If this were a Hollywood movie, the ending would have turned out differently.
If this were a movie, Coach Al, a long time Bucs fan and season ticket holder, would have beaten cancer for the second time and lived another 30 years and won multiple youth football championships.
But, it wasn’t a Hollywood movie. And Coach is gone.
Sometime early this morning an angel tapped coach on the shoulder while in the Hospice Center in Sun City Center and said, “No more suffering, coach. It is time to go home.”
He got up out the bed and gained his wings, and his health was renewed once again.
This was not the way we wanted it – selfishly, of course – but the way it went nonetheless.
I first met coach a number of years ago when my son decided he wanted to give football a shot on the same field I played a kid, and the same field my dad played as a member of Pinecrest High School in the 1960’s. I’ll be honest, I was one of the parents who would have preferred my son to learn to throw a curve ball, or drive a golf ball 300 yards. I saw the damage every day in the Bucs locker room and read the CTE reports. But, he was determined to play.
He wasn’t very good in the beginning and ended up being the scout team quarterback playing with the other “no-so-great” kids going against the first team starters for the Pee Wee team. Coach Al was the varsity coach but one day came up to me and told me he’s been watching “Cookie” as he called him. He said he was impressed with his toughness and determination. He told me keep working with him. There is always a place on a football team for players with that kind of heart.
As the seasons went on my son Douglas got better and better and ended up playing quarterback and linebacker for Coach Al, eventually – a bond between the two grew. Coach Al didn’t cut Douglas any slack. If he messed up he got yelled at like the rest of the kids. But, after practice Coach would always tell Douglas he was proud of him.
One day out of the blue Coach sent me a message unsolicited telling me how much Douglas meant to him, and called him the “Little engine that could.” He said Cookie is a joy to coach and he was lucky to be part of his life.
My heart swelled with pride. It still does thinking back on that conversation.
Last year the evil cancer returned after we thought Coach Al had beaten it. And when it came back, it came with a vengeance. One day leaving One Buc I saw Coach Al’s number come up on my phone. I knew he was being evaluated earlier in the day to see how far advanced the cancer was. I was afraid to answer the phone but did.
It wasn’t good news.
And while we all tried to remain hopeful and positive, we all kind of knew it would be sooner rather than later.
Coach Al never stopped coaching, even through the chemo treatments and experimental trials. He would have to bring a chair to the ball field and sit sometimes, but he had to have a purpose. Coaching football and being a husband and father was his motivation to get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other. And he did it until his body said no more.
Last week, a day after my own mother’s memorial service, I got a text from a friend who told me Coach Al had been moved to a Hospice Center, and if we were going to visit him, we needed to do it soon. I texted my son and gave him the news. I told him the situation and told him I completely understand if he wasn’t up to going to visit. Selfishly I hoped he would agree. But Douglas said we have to go. I said are you sure? And he said, he did so much for me. We have to go.
And so we did a couple days later.
It was a shock for my son, but he held it together. He hugged coach and told him about his plans to switch from kicker to linebacker in his upcoming senior year. I jokingly asked coach to talk some sense into him. He said, “Let him play where he wants to play. He will be fine.”
As we got up we hugged again, and Coach Al whispered to Douglas, “I love you, son.”
“Love you too, coach.”
Many things in my life have made me be proud to be a father. But none more than at that moment last week.
Go rest, coach. You deserve it.
Thanks for the impact you made on my son’s life and thank you for the legacy you leave behind. As a husband, a father, as a solider and as a coach.
Below is a story I wrote about Coach Al in August of 2016.
The day was supposed to be about Coach Al.
But like most days in the life of retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Alan Houchens, he was thinking of others.
Houchens – who simply is known to most as Coach Al – is long-time youth football coach who was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer earlier this year. A large robust man, with a booming voice, bald head and seemingly boundless energy, was knocked for a loop when he received the news.
