A quadriplegic Fort Worth fire captain's amazing story of survival

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by SHANNON POWELL HART / WFAA

WFAA/GMT

Posted on March 28, 2014 at 7:53 AM

Updated Friday, Mar 28 at 7:53 AM

Captain Marshall Allen shared his amazing story of survival after a freak bicycle accident that left him paralyzed. He shares his life in the book "Swingman" written by Alexandra Allred and the documentary produced by Mark Birnbaum.

To meet Marshall Allen is to get ready for a lengthy conversation filled with a lot of laughter.

Even though he’ll sit in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life,  you’ll never hear him complain.

“I was always tall, athletic always in good shape,” Allen said. “When I got a little older, I couldn't run like a used to so I started light weights.”

A boxer who tried out for the Olympics, Allen was very athletic. The Utah native even had a small role in the movie "Deer Slayer.” During one scene, Allen ran faster than the horses in the film.

With the encouragement of his boxing coach, he pursued a firefighting career.

“Growing up, I didn't know I could be a firefighter,” he said. “I’d never seen a black firefighter. I didn't know if I actually fit in or passed the mustard.”

But, despite adversity, he felt he was the right man for the job.

He became the first black firefighter in Salt Lake County Utah's history back in the 1970s. He eventually moved on to join the Fort Worth Fire Department.

Fighting fires was a career he enjoyed for the challenge and thrill. 

Then, everything changed after a freak bicycle accident in 2001.

Riding at a fast speed, he hit a tree branch in the road. Allen said he can’t remember if he saw the branch.

“I ran over it, lost control and went over into a ditch, went over the handlebars, landed on the back of my head and snapped my neck,” he said. “My first thought is I couldn't believe that actually happened. In fact, I remember thinking, ‘Why me?’”

Allen was thrown into a ditch and unable to move just a few miles from his home. He said for a brief moment he thought about giving up.

“I actually decided at one time to die,” he said. “I thought about what life might be like for a quadriplegic. I didn't want to go on.”

But Allen said he’s no quitter. You see, life started out pretty rough for him.

Marshall's birth mother was white and his father black. It was in the 1950s, so a bi-racial child was not acceptable to his mother's parents.

“I was originally put up for adoption as a white baby and I looked white,” he said very matter of fact. “I was adopted out twice.”

He was hidden away in closets and nearly starved to death.

His adoptive parents saved his life when he was 2 years old.

All of his struggles eventually spiraled into depression and mood swings.

“I’d been depressed as far back as I can remember, even when I didn't know it was depression,” he said.

And then, he had the cycling accident. He’s paralyzed from the chest down. He said breathing is sometimes a problem. His chest muscles don’t work and he’s prone to choking.

Allen said his circumstance has made him a humble man

The will to succeed has earned him respect from his fellow firefighters. He’s risen in the ranks to fire captain and is an inspiration to everyone around him. Amazingly, he still gets to investigate fires, even if it may be from a desk and with a voice activated computer.

While this may break many men, Allen used his circumstance and an opportunity to take care of another lifelong problem.

“When I broke my neck and went into the hospital as a matter of routine, they started me on anti depressants, “he said. “I mean, within a week or so I could tell the difference.”

Good thing, because he was in for another life changing event.

He was the subject of a book titled "Swingman" written by Alexandra Allred.

“I’m a writer and I thought this is an incredible story,” Allred said. “The article turned into a series of articles, which turned into a book.”

And then it was turned into a documentary.

“I spent a year filming “Marshall,” just kind of hanging out with him, “said documentary film maker Mark Birbaum. “I just turn the camera on and listen to people and listening to Marshall is listening to entertainment. “

That’s because Allen’s story keeps getting more and more interesting.

A daughter who he never knew about found him days after his accident while he was in the hospital learning how to do "everything.”

“My father's name was Marshall Allen and he lived in Texas,” said Talaya Allen.

That was all she knew about her father because after getting that news, her mother passed away the next day. That was all the Dallas police officer knew about this long lost father.

But, like her father, she refused to give up. She wrote letters to every talk show host she could think and finally got to a computer and began her search. She found three Marshall Allens in Texas that fit the firefighter mold. 

She hit pay dirt just weeks after Allen’s accident.
“I knew her mother,” Allen said. “When she told me who she was, when she was born and where she was born, I was sure I had a daughter.”

Reunited, Talaya wasn't concerned about her father's disability; she found what she was searching for, the man to give her away on her wedding day

“He's the most amazing person and I’m not just saying that because he's my dad,” she said. 

Allen is retiring from the Fort Worth Fire Department in late April. He says the next chapter of his life will involve mentoring young men to give them help for problems that have plagued their lives, mainly depression.

He knows he’ll never get out of his wheelchair, but he wants to leave a lasting legacy.

Email- spowell@wfaa.com 

Twitter: @spowellwfaa

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