Faith and humility define the life of Oklahoma's most celebrated coach, still coaching with ALS
By Murray Evans
JENKS, Okla. — When Jenks High School went looking for a football coach in 1996, the large district in suburban Tulsa took a chance on a former assistant coach with no head-coaching experience — one who had just left the profession and moved to Kansas to pursue a career in the oil industry.
Even then, something stuck out about Allan Trimble.
“He’s so humble, he truly doesn’t fully grasp it,” said Mitch Wilburn, preaching minister for the Park Plaza Church of Christ in Tulsa and a close friend of Trimble, who is an elder of the congregation. “To Allan, he’s just Allan. He doesn’t get that he’s Allan Trimble. That’s just part of the charm.”
Trimble’s aw-shucks demeanor belies the fact he’s the most successful coach in Oklahoma prep football history. His Jenks Trojans have 13 state titles and a 235-36 record entering the 2017 season. There’s hardly a coaching award that Trimble hasn’t won.
But there’s little doubt his career is winding down. This season is the second for the 54-year-old Trimble since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the former New York Yankees great who died from the condition. It’s an incurable, progressive neurogenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
About 6,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with the condition, according to the ALS Association. Only half of those with the disease live three or more years after diagnosis. Twenty percent live five years or more and up to 10 percent will live more than 10 years.
Upon receiving the diagnosis, Trimble initially decided to retire, but he and his wife, Courtney, soon changed their minds.
“We kind of settled in on, as long as God is blessing me with this platform … that probably that’s where we should be, while we can still be there,” Allan Trimble said. “I think the Lord is carrying me through this, along with my wife. I have a lot of great friends who help me. It will be interesting to see where it goes.”
‘The little things’ mean more
That humble, servant attitude was evident during Trimble’s days as a college football player at Northeastern State University, said Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer, who lived in the same dorm as Trimble and engaged him in many a competitive ping-pong match.
Trimble was able to connect with a wide range of people on the NSU campus, deSteiguer said, and was “kind and spiritual and always had time for folks” — qualities that have served him well in his roles as a coach and elder.
“He loves his wife and his daughters (Tylar and Tori) and his church and his players and puts all of those people first, and he’s had this unbelievable success on the field,” deSteiguer said. “Al’s influence and impact on young people is pretty remarkable to behold. It’s obvious that he cares about them personally, spiritually and … as a person. That draws people to him.”
Trimble said in September that he thought this season would be his last because of his diminished energy.
But one thing the disease hasn’t touched is his wry sense of humor, as evidenced by how he broke the news of his diagnosis to Wilburn during the summer of 2016. Wilburn said he was sitting on his front porch when he received the phone call.
“I’ve really done it up this time,” Trimble told Wilburn, who recounted the story with tears welling up in his eyes. “There was a little hint of humor in there. He has maintained that through all this.”
Because of his success, Trimble’s platform for influence has been outsized, but it’s even more so now, as he has continued coaching while battling ALS.
He’s juggled his duties as a coach and as an elder, with medical treatments designed to delay some of the effects of the disease.
Cutting back on his busy schedule has proven to be a challenge.
“He doesn’t know how to say ‘no,’” Courtney Trimble said.
Since his diagnosis, Allan Trimble appreciates “the little things” more, particularly the relationships with players, friends and fellow Christians, he said. He has reminded himself to make an extra text or phone call, or to return an email to let those people know how important they are to him.
Faith, family, football — in that order
Coaches often preach to players about dealing with adversity, but Trimble is delivering that sermon without having to say a word, said Jenks High School’s athletic director, Tony Dillingham.
“The kids know,” Dillingham said. “They love the man. They will give every last bit of effort that they have. That’s what we’ve always asked of them, but I think that there’s even more from their mindset than maybe there has been previously with what our typical demands are. There’s also this sense of pride because you’re playing for this guy.”
When Trimble went public with his ALS diagnosis in June 2016, Dillingham said Jenks’ administrators began discussing ways they could honor the Trojans’ coach.
They settled on renaming Jenks High School’s football stadium in Trimble’s honor, and in August, they officially changed the facility’s name from Hunter-Dwelley Field (its moniker since the late 1920s) to Allan Trimble Stadium.
Related: Football stadium renamed to honor church member
During the renaming ceremony — held before the Trojans played in a preseason scrimmage — Jenks’ school superintendent, Stacy Butterfield, spoke of the lessons Trimble had imparted on players that have come through the program.
Allan Trimble speaks with the media just before the unveiling of the new stadium name.
“He has changed lives of countless students through leading by example and not only telling them, but also showing them what it means to be humble and how to find fulfillment through serving others,” she said. “Even in the midst of his courageous fight with ALS, Allan has remained steadfastly committed to the things that matter most in his life — faith, family and football.”
And it’s in that order. Not long after he made his diagnosis public, members of Park Plaza joined with the Jenks community in conducting a prayer service for Trimble at the high school gym. Nearly 3,000 people attended.
Trimble spoke and told those gathered that, “Long before I’m a football coach, I’m a follower of Jesus.” He encouraged them to “just put God at the center of everything we do.”
Making better players, better kids
ALS has given Trimble perspective, he said, that he might not otherwise have about faith, coaching and influence.
“I thought I maybe wanted to be a football coach someday, but, ultimately, I thin God has kind of just called me into mentorship,” Trimble said. “That’s kind of where I’ve settled.
“The Xs and Os have been kind of secondary. I know that’s easy to say, but, honestly, I think we’ve done our work mainly, hopefully, making better players and making better kids and that’s kind of how we’ve been rewarded with such good success.”
Learn more about Coach Trimble’s journey living with ALS at www.trimblestrong.org.