A few weeks ago, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man named Bob McPhee shared a stage with one of the greatest athletes of all time. Everyone at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame that June night knew the reason for the induction of the legendary Cael Sanderson, who won 159 matches in college and never lost once. But almost no one there had heard of McPhee, a 53-year-old man in a wheelchair from rural Maine.
By the time the evening was over, however, McPhee told a story nobody in the room could possibly forget. It was a story that even had Sanderson shaking his head in silent admiration. There was only one standing ovation that night at the Hall of Fame, and it lasted for more than two minutes.
It was for Bob McPhee.
It's 1975 and the nation is in turmoil. A president has resigned and trust has been lost. But in Rumford, Maine, a half-tank west of Portland, trust isn’t much of an issue. Pretty much everyone is honest and straight-forward and just trying to make ends meet. It’s a tough town, surviving on a single paper mill where most everyone either works or knows someone who does. How tough? Rumford High is a wrestling powerhouse, boasting a state champion who beat all comers after losing part of his middle finger in a snowblower accident. It’s here that Bob McPhee letters in football and baseball and wrestling. "He was tougher than a keg o’ nails," says his baseball coach, Bitsy Ionta. It’s here where McPhee, a 140-pound kid from a neighboring town called Peru, is started at safety and even once on the defensive line because he plays a lot heavier than he is.
So when a big running back from "down East" comes to play Rumford in a preseason game, McPhee is amped to take him down. He gets his chance early, as the star fullback comes barreling through the line. McPhee rams into him, helmet first, and he falls. He stands up, woozy. He wobbles to the sideline but returns to the game. This is a generation before concussions are a national issue, so if McPhee can walk, he will play. He makes another hit and goes down. He doesn’t remember too much of what happened next.
It becomes clear to everyone on the team that Bob is seriously hurt. But again, this is 1975, and there are no ambulances stationed at the game. So he’s put into the back of a pickup truck and taken to the local hospital. But it’s only when the local hospital decides Bob needs to go to a bigger hospital that everyone knows something is really, really wrong. Bob himself finds out when he hears a nurse say, “Hurry, we’re losing him.”
Surgeons drill six holes in McPhee’s skull to relieve the swelling. He remains in a coma for 17 days. He wakes up to the sight of the silhouettes of his parents, asking if he can move his arms. He can’t. He tries to speak. He can’t. He has suffered a brain stem injury. For the rest of his life, people will think he’s paralyzed. But Bob can feel everything. And everything hurts.
"He would have been captain of the football team," says longtime friend Jerry Perkins. “He had the world by the tail."
"I was sad," says teammate Steve Nokes. "I knew he would never be the same."
A lot of people give up. Even the physical therapists don't come in to work with him that often. He can’t speak, and he can’t press the call button, so all he can do to get attention is lay in his hospital bed and moan. It’s a while before anyone realizes his feeding tube is mangled and he’s almost literally starving. He loses a third of his body weight.
Bob would be in the hospital from the time of his injury in September of 1976 until the following April. Little things start to mean a lot. He likes overcast days so the sun won’t heat up his stuffy room. He’s grateful when he gets a fluffy pillow so the pain in his tailbone is bearable instead of agonizing. But as much as anything, he loves watching Pete Rose on TV. That used to be him, with the shaggy hair and the edginess. He wishes the Reds games would go on forever, even though they remind him he’ll never hold a bat in his hand again.
Sports have done this to him, yes, but there in the hospital, McPhee realizes his love is not based on the physical. He was never that big anyway, and people told him he wasn’t that talented. (See, in Western Maine, there might be sugar but there isn't much sugarcoating.) Bob always loved sports because he was a smaller guy who could compete. "A common belief is that the athletes with the greatest physical abilities will come out on top," he would write years later. "That's simply not the case. Granted, being physically gifted is a great advantage, but that alone isn’t enough."
What’s the difference, really, between willing himself to make a tackle and willing himself to heal? There in the hospital, as he tries desperately to scratch the itch on his face, he thinks of something his baseball coach once said: "There will be times during your lifetime when you’ll be faced with a difficult task. A decision has to be made, either to avoid the situation or to approach it head on. If you choose the former, it will be that much easier to back away when you are confronted with a future problem."
