and other chemical irritants. It is not widely recognized by the medical establishment, which believes MCS defies clear, clinical diagnosis.
Don't try to sell the argument to Allen, whose savings have been wiped out by treatments not covered by insurance. The Allens have taken out a second mortgage. They've lived with daily fear and confusion, tried hard to insulate their kids from the pain, the loss, the terror of what happens next.
Allen has a good idea of what may have precipitated the condition, but prefers not to discuss it, pending possible litigation. He tells his players he wants no pity. He tries to keep things normal. He politely declined to talk about his ordeal yesterday after Fordham's 49-28 victory, preferring to focus on how hard his kids have played all year, how they've never quit even when they've been overmatched.
"He's a class act, and I'm not saying that because he's sick," Fordham coach Dave Clawson says. "He's always been like that."
Before the season opener against Lehigh two months ago, after Allen struggled mightily to get out of his chair to address his team, the players gave him a standing ovation. Many of them were crying.
They were so used to seeing him manning tackling sleds, firing passes, a former linebacker who led with the same maniacal intensity as his favorite player - Dick Butkus.
Before the Harvard game three years ago, Allen's pregame pyrotechnics included flinging a trash can into a door, setting the frenzied tone for a rousing Crusader upset.
"Obviously he can't do that now," Koller says. "Now he's leading in a different way."
Holy Cross has two games left, both at home, where Allen coaches from a wooden platform behind the bench. He continues thrice-weekly treatments with his kinesiologist, Kate May, who gives Allen colon hydrotherapy, lymphatic drainage and massage therapy, gradually trying to bring his liver back to health. He eats fruits and vegetables, organic foods, and limits his exposure to anything foreign; he won't take buses, out of concern for the fumes. His dentist even took out his fillings, to make sure the mercury didn't compromise him.
Those who see Allen every day say he is improving, that his voice is stronger, his vitality greater. Still, the long-term prognosis is unclear.
"Everyone here is pretty positive," Confessor says. "It just takes time."
As the sun sank over Coffey Field, Jeff Oliver, Holy Cross' strength coach, lifted Allen up and gently placed him back in his motorized wheelchair, Allen operating it with his left hand. He went down the elevator, and rolled out into the cold. A cluster of Crusader fans was waiting. They greeted Allen and everyone tried to stay upbeat. Clawson spoke of Allen's courage, how he's never stopped being a coach.
Soon Oliver was lifting Allen again, into a car, for the trip back to Worcester, Mass.
"Nobody has packed it in on the season, and I don't expect them to do it in the next two games," Dan Allen said.
Originally published on November 9, 2003
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