The Fight of His Life

Kevin Phelps was a handful from day one. The Bow native came into the world kicking and screaming twenty-four years ago, and the passage of time did little to improve his disposition. With a mile-wide chip perched firmly on his shoulder, Kevin spent his formative years giving the figurative, and occasionally the literal, middle finger to authority figures of all stripes in the Capital region. I was one of them, as his coach on a USTA junior tennis team during many of his high school summers. By then Kevin had grown tall and strong and more than a little bit nasty. He was a good player: not as good as he believed himself to be, but still genuinely talented and willing to practice hard to improve his game. Yet not surprisingly he tended to rub many people the wrong way with his cocky strutting, his sideways-tilted headgear and his Muhammad-Ali like pronouncements. Kevin was no Tom Brady, dispensing weekly doses of pabulum designed expressly to prevent even the most paranoid opponent from collecting any “bulletin board material” to use as extra motivation. He provided his opponents with loads of bulletin board material and couldn’t have cared less. P.T. Barnum may have coined the expression “any publicity is good publicity”, but Kevin Phelps lived out the meaning of that particular creed better than anyone I’ve known.

Like most people who conduct themselves as he did, Kevin had reasons for his behavior. His family splintered when he was very young. After that he was raised by his mother, Stephanie, who provided lots of love but had only limited success in shaping his behavior. Kevin’s relationship with his father, a former football player and coach, was much more problematic, occupying as it did that dangerous intersection between neglect and hostility. Even four years of hard work which led to Kevin’s becoming the first male NHIAA singles semifinalist in Bow High history didn’t matter to his dad, who only continued to mock Kevin for having chosen a “sissy sport”.

In recent years Stephanie Phelps began dating, and later moved in with, my good friend and USTA teammate Todd Toler, and that allowed me to keep tabs on Kevin beyond his high school days. One thing that I’ve had to come to terms with —sometimes more successfully than others — over years of teaching and coaching is that the progress of the people you work with isn’t always as linear as you’d like it to be, and Kevin was a prime example. In plain English, that means he continued to fuck up quite often. He tried to walk on to the tennis team at Division II Southern New Hampshire University, but his timing was poor: SNHU’s growing program had begun recruiting internationally, and his heart wasn’t truly in the schoolwork either. Kevin’s preferred destination was the military, but a substance-related arrest, one in a series of minor legal troubles, ruled that out. The transition to adulthood isn’t easy for even the most pulled-together teenager, and Kevin was a far cry from that, but he never inflicted lasting harm on anyone other than himself, which is more than a lot of people can say. And through it all he still had tennis talent to burn, so before long Todd recruited him to play on our adult USTA 18-plus and Tri-Level teams.

Having Kevin as a teammate was a unique experience. There he was, headgear jauntily tilted sideways, muscles jacked, just about every square inch above his waist —and God only knew how much below it —covered in ink. Wherever we went, attention was squarely focused on him, and he would have had it no other way. Even in his least competitive matches, Kevin yelled, screamed, and flexed with abandon. But the kid was a clutch performer, too, taking on some of the top 4.0s in New England and nearly always emerging victorious. One afternoon, hung over and throwing up in the service box, Kevin still rallied to win a difficult timed match on a sudden-victory point. He was remarkably fair with his own line calls, but heaven help anybody who cheated him — and since this was New England tennis, he had his fair share of dustups. I didn’t complain, for not only was he one of our most successful singles players, he also cared passionately about the team’s overall success, which is a rarer commodity in USTA team tennis than you might think. What’s more, the roving line judges were always too busy monitoring his court to catch my foot faults. Talk about a win-win. In 2013 Kevin led our 18-and-over team to the New England Sectionals and then he, Todd and I made a once-in-a-lifetime run to the Tri-Level Nationals at Indian Wells, CA, the following March (that run is chronicled, some might say ad nauseum, in earlier posts on this site). I’ll be the first to admit that Todd and I wouldn’t have gotten there on our own. Kevin’s big serve, heavy topspin forehand and in-your-face competitiveness were the biggest reasons for our success through the various levels of competition. At the New England Sectionals, he and I had to beat three top teams in a span of less than 24 hours (Todd was injured and unable to play). In one of those matches I had a stretch of about a set and a half where I literally could not have hit a ball into the ocean from close range. It didn’t matter, for Kevin just raised his game to an even more sublime level and pulled us through. In the clinching match against Maine, I played much better but began to get tight near the end. Kevin got up in my face and barked at me to finish strong — just what I needed — and we raised our level in the supertiebreaker to take the championship home. I will see his match-winning down-the-line forehand in my mind’s eye for as long as I draw breath.

