Bob McPhee was a talented enough high school wrestler to pin a European junior champion from Austria during an exchange meet in the summer of 1976.
But only a few weeks later during a scrimmage before his senior season of football at Rumford High School, the undersized defensive lineman went to make a tackle like he had done hundreds of times before — only this time it was different.
While McPhee got up after the play, he never recovered. He soon lost feeling in his legs, and eventually he fell into a coma for 17 days. He ultimately was diagnosed with a brain stem injury that has left him unable to walk or talk ever since.
“He’s been living with this 24/7 since 1976 without ever walking or speaking,” said Jerry Perkins of Orrington, McPhee’s high school coach. “And he never complains.”
Flash forward nearly 35 years, to the recent induction ceremonies of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at the Oklahoma State University Alumni Center.
As the other 300 people on hand rose to their feet for a standing ovation, the 52-year-old McPhee remained in his wheelchair.
Not because he couldn’t rise himself, but because this ovation was for him — as one of that hall of fame’s newest inductees and the 2011 recipient of its Medal of Courage.
It was a fitting tribute, for McPhee’s life has been one of perseverance few among us could ever imagine.
After enduring three years of rehabilitation in the aftermath of his injury, McPhee enrolled at the University of Maine, from where he graduated with a journalism degree in 1984.
Since then he’s been a fixture on the western Maine sports scene as a writer for the Rumford Falls-Times, Lewiston Sun Journal and several online publications. Aided by former high school teammate Larry Gill and communicating through a device called the “Liberator” that includes a keypad to help generate a computerized voice, the Dixfield resident has carved out a successful career, particularly when it comes to his coverage of high school wrestling.
“I truly enjoy the competition and being able to recognize the student-athletes,” wrote McPhee in an e-mail. “They are the newsmakers, not I. I am just fortunate to write it.”
McPhee also has authored a book whose title — “It Could Be Worse: The Rest of the Story” — reflects his attitude toward coping with the lot life has dealt him.
But while McPhee is matter-of-fact about his situation, his extended family — particularly those within the wrestling community — continue to marvel at how he has overcome the obstacles in his way to live life as normally as possible.
Wrestling people know about discipline and sacrifice, and in McPhee they see more than a mere role model. So when he needed about $1,500 to make the trip to Stillwater, Okla., for his induction ceremony, his friends raised more than $6,000.
“This guy’s a hero in every sense of the word,” said Perkins, who joined McPhee in Oklahoma. “He inspires me every day.”
And McPhee’s message to the gathering was not surprising.
“I spoke to the crowd that I’m no different than any one else and simply living life,” he wrote. “People have said they don’t believe they could have gone on if faced with a similar situation. I disagree because human beings are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.
“But remember to take a look around because there’s always someone worse off.”
Jacob Powers of Camden Hills earned his coach's praise for his work ethic and intends to continue wrestling in college.
Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal
A Camden Hills senior, Powers went 33-0 and claimed his second consecutive Class B championship at 160 pounds.
Powers won outstanding wrestler of the meet awards at the Redskin Invitational in Sanford, the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships and the Maine All-Star tournament. He intends to continue wrestling at Division I Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania.
"He's a really dedicated kid to the sport," Camden Hills Coach Levi Rollins said. "Every morning, he came in at six o'clock and practiced and got in shape before school. Then he came to practice every day after school and put his best effort in."
A total of 28 athletes will be honored at our annual banquet on June 19, when our male and female athletes of the year will be announced.