Many people would have crawled up in a corner, withdrew from the world, and waited for the end to come.
Coach Al wanted no part of that. Plus he had another football season to coach this fall for the Pinecrest Pilots, located in the Lithia area of eastern Hillsborough County.
“I’ve had kids waiting for four years to play for me,” Houchens said. “We’ve got a heck of a varsity team this year. I’m not letting the kids down. I can beat this. They keep me going.”
Photo: Mark Cook/PR
Houchens story was brought to the attention of the Buccaneers organization who invited the ball coach, his wife Kim and their son Brady to a Bucs practice as a VIP guest. After checking his calendar, Houchens decided to attend on Friday August 4, a day off from his chemo treatments that leave him exhausted and nauseated.
After spending 30 years in the United States Air Force, Houchens, a big Bucs fan and season ticket holder always respected and admired Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson from afar for all of his work with the military and their families.
Houchens, who didn’t want to be a burden or ask for too much after finding out he would be attending a practice, had a request, he wanted to say hello to Jackson and get Jackson to sign a flag his Pinecrest Pilots players carry onto the field before each game.
The message on the flag is simple, but a powerful one. Come And Take It.
The slogan originated in 1778 during revolutionary times at Fort Morris in Georgia, when troops outnumbered significantly to the British, defended their fort and sent a note to Colonel John McIntosh, that if he wanted the fort, he and his troops would have to “Come And Take It.” The slogan was also used again in 1835 at the Battle of Gonzalez during the Texas Revolution.
Houchens, a military history buff thought it would make a good slogan for his sometimes outnumbered football team.
“The boys went crazy,” Houchens said. “I have kids fighting each other as far as who gets to hold and carry the flag onto the field.”
As practice wrapped up on Friday, Houchens and his family sat under the covered stands off the patio behind One Buc with the flag waiting for Jackson. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith stopped by, as did general manager Jason Licht, and a handful of other players to offer their support to Houchens and to sign the flag.
Then across the field Jackson made his way over. Jackson, who grew up and lived in a number of countries as a child of two military parents, shook Houchens’ hand and the two shared stories of military life for several minutes.
As the conversation was wrapping up, Houchens pulled something out of his pocket and asked Jackson if he was familiar with the military tradition of the captain’s challenge coin. Jackson quickly said yes, mentioning he knew what it was and the significance of it.
Houchens opened his hand, and Jackson’s eyes lit up. Houchens, who hadn’t handed out a coin since 2009 wanted Jackson to receive his coin for his role with The Jackson In Action Foundation that benefits and supports families of military members.
The two embraced and Jackson offered his thanks for the honor bestowed upon him. As they hugged Jackson whispered to keep hanging in there and told Houchens he was praying for him.
As Jackson walked away, the burly teddy bear of a man, who has had some of his energy robbed by the cancer treatments, took of the hat that shielded his shiny head from the sun, and waved it in front of his face to create a slight breeze and to dry any moisture that might have been forming in his eyes.
Besides the initial surgery to remove the grapefruit-sized tumor last spring, Houchens has also dealt with infections and other setbacks that have slowed down his treatments.
But Houchens, despite being in a fight for his life, has no intention of letting the cancer win. And he keeps reminding himself often, “I’m not letting the kids down.”
The Pinecrest Pilots players will walk out onto the field a week from Saturday for their first game, and Lord willing Coach Al will be on the sideline or up in the booth, watching as they carry their new flag across the field. But this year’s flag will be extra special.
Photo: Greg Auman/Tampa Bay Times
And this season will be extra special. Win or lose on the field, the youth football players who have been coached over the years will grow to be better men because of the example of Coach Al.
And long after Coach Al and most of us are gone, and these young men become parents of their own and maybe even football coaches themselves, they can return one day to the football offices at Pinecrest. And looking up on a wall, perhaps dusty and tattered, the flag will hang simply stating the powerful message, “Come And Take It.”
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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