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‘Work hard, play hard': Matt Allen's fight with cancer brings McGuinness softball team together

by Jenni Carlson Modified: September 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm •  Published: September 24, 2011

If not for the scar arching from Matt Allen's right ear to the top of his head, you'd never know.

He fixes catcher's masks for the girls on his daughter's softball team and fills water bottles for the boys on his son's football squad. He sells pharmaceuticals for the sick. He finds coaches for the teams and hires referees for the games in the Catholic youth basketball league. He serves the body of Christ for the church. He smiles and laughs and jokes and makes people feel good just being around him.

He just brings people together. There's something about him — his quick smile? his kind eyes? his I-don't-take-myself-too-seriously attitude? — that has created this huge network of friends.

He's a glue guy.

But that scar ...

It starts just below his temple where the surgeons sliced into his head three times in the past two years. It cuts a softball-stitch pattern up his scalp where staples held him together after brain surgery.

It is the only sign of trouble Matt Allen shows the world, the only hint of the aggressive, insidious brain cancer inside his head.

That's why he sometimes goes to the parking lot to take his chemo pills before a softball game at Bishop McGuinness High School, where he is a volunteer assistant. Then there are the times he hides behind a tree at practice because he doesn't want anyone to see him throwing up.

“You won't hear me say the words, ‘I'm sick,'” Matt says. “I'm on an adventure.”

It started two years ago Sunday when doctors removed a fist-sized tumor from the right side of his brain. It has taken Matt through radiation, chemotherapy, experimental drugs and clinical trials. It has caused him to lose weight, gain weight, fatigue easily and sleep lots.

“But I will tell you that the day I start acting like I'm sick, I might actually be sick,” Matt says, “and I'm working really hard to show people I'm not sick.”

He smiles.

Matt does that a lot.

“I can go through life and be poor me and be sad; that would be very easy to do. What I have has never been cured, has never been stopped, and there's only one end result.”

Matt's wife, Kelly, says, “No matter what happens, Matt's already beaten this thing. He beats it to death every day he gets up and hugs his kids.”

Some people get hope.

Matt gets options.

“I was never scared for myself,” he says. “I was always worried about Kelly and the kids.”

But remember, Matt is a glue guy. He's why students at McGuinness made bracelets and sold T-shirts. Why duffers from as far away as Ohio and Minnesota packed Fairfax Golf Course last spring for the Matt Allen Invitational. Why a high school kid created a “Matt Allen is a Warrior” page on Facebook. Why hundreds of people have signed up to get email alerts every time Kelly updates a CaringBridge page on the Internet.

“We're living this out loud,” Kelly says.

What a statement they are making.

CaringBridge introduction

Matt often asks, “How do you not know you have a tumor the size of your fist in your head?” Truth is, you just don't. Prior to 2:45 am on September 24th, 2009, we didn't.

The headache hit Matt on a Tuesday night.

It was September 2009, and he began working as a volunteer assistant for the McGuinness softball team earlier that season. He was at practice that day, hitting fly balls to the outfielders and playing good cop with anyone who got chewed out.

Everything seemed fine.

Better than fine, actually.

Helping with the softball team meant Matt was getting to spend time with his daughter, Taylor. Dads don't always get to do that when their little girls become teenagers, and when Taylor got interested in drama and music, Matt wasn't sure what to do. He doesn't know much about those things.

Softball was different.

“This is what my dad and I do together,” Taylor says. “And it has been since I was 8 years old.”

So, it was weird when Matt said his headache was so bad that he wasn't going make practice that next day.

He figured it had to do with a home improvement project, the demolition of some ceramic tile in the hall and kitchen. He went to the doctor who agreed that the dust had irritated Matt's sinuses. Medicine was prescribed, and patience was suggested.

But the headache didn't go away.

Wednesday night, it was back and worse than ever.

Early Thursday morning, Kelly drove Matt to the emergency room. Doctors sedated him before doing a CT scan.

“I wasn't awake,” Matt says, “when they came and told my wife that I had a tumor about the size of my fist.”

About 24 hours later, Matt had surgery to remove the tumor. The procedure took five hours, but as Matt started waking up, he was greeted by some familiar sounds coming from just outside the intensive care unit.

He heard the voices of the softball girls.

The entire team was in the waiting room.

“All the girls. All their parents,” Matt says, wonder in his voice. “How do I not find a way to keep coming back?”

There was never a question — he was going to keep coaching.

Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009, 11:03 a.m.

From the early days of this journey, I told Matt that we were on a magic carpet ride. We learned pretty quickly that we had no control over what was happening in our lives. None. We couldn't control the cancer, and we had very little say in what was going on around us. We could either fight our feelings of helplessness or roll with it. Hence the magic carpet ride. We decided that as long as we were along for the ride together, we could do anything. We didn't know where the ride was going to take us, but Matt's creed is “Play hard, and have fun,” so that's what we decided to do.

The next few months were a blur of appointments with cancer specialists at MD Anderson in Houston, radiation treatments in Oklahoma City and chemo pills by the dozens.

Matt and Kelly tried to explain to their daughter, Taylor, and son, Chris, why he was so tired so often.

“It's like getting a vaccination, this radiation thing,” they told the kids. “Maybe there's pain for a few days. Maybe you even get a mild case of whatever you are trying to prevent.

“It isn't the cancer making him sick. It's the treatment.”

But as awful as Matt felt, he knew that life was continuing, so he'd muster the strength to do whatever he could. Carving pumpkins with the kids at Halloween. Watching Taylor in McGuinness' production of “Alice in Wonderland”. Going skiing on spring break. Cheering Chris at the Boy Scout Court of Honor.

Then, there were those times when the family saw the bonds that Matt had created.

They showed up at Mass the Sunday night after his first brain surgery and watched as Chris and his sixth-grade baseball teammates went to the front and explained what had happened to their coach. They said they'd be standing at the exits with bags if anyone wanted to leave a donation. They also said they'd be going into the church gym to shave their heads just like Matt's had been shaved in prep for surgery.

Before the shave-a-thon was over, dads and deacons had joined in, too.

“It was a frenzy,” Matt marvels.

He smiles.

“The next week when we go to church and look out and see all these bald-headed people was something.”

People who Matt didn't even know had shaved their heads.

The glue guy had done it again.

It was good that the support system was growing; doctors realized that Matt's tumor was growing again only eight months after his first surgery.

They sliced back into his head on May 26, 2010.

Thursday, August 12, 2010, 5:43 p.m.

Monday was about the lowest I've seen Matt. He made it downstairs but never made it off the couch unless he was in the process of being violently ill. Tuesday was somewhat better, and Matt was able to eat some more. The girls had a softball game that night, and so you know him — he went. He also went to the games Wednesday night, was a base coach for one of the games, had the time of his life and then came home and collapsed for the night.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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