‘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

Matt returned to the McGuinness dugout last fall, but Kelly had some coaching for the girls, too. They needed to make sure Matt was drinking enough water. They needed to tell him to sit down if he looked pale. They needed to look out for him.

These girls had cried at practice that day they found out about Matt's cancer. Of course they would look out for him.

And before you know it, girls who'd never really talked to each other before were talking.

“It's always a constant factor that we're all thinking about,” Taylor says.

Imagine the girls' excitement, then, when Matt's tumor started shrinking last fall. It was 4 centimeters in September, 6 millimeters in October, and then in December, it wasn't even measurable.

Matt's chemo was working.

Only six months after doctors had been skeptical of his goal of seeing his kids graduate in 2012 — Taylor from high school, Chris from middle school — they told Matt that patients in his position lived between five to seven years.

It wasn't a cure.

It was hope.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Matt has been feeling great lately during non-chemo weeks and tolerating his chemo pretty well. All of Matt's lab results were good. In the MRI scan, they found a small spot that is “more conspicuous when compared to prior examinations.” While this could be new tumor, it could also be necrosis from prior treatments or scar tissue.

The reality is, we just don't know.

Why does medicine that was working so well for so long suddenly stop?

Why is a good man with a good family that has already come through so much asked to endure even more?

In April, doctors discovered the spot had doubled.

In May, they operated on Matt's brain again. The spot was a tumor.

The cancer was back.

Friday, June 3, 2011, 10:00 p.m.

As Matt put it today, he always played team sports for a reason — he always wanted to work hard, play hard, never let his team down and win as a team — but if there was ever a time that his game was off, he knew his teammates would be there to support him and maybe pick up some of the slack, knowing that next time he'd do the same for them.

Matt had stopped responding to his chemo drug, so when he and Kelly heard about a clinical trial designed to re-sensitize the tumor and reactivate the meds, they jumped on it.

“Now,” Matt says, a twinkle in his eye, “the title of this trial is, ‘How Much Can a Human Tolerate?'”

He smiles.

“Who was in the room that day when they were doing ‘Name the Trial'?”

The name does fit, though. A typical chemo cycle goes five days on the meds, 28 days off. Matt now does 21 days on, seven days off.

But, of course, it hasn't kept him from coaching. There are times when he has to take his chemo right before a McGuinness softball game. He tries to hide the fatigue and the nausea that often comes from the meds.

“I don't think he does as good a job of it as he thinks,” Taylor says. “There will definitely be days where he's up and cheering. On days when he's really sick, we know.”

One night earlier this season, Matt threw up during the JV game. He tried to find a place to hide but didn't make it in time. Some of the players saw him and tattled to their moms. They tried to tell him that he needed to go home, but he wouldn't have it.

So, one of the moms tattled to the head coach.

Kelly says head coach Bryan Wade used “man logic” on Matt.

“We need you at the Collinsville Tournament,” Coach Wade told him. “If you stay, you're going to be too sick for that. I need you to go home.”

“Put me in, Coach,” Matt said. “C'mon, I'm ready to play. Today.”

Channeling his inner John Fogerty didn't work.

“I got benched,” Matt says, smiling again.

Still, he keeps coming back, carrying the medical kit and hitting fly balls, fixing the catcher's mask and making sure the team has enough of whatever it needs.

He keeps coaching in a way no one else can.

“I've seen him throw his chemo pill up right in front of me ... and never lose the smile on his face,” Wade says. “Some people are like that because they're scared and they're hiding. That's not him. He's not afraid. He wants to live every day. He wants to rub off everything he can.”

McGuinness pitcher Nicole Frazier is grateful for that. When she transferred to the school a few years ago, she didn't know many people. She remembers Matt being one of the first people to put an arm around her shoulder and make her feel like she belonged.

And when things aren't going so well for her during a game, Matt always seems to know exactly what to say to her.

“He always makes me feel better,” Nicole says.

Her mother, Melba, feels the same.

“Seeing the time he's given has made me a better person,” she says. “Nothing slows him down.”

Not everyone thinks this Energizer Bunny routine is always a good idea.

Kelly has come to peace with letting Matt make the decision about coaching, but it has been a struggle. Should he do it? Should he stop? This is her husband and father of her children, after all. He is struggling to keep up his weight. He is enduring more and stronger headaches. There have been lots of nights when she's thought he should be at home instead of on the softball diamond.

“Resented may be too strong a word,” she says as she surveys the McGuinness softball field, a game in full swing, “but he'll come out here tonight and if you're watching him, you'll think he's fine. You really do. You think he's fine. You think he's great. But when he goes home tonight will be the end of it.”

Matt will collapse in his chair, fatigued and finished.

“There were times that I'd think, ‘That's not fair. You give everything to everyone else, and you have nothing left for us,'” Kelly says.

“But ... this gives him so much life.”

How can you take that away from a man who is battling death?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011, 7:31 a.m.

Matt hasn't been able to do softball every day the last couple weeks ... but the girls have been understanding. He tries to make the days that he is at practice and games count. I think he is a good role model for the girls about determination and drive and doing what it takes to reach your goals. There are days that Matt truly has to force himself to take those dreaded pills, but he has his eyes on the prize, and he is all about winning.

Matt hears the questions all the time.

Why are you at the softball park? Why are you at football practice? Why are you at the gym?

Why?

“Doing things like that make me feel good,” he says. “It's completely selfish. If I make one of these kids smile and they benefit from something I've done ... it makes me feel good.”

And doesn't he deserve that?

Matt isn't so sure. He insists he's not doing anything out of the ordinary. He promises he's not special.

Those who've been touched by the glue guy think otherwise. They leave messages on the CaringBridge page saying that Matt is rocking worlds, that his example is a gift to many, that God has chosen him as a light. They proudly call themselves members of “Team Allen.”

This is the most important team Matt has ever coached.

Nothing can replace coaching his kids, of course. Nothing can erase the memories that the family has made on fields and in gyms all over the state. Nothing can change the way he made the kids smile and laugh and learn lessons that they never even knew they were learning. Whatever happens next week or next month or next year will never change any of that.

But “Team Allen” is different. It is goes beyond season or sport.

It is forever.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 7:20 p.m.

Matt's done a lot of living in the past two years, and he hasn't let anything stop him yet. We'll keep plugging away with this plan and see where the magic carpet ride takes us next.

by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
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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