JR Allen’s battle against a life changing opponent
By Jeff Odom
Steinbrenner girls basketball coach JR Allen is notorious for being passionate about the game.
From making history as the first white player to join Bethune-Cookman University’s men’s team to time spent with the New York Nationals, a professional team that plays against the Harlem Globetrotters, Allen and basketball are synonymous.
But Allen faced a much greater challenge off the court six years ago that threatened to end his life as he knew it.
It didn’t deal with wins or losses.
It was a battle that tested his faith and his life.
In April 2006, the then 28-year-old Allen was beginning a normal day.
As he did so many times before, he revved up his motorcycle to join the morning commute on his way to Ridge Community School in Polk County where he taught physical education and was the boys basketball coach.
Allen had owned the motorcycle for about six months. It was something he said he always wanted, and it had the benefit of using less gas during his daily 30-mile commute to work.
He left early in the morning, speeding down Highway 17/92 in Haines City.
In the distance, the sun was rising and cars were flying by on both sides of the four-lane road. As he approached an intersection, miles away from the school, his life was forever changed.
“A gentleman was coming from the opposite direction and we were approaching the same intersection,” Allen said. “For whatever reason, he needed to make a left-hand turn and crossed into my path of travel.”
The driver never saw him.
Allen swerved to avoid a direct impact, but there wasn’t anything he could do to miss the oncoming vehicle.
His left femur was blown out, his neck had been broken and his pelvis snapped outward and cracked open. Shards of bone fragments sliced through his bladder causing life threatening internal bleeding.
Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, fearing that he could be paralyzed from the waist down.
“They ended up diagnosing me with something called CCS, which is called central cord syndrome, and I was out of it,” Allen said. “I was out of it for about three days. The initial findings that (the doctors) found were that my lower limbs weren’t responding to any of the tests that they were running. So, they initially came to the conclusion and told my parents that they believed I was paralyzed. … With them knowing who I was as a person, they knew what kind of toll that would have on me.”
Things started to improve with his vital signs when Allen finally woke in his hospital bed, but the pain he felt was excruciating.
There were times, Allen said, where he wondered to himself if he would be able to survive the healing process.
“You can’t really think of anything else when you’re in that type of pain,” Allen said. “I can look around now and see these guys that go to war and come back missing arms or limbs, so I feel like I’m whining and crying about it now. In the moment, that was the most painful thing I could ever begin to explain, or try to describe. It was constant hurt.”
Soon, Allen entered a depression and began to question his faith and whether he truly wanted to keep living.
He’d stay up late at night crying, praying that he wouldn’t have to go through the pain anymore.
“It was such a traumatic experience that I didn’t want to go through it mentally for the first few weeks and months,” Allen said. “I was in such a dark place knowing the battle I was going to have to face.”
During the past 15 summers, Allen has helped teach basketball to children while working at the University of Florida’s summer program.
A self-admitted “huge Florida Gators fan,” Allen had become good friends with men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan and cheered the team on to its first national championship just a week prior to the accident.
It wasn’t until he got a special phone call from his mentor that Allen truly saw the reason he had to stay alive and keep fighting.
“One of the early nights that I was in the hospital, there was always someone in the room with me, sitting with me and checking up on me and it happened to be my grandmother,” Allen said. “She was trying to take care of me and do everything she could when the phone rang in my room. I heard her answer it and she said to the person on the line, ‘He’s sleeping right now, let me see if he’s awake.’
“She told me someone was on the phone for me and asked if I knew a coach Donovan,” Allen continued. “I still get emotional thinking about that. To hear a national championship winning coach, a friend, call my hospital room to keep me in good spirits, that gave me some strength, some courage that I really needed at that time to keep going.”
Donovan joked with Allen about “taking a break” from working out to lie in a bed all day and said he wanted Allen to work hard to get back to the camp in June.
“He said, ‘We know you’re hurt pretty bad and we’re thinking about you and we want you to get back up here to celebrate getting back on your feet,’” Allen said. “That was so uplifting to hear my hero in my time of need. It was the single biggest factor to get me motivated along with my family.”
From there, Allen set his goals and told himself he would win the fight against the agony.
First, he had to learn how to walk again after being confined to a wheelchair.
Allen started taking steps without a wheelchair seven months after the injury, right around Thanksgiving in 2006.
The severe impact of the accident had caused spinal damage to many nerves controlling Allen’s arms and legs.
“I had to relearn how to do everything,” Allen said. “I had to relearn how to eat and pick things up with my hand. It was completely starting from scratch as a newborn, but being 28 years old.”
Allen worked tirelessly every day, pushing himself to get back to playing basketball and taking another shot at what he loved most — coaching.
In 2009, three years after the accident that nearly ended his life, Allen was hired as Steinbrenner’s first girls basketball coach.
One year later, he felt the opportunity was finally right for him to open up and share his experience with the team.
Before Steinbrenner’s game against Hillsborough County powerhouse Jefferson, which had defeated the Warriors one year earlier 64-11, Allen felt the time was right.
He passed out envelopes containing a picture of him during the ordeal and a message about staying strong in times of adversity.
When he was finished telling his story, there wasn’t a dry eye in his classroom.
“I’m a firm believer in everything in life, there is a reason for things happening,” Allen said. “You can make the best of it or you can wallow in self pity. It took me a long time, but through encouragement and some help through family, I realized that I could use this and turn it into a great story and help someone out.”
One of Allen’s players, Lauren Shedd, dealt with issues of her own.
During CrossFit training in the summer of 2011, the forward’s spine began to compress and she suffered breaks to her L4 and L5 vertebrae.
Her playing career was in serious jeopardy of being cut short halfway through last season.
Allen pulled her aside and encouraged her to not give up and remember his story as a drive to keep fighting.
“His injury was obviously a lot worse than mine, but his recovery was a lot like mine,” said Shedd, who returned to the squad this year as a senior and is Steinbrenner’s third leading scorer. “He really helped me know that.”
As Allen continued to get better throughout the years, so did his team.
Last season, in just his third year at the helm, his Warriors hoisted the Class 7A-District 9 championship with their best overall record in program history — 22-3 — after only winning nine games in 2009.
This year, Steinbrenner finished 22-7 and won its first regional playoff game against St. Petersburg.
Although he still deals with soreness every morning, Allen is grateful to be where he is today.
“I was able to use my bad experience and be placed at this wonderful school with these great kids and great parents,” Allen said. “It takes (me) back there, and it’s not easy to relive, but it’s a tool. It gives me a chance to be able to use it for good, and if I’m able to leave my imprint on someone, then I did what I was supposed to do.”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.