I got to know Kevin better during our weeklong stay in California as we practiced, played and partied together. I shared some of my philosophies about tennis and life and he introduced me to new music (until then I had thought Logic was just a class my brother, a philosophy major, might have taken during his Dartmouth days) and gave me dating advice (you can probably imagine how that went, but it was thoughtful of him to offer). He stuck by Todd and me when our Connecticut-based “teammates” tried to throw us under the bus after some poor results, too. And though the tennis didn’t end up quite the way I would have liked, it honestly didn’t matter. We all have a special memory to cherish for the rest of our lives, and Kevin was a huge part of that.

Life pulled Kevin and me in different directions in the years that followed, and we were never teammates again. My playing time was limited by serious knee and foot injuries, and Kevin’s by school responsibilities: he had gone back to study business at Plymouth State, which has no men’s tennis team. As a result, I hadn’t seen him for some time before dropping in on his family while they were vacationing at the beach one day in the early fall of 2016. He was still Kevin that day, bursting with confidence, yet he was also growing up. He had made it through Plymouth State, gotten his Business degree, landed an entry-level sales job, and was working hard to climb the corporate ladder. He had a steady girlfriend and was talking about getting his own place. I left that night thinking Kevin was really starting to get his shit together. Given where he might have ended up, I called that a bona fide success story.

I wish that Kevin’s story ended right there, but it does not. Early last November he began vomiting and experiencing a level of abdominal pain which eventually landed him in the emergency room. Did he have some type of virus, or maybe a kidney stone like the one that had felled me in 2014? The hospital staff could provide no answers and released Kevin, only for him to collapse on his way out the door to the parking lot. After that, the pace of the diagnostic testing picked up considerably. The results of the ensuing MRI were unimaginably horrific. Kevin had a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma that had already advanced to stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Kevin underwent surgery that same night and woke up without his appendix, most of his colon, a few lymph nodes and a tumor roughly the size of an orange. That procedure saved his life in the short term, but if he refused all further treatment Kevin was still going to die sooner rather than later. His only chance was to immediately begin the most aggressive course of chemotherapy available at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It had about a 70 percent chance of success and it would be debilitating, but Kevin and his family opted for the chemo without a second thought because it was his only hope. There were no two ways about it: Kevin Phelps was in the fight of his life.

Can you imagine all that? Kevin didn’t have to imagine.  He had to dig in, start battling and hope for a positive outcome. One of our recent Presidents —one who could eloquently discuss subjects other than the female anatomy and his bank account, but I digress — said in one of his best-known speeches that “While the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice”. For Kevin and those close to him, it couldn’t start bending quickly enough.

Kevin has poured all his tenacity, competitiveness and combative spirit into beating his all-time toughest opponent for nearly three months now, and here’s the good part: he’s winning! Yes, he’s had his ups and downs, his good and bad days, but last week he finished his final course of chemo, and his doctors say there’s a great chance he is going to beat this. He posts regular, articulate, sometimes gut-wrenching updates on Facebook, and one of the most recent read: I BEAT CANCER!!!!!!!! Well, except that the font was about ten times bigger, but I’ll cut him some slack. He’s certainly earned it.

This isn’t where I ask you for money or pass along a link to a fund-raising website. Not that I’d be opposed, however awkward it might make a reader feel, if Kevin needed the help. But by happy coincidence his insurance policy has covered almost all his expenses: while the overall cost of his treatment has run upwards of a million dollars, Stephanie and Todd have only had to pay a few thousand out of pocket.  And if the chemotherapy is successful, his doctors say Kevin’s type of cancer generally doesn’t return.

The last thing I want to do is jinx Kevin, for I know better than most how relentless cancer can be. My father had tumors removed from his liver and pancreas and seemed to be cancer-free, but all too soon the disease came back, and now I spend most Father’s Days talking at a marble slab. Yet there’s now good reason to believe Kevin will someday number among the lucky ones for whom cancer represents a detour rather than an endpoint.   By the time he celebrates his 25th birthday, he will be a hardened survivor, his trademark confidence no doubt containing far more substance now that he has stared down the most feared killer of our time. What could he do with his life then? A better question would be “what couldn’t he do”? Me, I just hope Kevin gets many more years to experience life in all its joy and pain — but hopefully in a proportion weighted more towards “joy” than has lately been the case. I hope he falls in love, builds a productive career he can be proud of, perhaps one day becomes the father he never had. More selfishly, I also hope he gets back on the tennis court at some point, but even if he never takes part in another sporting event in his life, Kevin Phelps has proven this beyond the shadow of a doubt:

He’s a winner.