Washington State coaches and players fight personal hardships together
PULLMAN, Wash. -- The date is seared into the memory bank of Washington State linebacker Jeremiah Allison: Dec. 14, 2011. And even though chaos attends a new staff taking over a college football program, the date resonates with WSU assistant coach Dennis Simmons, too.
Allison was in second period at Dorsey High in Los Angeles when he received a text message from his older sister telling him their mother was motionless, not breathing.
Paramedics took her to a hospital, where they tried to minimize the damage from a severe stroke.
"She actually died like three times," says Allison. "By the grace of God, she was brought back to life."
That was the day Dennis Simmons was in L.A., recruiting in an area that had grown fallow for WSU in recent years. But with the hire of Mike Leach on the last day of November, the Cougars would go at Los Angeles aggressively. He arrived at Dorsey, hopeful of making an impression on a player with scholarship offers from UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona. They spoke briefly about a possible visit to WSU before Allison hurried off to class, learning about his mother after their conversation.
Simmons soon found out about what happened to Lucille Allison, and it all came rushing back: How he had gone to visit his own mother, 56-year-old Tannia Franklin, the previous spring, and found her not feeling like herself.
How she went into the hospital for some tests, and never came out, suffering two massive seizures. How she fell into a coma and over several weeks' time deteriorated. He finally lost her, a woman he says didn't look a day over 35.
"At that point," says Simmons, referring to the recruitment of Allison, "it wasn't about football. It was just one guy helping another guy."
In Allison's time of hardship, Simmons was able to see that this was no ordinary prospect he was recruiting. Allison would graduate with a 4.31 grade-point average (including honors classes) and as the class salutatorian.
Every day, he'd make sure his kid brother was dressed and ready for school. Every day, he visited the convalescent home near Dorsey, where his mother would blink but not wake.
Allison found solace even as she lay in a coma, saying, "I'm a firm believer in God. If my mom had been taken away on Dec. 14, I would have been, in my opinion, a mess." Instead, "Because I was having that thought of living without my mom, I prepared for college early."
College ended up being at Washington State. This was the year of massive head-coaching change in the Pac-12, and as it happened, schools like UCLA and Arizona had their own changes. So the Cougars weren't disadvantaged there.
"I really fell in love with the Washington State coaching staff," said Allison. In particular, with Simmons, whom Allison calls "big brother."
And ironically, Allison would have a reunion of sorts with his recruiters in Pullman. Joe Salave'a, who had recruited him for Arizona, was hired by Leach. Ken Wilson, the point man on Allison when he was at Nevada, joined the WSU staff a year later.
At the end of fall camp, his mother died.
"I told him through that, I was going to see him through every step of the way," says Simmons, adding, "It wasn't just me. Coach (Paul) Volero spent many a night talking to him as well."
When Allison flew home to Los Angeles for the funeral, he arrived at the church to find Simmons and Volero waiting for him.
"Honestly, I didn't do anything that any other college coach wouldn't have done," says Simmons. "When you spend as much time as we do with them, it's not just a coach-player relationship. You truly become a part of their family."
But now it's happier times. The Cougars use Allison on special teams, and he's pushing two-year starter Darryl Monroe at middle linebacker.
On a recent summer day, he saw a text from Washington receiver Jaydon Mickens, asking him to go jet-skiing that weekend; "He sent pictures to rub it in," says Allison.
They call each other best friends. Both graduated from Dorsey in 2012 and for a long time, were seemingly destined to end up in college together. Allison says Washington wanted him to visit, but he was set on WSU.
Meanwhile, says Mickens, grinning, "We're a house divided. WSU was trying to get me to visit, but I decided to visit Oklahoma State. We've got the rivalry, but we're still (like) family."
In his early years at Dorsey, Allison took to the school's law magnet program. Today, he says, "I want to become a litigator. I love a debate."
At Pac-12 football media days, in his annual state-of-the-league address, commissioner Larry Scott talked about four student-athlete success stories, and Allison was one of them. That didn't surprise Simmons.
"He's the kind of guy," says Simmons, "you hope your kids turn into."
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