Larger than life, the Plant City football star and Army Ranger served for three decades before he died.
Explosions lit the sky. Brilliant fireworks cast multicolored glows over the dark Frostproof sky, hanging for a moment and leaving brief but powerful impressions in the air, much like the life they were meant to honor.
It was a warm Sunday night in late August as members of Plant City High School’s class of 1980 joined friends and family to honor their classmate, Army Maj. Michael Wayne Allen, a man many viewed as the true embodiment of the American hero, a man who was the embodiment of the Army’s “be all that you can be” slogan.
“He gave his entire life away so we could live ours,” Steve Maxwell said, “We can’t give him a 21-gun salute, so we’ll give him a 21-minute salute.”
Allen died late June following a seven-month battle with colon cancer that spread throughout his body. Just days before he died, Maxwell, a friend of Allen’s since they met in Ms. Woodward’s third-grade class at Pinecrest Elementary in 1970, visited Allen in his Mississippi home.
While there, Maxwell showed Allen a photo that made him cry. Many of his classmates had gathered at the Crooked Bass Grill in Babson Park, a restaurant owned by friends Tim and Tammy Bracewell. The photo showed them gathered around in prayer for Allen. The show of love and support shocked Allen.
“He didn’t even know if people knew he was dead or alive,” Maxwell said.
For many, it had been 37 years since they’d seen him, but they all remembered him.
“I hadn’t seen him in 30-plus years,” classmate Barbara Huchro said. “But I never forgot him. How could anyone forget Wayne Allen.”
During his time at PCHS, Allen was known as a magnetic personality. He attracted friends and fun. He was tall, athletic, handsome and a leader both on and off the football field.
When Maxwell and Allen were seniors and it came time to vote for a captain of the football team, Maxwell voted for Allen. Somehow, Maxwell said, he was chosen over Allen.
Shortly after their 1980 graduation, Allen left for the Army. It was in the midst of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Before graduation, Maxwell recalled, a teacher asked what his students would be doing after high school. Without hesitation, Allen said he was going to join the Army, become an Airborne Ranger, sneak into Iran and kill the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s then leader. He accomplished nearly all of those goals.
Just before Allen left, Maxwell gave him a prized possession, the captain’s medallion he received for leading that year’s football squad. All along, he’d felt Allen was the one who deserved it. But it came with a promise.
“I said, ‘if you die, I want it back,’” Maxwell said. “He kept his word. He remembered.”
At Allen’s funeral, his brother, Russell, gave Maxwell a bag of items Allen wanted Maxwell to have. In it was the medallion. Thirty-seven years later, he had kept his promise.
That was the kind of man Allen was remembered as. His friends called him “the Duke,” after John Wayne.
“To me, he was an exceptional person,” Col. Robert Kay, a former commanding officer and friend, said. “He maintained his calm and cool. He always had this witticisms about him. He had a good head on his shoulders.”
While serving in the Army, Kay said Allen became the elite of the elite. He was an Airborne Ranger, pathfinder and jump master.
“His qualifications, the schools he went to, people would dream to have those jobs,” Kay said. “He was a true patriot. He is the ‘all you can be’ in the military.”
Kay met Allen around 1994 when Allen joined Kay’s reserve unit. In 2004, Kay chose Allen to be the executive officer of his battalion. When Kay was deployed in 2006, he recommended Allen take over as Battalion Commander. Allen was a Major, but the
position is usually given to Lieutenant Colonels. Despite not having the higher rank, Kay said, Allen was more than qualified. He got the post.
Allen served in the Army for six years. He would go on to serve in the reserves for more than 20 more years, where he became a commissioned officer. After his active duty enlistment, Allen attended Northeast Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana at Monroe) where he once again laced his cleats and became a gridiron leader. In 1987, he was 25 years old and the oldest player on the field. He became a team captain and led them to a national championship, even beating a Southern Mississippi team led by a young Brett Favre.
After college, Allen joined the U.S. Marshals service where, among other duties, he protected federal judges in high-profile cases. For most of his life, he’d spend four days working as a Marshal and three with the Army training troops for deployment. His commitment was unceasing.
Maxwell held the memorial at his own home. His friend, Allen, didn’t get the honors he deserved, Maxwell said. He wanted to make sure he sent “the Duke” off right, with family, friends, good food and one final, larger-than-life explosive display. The fireworks rivaled some of the most brazen of Fourth of July celebrations.
“I thank God for men like Wayne Allen,” Maxwell said, “He spent his whole life fighting bad guys so we could be free. He was larger than life, everything it means to be a hometown hero.”