Around noon on Dec. 9, Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.) tailback Zach Bauman received a phone call from Roseyn Hood, his assistant principal. Though the senior was already at a friend's house after a half-day of classes, she wanted him to return to campus immediately. His teammate, Michael Allen III, had just lost his father, Michael Allen Jr., and she believed Bauman would be the best person to inform him.
When Bauman, who has known Allen III since the two were 6 years old, and teammate Davion Johnson met Allen III outside the school, they shared the news. Overcome with emotion, Allen III walked away from the pair.
"You could tell he wasn't all there," Bauman said.
The Huskies remained with Allen III in the aftermath. He rode to Chandler Regional Hospital with the messengers and coach Steve Belles. Paralyzed from the chest down since an accident three years ago, the father had been in and out of the hospital. When Allen Jr. attended games, security would accommodate him with a handicap parking space near the entrance and allow him to wheel onto the sideline. He had returned to his home recently and went over game tape with his son before he left for school. A few hours later, he died in his sleep after suffering through complications.
"If it was 10 degrees out and you needed a coat, Mike Jr. would give you it right off his back," said Bauman's father, Rick, who worked with the elder Allen for 12 years as a sky cab at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. "Family was everything to him."
I was just sad the whole game, breaking down in tears several times. I just had more things on my mind than usual.
-- Michael Allen III
Football warmed the 5-foot-11, 185-pound tailback's spirits. In his father's absence, the senior put forth the most important display of his career. Rushing for a game-high 99 yards on 18 carries in the Huskies' 35-0 rout of Mesa (Mesa, Ariz.) for the Class 5 Division I title two days later, he blasted his way through the line. For the former fullback who played in the shadows of stars in the past, it was a perfect ending to finish the season with 1,393 yards in the one-back system. It was Hamilton's second consecutive crown and third in the past four seasons.
"I was just sad the whole game, breaking down in tears several times," said Allen III. "I just had more things on my mind than usual."
Heavy hearts have been in abundance this holiday season. At Pilot Point High in Texas, brothers Willie Davis and Jarman Johnson honored their father, Henry Melvin Davis, with a 35-17 win in the Class 2A Division I championship game. Before losing his battle with cancer, the elder Davis made one last request: win the state championship.
"I can't even fathom what it feels like to deal with that loss as a teenager," said Belles. "I told Mike, 'This is for your dad. It's his name you're wearing.'"
Support was visible on the Hamilton players' uniforms as well. On the back of their helmets were the father's initials. Belles also wore them on his sneakers. Several wrote "RIP" and "MA" on their eye black in the locker room before kickoff.
Allen III, 16, was never alone in his grieving. The day his father passed, he still came to practice, and coaches told him to take the next day off. When given the option by Belles, he chose to put on the pads and play in the game after going to Friday's walkthrough, just as Belles had decided to coach the week his dad died nine years earlier.
"[Allen III] didn't know whether to cry or not but he knew football was still familiar," Belles said.
Following Belles' watercooler bath and during the team's trophy-raising celebration, Allen III, who grew emotional on the sideline in the fourth quarter, stood off by himself.
"I think it was all starting to hit him," said Zach Bauman.
Assistant coach Mike Johnston added: "Sometimes hugs are better than words."
In the week since, Allen III attended visitation and funeral services for his father, but he also received good news. North Dakota State offered him a scholarship, and on Dec. 17 he attended the football program's season-ending banquet, where the team's support showed again. Among the keepsakes of success that were distributed was a football signed by all the team members and coaches. He also received a plaque that read: "In loving memory, Michael Allen Jr." It was given to Allen III in front of a crowd of more than 700 followers.
"There wasn't too much emotion on the outside," said Johnston, "but you could tell he was amongst friends."