McPhee's favorite sport is not football or baseball. It's wrestling, where size is eliminated by weight classification. In wrestling, where Bob won a regional championship in his last season of high school, it’s the wily and the willing who win.
And so it is in a wheelchair.
"When faced with an apparently overwhelming problem," McPhee writes, "it is important to guard against despair. Therefore, it’s imperative to maintain a proper and positive perspective and to keep soldiering on."
Bob’s life has changed. But his love of sports, and what it means to him, doesn’t have to.
Life would never be easy for Bob. No part of life would be easy, in fact. He would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In time, technology would help – he’d eventually be able to toggle to move around and communicate with the help of a keyboard and voice synthesizer. But he’d never walk again, or speak more than a few words again, or even go to the restroom by himself again. He would never have a meal on his own again. Moving any part of his body, whether to point or turn his head, would forever be an effort for Bob.
"His mind works fine," says Perkins. "But he’s trapped inside his own body."
Bob’s girlfriend, the head cheerleader, comes to the hospital to tell him it’s time to move on. But Bob can’t move on because he can’t move -- he has no electric wheelchair so he can’t even go to a different area of his room unless someone pushes him. His eyes still can’t focus so he has trouble reading. Bob is often left counting ceiling tiles, and then counting the holes in the ceiling tiles. One night, he’s delivered his dinner and no one returns to the room to feed him. His lungs aren’t strong enough to make any sound for more than a few seconds, let alone enunciate a word. So all he can do is stare and smell.
And perhaps the hardest moment comes during his year of rehab in 1978, when a hefty vocational expert tells him to move out of Maine because none of the colleges are handicapped accessible. Bob’s blood boils. Once again there’s a larger man bearing down on him, threatening his livelihood.
And once again, Bob meets him head-on.
"He went through this therapy and decided it wasn’t going to slow him down," says Nokes. "He decided he would go to college and get his degree. That inspired everybody."
One of Bob's former coaches happens to be a relative of former Sen. Edmund Muskie. So Bob's mom pushes some buttons and pulls some strings and gets himself into tiny Husson College in 1980. Soon he’s living with a roommate who is so debilitated that he needs an iron lung to breathe. But Bob is finally in college. And by the next year, 1981, he transfers to the University of Maine at Orono. This is his second chance -- maybe his only chance.
And he takes advantage -- not only in the classroom, but outside of it. He still needs considerable help from nurses, but he goes out to restaurants and bars and even fights his way back home through snowstorms. One night, some cops scold him for going out by himself, but by this time he’s waving off all those who supposedly know better. "Strong objections," he would write, "infuriated me and motivated me even more."
Another vocational expert suggests a business major – something with numbers so he doesn’t have to rely on communication. Bob starts with business but quickly grows bored. He wants to tell stories instead. So he signs up for a night class taught by a writer for the Bangor Daily News.
"News was not interesting," Bob writes in an email, "but I knew sports."
The headquarters of the school paper, however, is down a flight of stairs. The editor at the time instructs staffers to carry Bob to and from the newsroom. The staff happily does so, but the school administrators suspend the editor for the order.
Bob soldiers on, closer now than ever to his dream of being back in the sporting arena. He’s assigned to cover sports, and he loves it. He’s immediately more fearless than most career sportswriters, unafraid to upset poor performers with facts. When Bob rolls up to a football coach after a game and starts to type out a question on his keyboard, the coach kneels down and ties Bob’s shoe. Was this a thoughtful gesture? Was it condescending? Bob didn’t bother to find out. He immediately types out: "Thanks. I might have tripped."
By 1983, Bob is co-editor of the campus paper's sports section. When his partner starts devoting more time to basketball, McPhee is basically on his own -- the lead voice who can’t say a word.
