Only cancer could stop Bob Allen from telling stories. The legendary Houston TV broadcaster taught anyone who paid attention the power of fighting on long before the ruthless disease took him from the city at age 70 — when he had plenty of spirit left and stories still to tell — in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
When KTRK Channel 13 nudged Allen toward the door several years ago — after he’d grown tired of the Disneyfication and endless parent company red tape of Houston’s local ABC affiliate — he didn’t simply retire and quietly spend his years of TV money. No way. Not Bob Allen.
Instead, he went out classy and went back at his old employer even harder — joining KHOU Channel 11 (the local CBS affiliate), making a big splash and instantly giving KTRK’s competitor increased sports credibility. Allen only spent a few months on the sidelines then before his new gig was announced. You don’t keep legends down.
Everyone seems to have a Bob Allen story because Bob Allen genuinely cared to hear everyone’s story. You didn’t have to be a superstar athlete to get Allen’s attention focused on you. In fact, he always seemed to appreciate the underdogs more, the athletes who showed a human side rather than an orchestrated Instagram campaign of workout pics.
Because I happened to be lucky enough to cross paths with Allen, I have a few Bob Allen stories too. When I first arrived in Houston six-plus years ago and started covering the Houston Texans on a regular basis, I didn’t exactly fit into the chummy, lovey dovey, I-want-to-be-J.J.-Watt’s-friend Houston media world. I’d come from a New York sports media landscape where if you didn’t tell it like it really is, you’d be eaten up and lost in an endless horde of voices and media outlets. Some other writers didn’t care for me and few knew what the outlet I worked for (a then just-beginning CultureMap) even was.
Allen made a point of coming over and talking to me at practice. He introduced himself (as if an icon who’d spend more than 40 years on the air in Houston needed one) and asked questions. A few weeks later, he’d sidle up to me at another practice and tell me that he enjoyed my stories and compliment my strong voice on the page. Bob Allen didn’t have to take the time to do that. But he did because he’s Bob Allen. He was genuinely curious about other people even if they were relative nobodies. He’d make people feel good about themselves.
Late that season, I happened to be assigned a seat in Baltimore press box right between Allen and Fox 26 sports anchor Mark Berman for the infamous Texans-Ravens playoff game (no Jacoby Jones, no…). Anyone who knows anything about Houston’s sports media landscape knows what an incredible stroke of good fortune that seat assignment represents. I’d already known Allen’s kindness then. But that day, I got a three-hour look at this incredible, biting wit. Listening to Allen and Berman, the best reporter in the city, go back and forth a little about the game made that day one of my most incredible sports viewing experiences ever.
When I wrote a column the next season calling out J.J. Watt for rushing out of the locker room after that Monday Night Football Patriots debacle (the letterman jackets game), arguing that it showed he still had a long way to go as a leader, Texans PR wasn’t pleased (it wasn’t the first time I annoyed them, won’t be the last). And they weren’t that quiet about that displeasure in the press box of the next game either.
That’s an uncomfortable position for any reporter, no matter how much you stand behind your story. It can feel like you’re all alone, dangling over a cliff. None of the other reporters said anything. Except for Bob Allen. He came up to me while we were waiting for the locker room to open postgame and told me not to worry about it. “Sometimes, it’s good to make them a little nervous about you,” Allen cracked in closing, referring to the PR staff.
Then, he walked away and flashed a big smile. That’s Bob Allen. He always found a way to lift others up. As great as his storytelling was — something that’s largely a lost art in an ESPN TV landscape where every anchor seems alike and largely concerned with coming across as cool (especially to college kids) — Allen also never hesitated to criticize the teams (or leagues) he covered. Some of Allen’s commentaries are legendary.
He’d lay into a blowhard or a sports lout in an anchor’s version of a column — 60 seconds or so of commentary that cut deeper than a Ginsu knife.
Allen seemed to get a kick out of outliers and outsiders. His two favorite charities — two of the really driving forces in his life really, considering how much time and effort he’d spend on them — were The Sunshine Kids (young cancer patients — kids who’d been dealt a bad break) and the Special Olympics. Long before ESPN finally started covering the Special Olympics major games like major events, Allen had been making Special Olympians feel like stars for decades.
This is Bob Allen’s legacy as much as all those nights on the air and all those major events he covered. He taught entire generations of Houston kids how to love sports. He could teach a grown man how to be a better man, too. Allen always asked me about my baseball-playing son when our paths crossed. We weren’t friends, we didn’t spend any time together outside of the practice venues or playing arenas with the exception of a chance meeting half meal at St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis one Texans’ season.
But Bob Allen still remembered to ask me about how my son’s latest baseball season was going. He bothered to care. He wanted to know everyone’s story.
That’s Bob Allen, too. That’s every bit part of the legend. On the night of the day Bob Allen died, my oldest son happened to have a baseball game. He got to pitch for the first time on the big field, under the lights. He was so excited he started jogging out to the mound in the top of the inning even though his team was batting first. He just couldn’t wait.
Afterwards, we went to a pizza shop and I told my son a little about Bob Allen — one of the finest Houston gentlemen I’ve ever known. And I certainly wasn’t the only dad in this city doing that.