ORONO, Maine — Family is one of the great joys in Kevin Phanor’s life.
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was motivated by the resilience and determination of his mother, Nola Presley.
Since arriving at the University of Maine in 2007, Phanor has joined a much larger family — the Black Bear football team.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 280-pound senior has been a mainstay for UMaine at defensive tackle for the last four seasons. Saturday afternoon, Phanor lines up alongside his “brothers” as they battle Appalachian State in a 2 p.m. NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff game in Boone, N.C.
“We just have to make sure we play our defense and execute our defense at a high level,” he said.
Phanor has played in 46 career games for the Bears and is having his best season. He has made 43 tackles (his previous best was 24 in 2009), including 5 1/2 for a loss of yardage.
With injuries having thinned UMaine’s defensive line, he and classmate Raibonne Charles of Windham have anchored the middle while playing a lot of snaps.
“Kevin and Raibonne have had a lot of experience, so they know how to play in this league,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “They know their fundamentals and their techniques.”
Over the course of his career, Phanor has been banged up a lot. While he hasn’t missed many games, they often hampered his effectiveness.
“If he’s healthy, he has the kind of ability to be an all-conference player, but he hasn’t been able to play to that level because of the physical setbacks he’s had,” Cosgrove said.
Phanor admits he has been a bit inconsistent. He credits the good performances to the collective efforts of the defensive line group.
“When I play well, Raibonne Charles and Michael Cole and the other guys play well,” Phanor said. “We feed off of each other.”
He explained the key for UMaine’s defensive linemen, who rely more on quickness and agility than pure size and strength, is their mental approach.
“We have a never-say-die attitude,” Phanor said.
Phanor arrived at UMaine after excelling as a two-way lineman at Brooklyn Technical High School. He was referred to UMaine by a friend of former Bears assistant coach Dwayne Wilmot and was impressed with the atmosphere in the program.
“It was knowing that I would have the opportunity to get a degree and also play football,” Phanor said. “Knowing that I’d be getting a scholarship to relieve some pressure on my mother, that was the biggest thing.”
Presley emigrated to the U.S. from her native Haiti as a teenager. She adjusted to life here by working, attending college and becoming a registered nurse — all while raising a family.
Phanor helped take care of his younger brother and sister. He made sure they got ready for school, did their homework and got something to eat when they came home.
“I guess I did have to mature a little bit before my time,” Phanor said. “Family is important for me.”
He was happy to help out as he was inspired by his mother’s work ethic and commitment to achieving her goals.
“That was always a great motivating factor for me, seeing her push herself to that extent,” Phanor said. “Being an immigrant, coming to the states when she was in her teens and going through school, learning a second language, she’s had to deal with a lot.”
Phanor also credited a cousin, Andrew Filsaimie, with pushing him to pursue college athletics.
“He told me to stay on the path and don’t ever take your eye off the prize,” Phanor said.
He said making the move from Brooklyn to Orono wasn’t easy. Even so, he quickly gained an appreciation for living in Maine.
“It’s not the way life should be, but it’s a more relaxing environment for the mind,” Phanor said. “I could come here and focus on football and school. There weren’t other distractions.”
Phanor admits he has undergone a significant transformation, growing from a boy into a man during his years at UMaine. He credits that to his interactions with his teammates and coaches, who have become his extended family.
“I came in with teammates and I’m leaving with brothers,” he said. “I know that I’ll always have many brothers that I can call in a time of need or lean on, if ever it comes to that.”
Phanor, who is a skilled conversationalist, plans to spend his professional life helping young people improve their ability to communicate. His is majoring in communication science disorders and hopes to attend graduate school to become a speech pathologist.
“Especially with children and the school environment, it’s very difficult not to be able to communicate with their peers,” Phanor said. “It’s very important that issues like stuttering and reading disabilities are taken care of early so that these children can live normal lives.”
Phanor said his life has been enriched at UMaine. Along with his fellow seniors, he has learned to be a leader on and off the field.
“One of the quotes that I love that [defensive line] coach [Dennis] Dottin Carter uses is, ‘set the [positive] example or be the [negative] example,’” Phanor said. “That really summarizes our mindset.”