Holy Cross coach refuses to be sidelined by illness
By Kevin Allen USA TODAY
Head coach Dan Allen isn't exactly sure where he'll be Saturday afternoon when his Holy Cross football team takes on Georgetown in the Crusaders' home opener. It might be sitting in one of the private boxes above Fitton Field. It might be perched on a chair along the sideline.
But make no mistake: Allen will be there with his players and coaches, giving no quarter to a debilitating illness.
Allen is battling multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition that has attacked his neuromuscular system, leaving him unable to walk without assistance. It struck around 18 months ago when Allen says he was exposed to toxins.
"I can't discuss it beyond that because of possible legal issues," Allen says. "But there was immediate dizziness, disorientation and nausea. My immune system started attacking my nervous system, and ultimately it affected my muscles."
Allen, 47, was forced to take a medical leave during last season before returning for Holy Cross' final four games. He recently began a treatment program that involves injections and pills, and Allen says his doctors are optimistic the program can reverse the condition.
"I feel better every day. I'm able to stand on my own now, and I'm retraining my brain for balance," Allen says. "The process is just a lot slower than I'd like."
For now, Allen uses a motorized wheelchair to move about and a golf cart to maneuver at practice. He is determined to do as much as he can, an effort that has not been lost on his players.
"He doesn't want anyone feeling sad for him, but we appreciate the struggle he's going through," says senior wide receiver Ari Confesor. "He's a motivation for us. Whatever we do, we don't want to disappoint Coach Allen."
In the opener last week at Lehigh, Allen made the trip from Worcester, Mass., to Bethlehem, Pa., by car with some of his assistants. Strength coach Jeff Oliver carried Allen up to a seat in the press box.
"Coach Allen does everything he can to be there for us," says senior defensive back Ben Koller. "Seeing him work, seeing him push and fight to get better, it puts everything in perspective. For many of us he was the primary reason we decided to come to Holy Cross."
Allen served as a Crusaders assistant for eight years in the 1980s before becoming head coach at Boston University. He returned to Holy Cross as top man in 1996 and has worked to make a mark in the Division I-AA Patriot League. His illness has only slowed that battle, not ended it.
"Coaching is done from the neck up in a lot of respects," Allen says. "I still participate in the game plans, and I'm still down on the field during practices. I just can't get down there and run around with my players the way I'd like. That's frustrating because I'm a very enthusiastic coach."
Allen has relied on his staff to do what he physically can't, especially Leo Fanning, who served as interim coach when Allen was away last season. Allen talks to the team before a game but then designates assistants to speak right before taking the field and at halftime.
"I'm leaning on all my assistants," Allen says. "They have all stepped up."
Allen worries about the toll his illness has taken on his wife, Laura, and their three children. "It's so hard for them to see me like this," he says.
Coaching is Allen's most effective therapy, the thing that helps keep him moving forward. Last week was a downer at Lehigh, losing 38-20 after trailing only 23-20 in the fourth quarter. But Saturday there is Georgetown and new life.
"They always give us a tough time, and we've been fortunate to beat them the last three years. If we play like we did against Lehigh we'll be 0-2," Allen says. "But we have a good football team. We just have to calm down and play within ourselves and we'll be fine."
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