It was a rare freezing morning in New Orleans. David Allen shook endlessly in the cold waiting outside the Tulane University football office at 5 o’clock in the morning. There was too much on his mind to remind him to change into warmer clothes rather than walking out with practice shorts and a tank top.
An hour passes when Tulane coach Bob Toledo’s shadow finally emerges from under a lidded hallway holding a briefcase. He’s surprised to see one of his players waiting for him that early, but Allen needed to get something off his chest, and he wanted to make sure he was the first one to greet Toledo. The Green Wave were two weeks into spring camp in 2009, a time when Allen should be concentrating on nothing else but football.
But football was the last thing on Allen’s mind. The agony was killing him. He wanted out of Tulane and needed to be released from his scholarship.
That Allen wanted to be released from his commitment was but a mere ripple to the bombshell that ensued: Allen’s mother, Brenda, was battling Stage 2 ulcerated melanoma, a kind of skin cancer responsible for 75 percent of deaths related to skin cancer.
Allen needed to be home. His mother was alone in South Pasadena. Allen’s older sister, Lexi, at the time was attending the University of Oregon.
“It was just my dog and my cat with her,” David Allen recalls. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
It was under the most excruciating circumstances that brought Allen back home, but like every storm it was only a matter of time until the sun shined again.
Allen’s mother fought and defeated skin cancer. Brenda’s in remission, and her progress has gone so well she no longer needs 3- and 6-month checkups. She now goes once a year.
Allen was granted a hardship waiver and walked on at UCLA. He sat out the 2009 season and was on special teams in 2010. The following year, former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel rewarded Allen’s relentless effort with a scholarship.
Under first-year coach Jim Mora, it’s elevated to another level. Allen moved to fullback and was named the starter two weeks into fall camp. Not long after the Bruins resumed camp in Westwood, Allen was named one of the Bruins’ six captains.
The road there, however, was battle-tested.
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Allen left for New Orleans two weeks after graduating from South Pasadena High, but on the flight caught a virus that sidelined him for several weeks. His weight dropped from 205 pounds to 180 and had trouble gaining it back. It wasn’t long before he was forced to redshirt.
Around that same time, his mother was beginning her path on the treacherous road.
Brenda, a pharmaceutical representative, learned not long after Tulane’s season started she had a mole the size of a quarter on her head. A first opinion didn’t reveal any serious issues, but on the insistence of her friends, Brenda asked for a second opinion, and the results were much worse than expected.
A biopsy taken revealed the cancer and about two weeks after doctors aggressively attacked the cancer with major surgery on the back of her head. Also, a lymphadenectomy was performed to remove lymph nodes, a procedure that assures cancer has not spread.
“It was frightening,” she said. “It felt like Frankenstein had visited the back of my head. I had no idea it was as bad as it was.”
Brenda was prescribed a wig by her doctor as a result of the surgery.
“They shaved the whole right half of my head in the back and half way through my ear,” Brenda recalled. “I had a big crater at the top of my head. They went down, deep and very wide.”
Brenda wore a wig that went unnoticed by Allen when she visited Tulane’s homecoming game against Army.
“He just thought I had a cute hair cute,” Brenda said.
But a week later, Brenda was back in New Orleans for a conference. She asked to meet Allen at the lobby of her hotel.
“At first I thought she was going to tell me that she started dating someone,” Allen recalled. “I was Dennis the Menace in the past. I didn’t think anyone was good enough to date my mom.”
But Brenda didn’t speak.
“She leaned back and took her wig off,” Allen said. “That was the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life.”
Said Brenda: “He got so upset. I wish I had never said anything to him. The back of my head was shaved and David just couldn’t get it out of his mind.”
Allen was upset his mother could keep such devastating news, not only from him but from almost her entire family.
“I knew right then and there I was going to transfer,” Allen said.
Brenda was afraid of that, but his upbringing would ultimately lead to his decision.
“He has always been a man of great character,” Brenda said. “I think when you do something good for somebody else and not worry about your own self something good will come back to you.”
Allen’s thoughts on the football field always leaned towards mom. He wanted to earn a scholarship to relieve the burden of her paying for his tuition.
“Every day on the field I played for her,” Allen said. “That was nothing to me.”
Then came Neuheisel’s text last year:
“Come to my office.”
Allen was in class. He rushed over, but didn’t want to overhype the meaning.
“Because I didn’t want a let down,” he said. “Neuheisel greeted me with his coach Neuheisel personality. He sat me down and said what he’d always said to me when he saw me, that my hard work will one day pay off. He said, ‘We’re putting you on scholarship.'”
Allen left his office excited, pulled out his cell phone and called his mother first, who was driving with Lexi on their way up to Oregon. She screamed. She cried.
Allen called his entire support group, from his dad to his high school coaches Rob Hertel and Jeff Cox.
Allen walked hand in hand with his fellow captains for the coin toss in the season opener last week against Rice in Houston. He’ll do it again Saturday in the home opener Saturday against Nebraska.
“I could cry right now,” Brenda says. “I tell him to keep doing what he’s doing, work hard and ask God to guide you. And if it’s God’s will, you will have it.”
And David Allen does.