By Jim Halley, USA TODAY High School Sports
Allan Trimble has been coaching football at Jenks, Okla., for 20 years. His teams have won 13 state championships, including the past four titles in the state’s largest classification.
Coaching can be tiring, but usually after a season, Trimble bounced back. Not so this time. After his team defeated Broken Arrow 35-14 for the 2015 6A-I state title, he thought it might be time to retire. On June 4, he did, only to think better of it and unretire three days later.
“I had been eligible for retirement for a little over a year,” Trimble said. “One of the main factors was my energy level. A lot of times you go through a tough season and you’re exhausted as you should be, but then by the time you go through Christmas break, you get refreshed. I didn’t really get that this past year.
“My last daughter was going to be going to college, so there were a lot of things that pointed that it might be neat to have extra time. Then, after telling everybody I was going to retire, the timing of it was bad. It was not what was best for my team or my assistant coaches who had committed so much of their time. I thought better of it.”
A month after changing his mind, Trimble found out why he was so tired. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord that control muscles. The disease is incurable and most ALS patients have a life expectancy of two to three years.
Instead of backing away, Trimble is going full throttle, coaching as long as he can while detailing his fight with a blog on trimblestrong.org. He brings his Trojans into a big matchup Friday night with No. 15 Union (Tulsa) at the University of Tulsa. The game, known as the Backyard Bowl, pits two fierce rivals that have been champions of the state’s largest classification every year since 1996.
“Maybe it’s God’s blessing to be a part of another season,” Trimble said. “It’s been a sentimental journey. I haven’t felt well for a while. I’ve had symptoms of (ALS) for two years but they couldn’t pinpoint what was going on. They found it out through a process of elimination. That’s the case for most ALS patients.”
On Tuesday, Trimble drove the team bus after a JV football game at Bixby. On Friday morning, the day of the Backyard Bowl, he will talk with grade school and kindergarten children in Jenks as part of the school system’s Dynamic Dads program.
“I haven’t changed my schedule,” Trimble said. “I still work quite a bit. I’m blessed to have an amazing staff. Ultimately, I have to conserve energy. I feel really good when I wake up. With the muscle fatigue, I get physically tired if I don’t sit down, eat properly and drink water. I can’t just battle through it. It’s a mean disease. It has all these little friendly reminders. Your muscles atrophy, you get these cramps, you get these electrical impulses that remind you all the time it’s there. But I don’t feel bad. You just know it’s chipping away. It’s haunting.”
Though he had been a longtime coach, Trimble was surprised at how many people have reached out to him when they heard of his diagnosis. Park Plaza Church of Christ in Tulsa has often held prayer vigils, usually on the lawn of a family in need. The vigil for Trimble, a parishioner, was in Jenks’ gymnasium.
“The support is overwhelming,” Trimble said. “I really think it is what has been sustaining me. We had two or three thousand people show up for a little prayer vigil for me at the gymnasium when people realized our lawn wasn’t going to be big enough. Every day on Facebook or email, I get this thing that says, ‘Coach Trimble, you don’t know me, but we’re praying for you’ or ‘I had a relative you battled through this.’ It’s wonderful.”
Jenks is 2-0 and the top-ranked team in the state football poll. However, this may be Union’s best team in years. The Redskins opened with a 21-10 win at Southlake Carroll (Southlake, Texas) and then rolled past Broken Arrow 42-7 last week.
“I think the tough part, is I catch myself rooting for Coach Trimble, personally,” said Union football coach Kirk Fridrich, who is 9-9 against Jenks. “He’s meant so much to our game and now he’s going through some adversity. You also understand he wouldn’t want it any other way than to play the game the way it is supposed to be played. A fierce competitive rivalry is a game he and I have enjoyed coaching in.”
The teams have usually met twice in most years, the second time coming in the playoffs. Over the past four years, Jenks is 6-2 over Union.
“When we won four championships in a row, we were 6-2 against those guys,” Fridrich said. “It’s been a close rivalry, but they’ve had the upper hand the last couple of years. This game has so many different angles and sometimes the most talented team doesn’t win and sometimes there are crazy things that take place.
“One thing about it, it has been an awesome football game every time. I think this game means a lot to each school because it is played early and most of the student body gets into this game, which hypes up our players.”
Both teams have relatively untested quarterbacks. Ian Corwin, only a sophomore, passed for two touchdowns and ran for two in Jenks’ 42-13 defeat of Owasso in his team’s opener two weeks ago. He also led the Trojans to a 38-34 come-from-behind defeat of Bixby last week, throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Reese Leitao for the winning score. Union senior Grady Davenport has completed 20 of 37 passes for 323 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for two touchdowns.
Union may have the edge in experience, particularly on defense, where Jenks has only one returning starter.
“The only guy we have back there is Jordan Curtis, who’s committed to Arkansas,” Trimble said. “The rest of our defense, this will be the third varsity game in their life. We’re young but we have a lot of upside. We played pretty well in our opener. We didn’t play as well against Bixby.”
Fridrich said his team is playing like the experienced team it is.
“Coming into the season, we felt very comfortable at most of our positions,” Fridrich said. “With so many guys coming back, there’s a confidence among our group of players. … Right now, we have a group of kids who are playing really hard and fast and giving us opportunities to win football games.”
Former Jenks player Kurt Seifried, who went on to play tight end for Oklahoma State, said the Backyard Bowl is always special.
“I remember it being the biggest thing ever in a high school kid’s life,” Seifried said. “Nothing was bigger than that week. It was a special time. We had 40,000 come to the game my sophomore year. We had more people than any game TU had at home that season.”
Seifert is now a senior account executive for TMA systems, a software company in Tulsa and his oldest daughter will be among the schoolchildren Trimble will talk to on Friday.
“Coach Trimble is taking this ALS and embracing it,” Seifert said. “He’s bringing awareness to the disease and he’s not slowing down. He’s doesn’t need to talk to kindergartners how to grow up and be a good sport, but he certainly is.”
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