Falcons safety Ricardo Allen has unfortunately had to deal with a serious injury in his NFL career. In 2018, Allen tore his Achilles just three games into the season, ending the year for him and setting him on a journey back to the field.
That same year, one of Allen's best friends and former teammates, Joe Gilliam, had gone through his own battle. Diagnosed with spinal glioblastoma, a rare form of cancer, in early 2016, Gilliam passed away on Sep. 11, 2018 after a lengthy fight.
Staring his down his own lengthy journey back to the football field, Allen remembered his friend and the spirit with which he took on his misfortune.
"I think being able to watch him and learn from him through that period made me a much stronger man," Allen said. "He never complained about his situation. He never asked the 'Why me?' He probably did that by himself, but he did a really good job of staying strong in front of us."
Allen first met Gilliam at Purdue, where the two were teammates on the defensive side of the ball. Allen played cornerback at Purdue from 2010-13, while Gilliam played linebacker from 2011-14.
The two remained in touch after college, and Allen even walked in his wedding shortly before Gilliam realized something was amiss.
"He ended up taking a trip down to New York, just to go down for his birthday," Allen said. "Him and his wife, because he was married. While he was down there, his legs started to bother him a little bit, and he didn't know why.
"He went to the hospital, and he ended up staying in that hospital alone for six months. So, think about going on your birthday trip down to a whole different state that you've probably never even visited, and you end up staying for six months because they tell you that your spinal cord is wrapped with a tumor."
Gilliam lost all sensation in his lower body and could not walk for the duration of his fight against cancer. Allen described Gilliam as a "by-the-book kind of guy" who didn't smoke, drink or excessively party. He was the type of person who did everything the right way and wasn't supposed to have this happen to him.
While Allen and Gilliam stayed in contact following his diagnosis, they rarely talked about his actual condition. The conversations between the two friends remained normal, and Allen saw Gilliam take the same approach in those moments that he did with previous challenges.
"He was somebody that I got to watch really closely through good times and tough times," Allen said. "I got to watch him go through his ACL [injury] in college, also. To watch him through that process, he did it the same way. … He was really strong in his faith. I think if you're going to truly be strong in your faith, you've got to kind of go with the blows that life brings with it. … He did it better than I could ever imagine myself doing it."
Seeing how one of his best friends attempted to keep his faith strong in moments of incredible difficulty helped Allen do the same. He recovered from the Achilles tear to start all 16 games during the 2019 season, and he's again in the starting lineup for the Falcons. Although Gilliam was not able to watch Allen these previous three seasons, he's often been in the safety's thoughts.
As part of the NFL-led program, Crucial Catch, the Atlanta Falcons and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have teamed up to raise awareness for cancer throughout the month of October. Impacted by the loss of a close friend has given Allen a very real idea of just how all-consuming cancer can be not only for those directly affected by it but for their friends and families as well.
"You just never know how that impacts someone's future," Allen said. "Cancer, it just pops up, you never really see it, and it just takes over your life the next day. I've got much respect for the people who are fighting the fight and the ones who were blessed to make it through."
Take a look at Ricardo Allens' career after agreeing to a three-year extension with the Falcons. We look forward to having him stick around for many more years!