That might be enough of a happy ending for us, but not for Bob. The field of play is his refuge, but there is still so much to flee. He marries an occupational therapist who proceeds to dump him because, she says, she needs a "real man." One winter, when he comes home to see his family, he invites a friend over to talk. But when the friend shows up, nobody besides Bob is home. Nobody can open the door or even tell the visitor to wait. Bob watches helplessly through the window as the friend, thinking Bob had forgotten, turns and leaves. Days after, the friend dies of cancer. That moment, watching his friend leave, is a moment that Bob still can’t shake to this day.
He lives alone now. He still has a caretaker who comes twice a day to assist, and his mom lives in an adjacent apartment, but Bob hates to rely on anyone. His friends worry that if something happens, no one will know until it's too late. Bob lost a brother in a car accident a few years ago. His father also passed recently. He used to pat Bob on the head as a form of affection, but it felt too pitiful to Bob. Over time, though, they grew close again. When Bob had a call to make, his dad would dial. And his dad would show up to his house every day, lunch in hand. Now there's just Bob and his mom.
McPhee keeps writing, keeps describing games that might make another sports injury victim break down. But for Bob, it's therapy -- normalcy. He joins some friends at an amusement park one summer and is persuaded to try a roller coaster. The G-force is so great that it crushes three vertebrae in his back. Bob goes back to the hospital, writhing in pain, and yet he still manages to write a column from his bed -- on deadline.
Bob graduates from college and makes a career out of sportswriting for several Maine papers. For many in the newspaper business, covering high school sports is a death sentence, considered demeaning and unimportant. Not Bob McPhee. He loves every minute of every game, loves the adrenaline rush of finishing his stories on time, loves describing the action that he once knew. He loves the sunny afternoons, the Friday night lights, and even the snowy Maine days when his fingers get to the verge of frostbite and he can’t shake them out to get the blood flowing again. "Beats working at a desk," he writes, only half-joking. He covers more than 100 sporting events per year, well into his 50s, and doesn’t plan on slowing down. "We're in a society with a bunch of whiners," says Nokes, his old friend. "People whining about nothing. He doesn't. In a time where people expect more and more but give less and less, Bob gives more and more and feels entitled to nothing."
No, Bob’s not a poet. He was never a candidate for the pages of Sports Illustrated. His replies on emails to interview questions are very short, because even typing is an ordeal for him. No matter. The kids in Western Maine all know him, and know to go up to him after games and give him a quote or help him into his van. Bob is more of a high school sports legend than he ever would have been playing. There's even a book about his life -- written by him, over the course of years. It's called, "It Could Be Worse."
"He loves sports," says Nokes. "He just loves it. It was a always perfect match for him."
What do sports mean to Bob McPhee? The same thing they did in high school -- almost everything.
In the spring of 2011, Bob gets a letter from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He would be awarded a "Medal of Courage" for his ability to "overcome insurmountable challenges." On June 7, with the help of a couple of friends, Bob flies from Portland through Chicago to Stillwater, Okla, to be honored. The journey is so exhausting that he goes to sleep at 5 p.m. the day he arrives and doesn't wake up until well after noon the next day. He even gets a urinary tract infection. But he makes it to the ceremony, and when he’s done speaking, the toughest of athletes in the room wipe away tears.
"One of the most memorable statements I've ever heard from an honoree was when he signed off," says Hall executive director Lee Roy Smith. "He said, 'There are a lot of people worse off than I am.' That shows what a character he is, what a hero he is. To see what he has to do to function -- the coping skills, the attitude. He has all of the ingredients to be a great champion."
But that kind of praise doesn't go to Bob's head. That's just not him. "Don't get me wrong," he writes by email. "The ovation was unbelievable. But when I finished speaking, I immediately returned to the table. I don’t handle events like that very well."
On the flight back from Oklahoma, United loses Bob's wheelchair. The airline offers him one of its own, but it's far less comfortable and it doesn’t have his voice synthesizer. McPhee is helpless once again. All he can do was return home to Rumford with what he has.
And yet the next day, there’s Bob, sitting in a borrowed wheelchair, covering a high school baseball game. That’s where you’ll always find Bob McPhee, former high school hero, feeling proud and privileged to tell the world of a teenager’s sports dreams coming true.