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Death of assistant coach's daughter motivates Plant

TAMPA - Her laugh. It's what everybody remembers about Allie Mackenzie Minahan. "It was loud,'' Plant quarterback James Few said. "She had a loud laugh, and it was contagious.'' Makes sense, considering Mackenzie was voted "Most Humorous" by her senior class at Plant in 2008. She could have easily been voted "Biggest Plant Football Fan.''
Mackenzie loved football, and tonight's game pitting undefeated Plant against undefeated Armwood is the type she craved and a series she loved to attend. But she won't be on the sideline this year. Her family and friends, however, believe she has the best seat in the house. Mackenzie's heart gave out on July 30th. The 21-year-old Plant graduate who had battled Lupus and other ailments, collapsed at her home and was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. Her father, Plant defensive line coach Billy Minahan, watched in vain as paramedics tried to resuscitate his daughter. "They had to cut her out of her shirt,'' Minahan said. "And she was wearing a Plant shirt. The last thing she ever had on was a Plant shirt.'' Mackenzie's death just before the start of the football season rocked the Plant team. They circled the wagons in support of Minahan and his family to help them, and each other, get through the grieving process. "As much as football is a macho game, it's about love and generosity and sacrifice,'' Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "That's what Mackenzie represented, so in a large part, we dedicate our season to her.'' Minahan and Mackenzie came to Plant at the same time. She started her freshman year in 2004, the year Weiner was hired as the Panthers coach and Minahan joined him on the coaching staff. Since his daughter's death, football has been a salvation for Minahan, but game nights are still a challenge. "I think about her a lot more on Friday nights,'' Minahan said. "She always stood on the sideline, and she just loved the team so much. She just loved football.'' And she knew her football. How could she not? With a father who played at Plant in the late '70s and a grandfather, "Wild" Bill Minahan, who is regarded as one of Hillsborough County's greatest football coaches, Mackenzie had football in her blood. Like her dad, she grew up on a football field. She tagged along, at first to Jesuit practices, where her grandfather left his mark as the coach of the Tigers' 1968 state championship team, and then later at Plant. "I had such a great childhood hanging out with my dad at football practices and games, that regardless if I had boys or girls, they were going to be with me,'' Minahan said. Few grew up with Mackenzie on those Jesuit practice fields, where his father, John, Plant's co-defensive coordinator, was an assistant coach. Despite the four-year age difference, Few said Mackenzie always made time for him. "The thing I remember most about Mackenzie was how funny she was,'' Few said. "She always put a smile on my face.'' Mackenzie left a handprint on many people's hearts, and that was evident during her standing-room-only funeral at Christ the King Catholic Church. Every member of Plant's varsity football team and coaching staff was there to support Minahan. So were many members of the Jesuit family. "It was a surreal feeling that I was at my daughter's funeral and look out and see our entire team. That was special,'' Minahan said. "People always ask me 'Why do you coach?' When things like this happen and the team shows support in ways you couldn't imagine, you know why." Weiner thinks of Mackenzie every time he leaves his office. At the end of his first year at Plant, Mackenzie wanted to create a special memory of the season. She went around the school and shot photos of every senior football player. Then she carefully placed those photos in a collage with the players' signatures surrounding it. The frame hangs above Weiner's office door. "She was so proud of that. It's very representative of Mackenzie,'' Weiner said. "I have a lot of things in my office that are professionally made and framed and they're beautiful, but that was 100 percent made out of love." Plant players honor Mackenzie by wearing a pink heart sticker with the initials "M M" on their helmets. The defensive linemen take it a step further by shouting her name when they break the huddle. "Allie was her first name, so every single practice, every game, we break it down on 'Allie,''' Plant defensive lineman Patrick Wright said. "We know that she's not actually here, but we know that she's watching us.''

ksmith@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7860

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