BAR HARBOR, Maine — Jon Phelps can hear perfectly well on occasion.
“We’ll be out in the woods on weekends,” said Teagan Candage, one of the Mount Desert Island High School senior’s closest friends and a teammate on the Trojans’ football team, “and we’ll be hunting squirrels or birds or whatever. All of a sudden he’ll say, ‘Shhh, bird,’ and point. He’ll know there’s a bird around, and I didn’t even hear it.”
But such episodes are the exception for Phelps, who has overcome deafness to thrive as a high school athlete.
Phelps was born with auditory neuropathy, a hearing disorder involving an abnormality in the transmission of nerve impulses from the inner ear to the brain. Often the person can hear sounds but is unable to recognize spoken words, and the hearing loss ranges from mild to severe.
“His hearing is really good, it’s just scrambled,” said Candage. “He can hear noise, but if he’s not looking at you and he can’t read your face, he won’t know what you said.”
So while Phelps can appreciate the roar of the crowd as fans from across the island follow his teams, understanding what a specific friend, family member, teacher or coach is saying to him requires special attention.
“I can hear sometimes but not all the time,” he said. “If we’re face to face so I can read your lips, I know what you’re saying. But when people are moving their head around when they’re talking to me or not looking at me, I’ll say, ‘Can you look at me so I can read your lips so I see what you’re saying?’”
Phelps, family members and at least two of his high school coaches also have learned American Sign Language, and he has an interpreter with him during his classes.
The challenge hasn’t slowed Phelps’ competitive progress.
The 6-foot point guard earned Bangor Daily News all-tournament honors last February while helping MDI reach the Eastern Maine Class B basketball championship game last winter, then was the starting shortstop as the Trojans advanced to the regional baseball semifinals during the spring.
Now he is the starting quarterback, punter and safety for an MDI football team that heads for the Class C playoffs next weekend with a 6-2 record after a 42-22 victory at Old Town on Friday night.
“I think I’ve learned more about life from coaching him than anything he’s learned from me,” said MDI boys basketball coach Justin Norwood.
Phelps’ specific hearing condition wasn’t diagnosed until he was a seventh-grader, long after he started attending school and playing sports in Southwest Harbor, where he is the second-oldest of Scott and Margie Phelps’ four children.
“We were working with the audiologists and with the school, but the thought was he wasn’t paying attention and just ignoring us,” said Margie Phelps. “But what was happening was that we put hearing aids in and it was just louder static. Just because the hearing aids were on didn’t mean he could understand you. It really irritated him, and he hated the hearing aids.”
Eventually Phelps and his parents visited the Baxter School for the Deaf in southern Maine, where the possibility of audio neuropathy was discussed before tests at Boston Children’s Hospital provided confirmation.
While the tests didn’t provide a cure, the knowledge did provide some relief.
“Sometimes we’d be sitting, and Jon would be in front of us with his back to us, and we’d think we could say stuff without him hearing, but he’d hear us because sometimes his hearing works, sometimes it fires properly,” said Margie.
“So, of course, when you’d say something you didn’t want him to hear he’d turn around and say, ‘Mom, what are you talking about?’ It was a big struggle,” she said.
What wasn’t as much of a struggle was Phelps’ athletic development — in part, due to his family’s rich relationship with sports. Both parents played sports in high school and college, older sister Megan now plays basketball at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, younger sister Sarah is a multisport athlete at MDI, and younger brother Andrew is an up-and-coming eighth-grader.
“Sports was always an outlet for him,” said Scott Phelps, who works as sports director at Harbor House, a community service organization in Southwest Harbor. “He had the loss of hearing, but his hand-to-eye coordination was there early on. Mary Ellen [Martel] down at the [Harbor House] children’s center said that at 3 or 4 years old, he’d take a ball with one hand, throw it up in the air and put two hands on the bat and just rip it over the fence. She said she never had a kid before or since then that young who could do that like he did.”
Yet there were some early concessions related to Jon’s hearing challenges.
“He tried to play AAU basketball in the middle-school years, and he went through a period that when he was around people he didn’t know he didn’t assert himself, he didn’t play like he really could because he was afraid he would do something wrong because he couldn’t understand the coach,” said Margie.
Phelps ultimately dropped off that team but has resolved such issues since then by becoming even more a student of whatever game he is playing at the time.
“When there’s a new drill in practice, sometimes I watch and see how they do it before I do it,” he said. “Or sometimes I hear what the coach is saying and other times I read his lips. If I don’t hear, I read his lips.
“I do that all the time.”
Adapting and growing
Phelps’ high school sports career has been marked by steady progress boosted by the support of strong network of friends — particularly Candage and Dylan “Boomer” Carroll, buddies since the trio began playing youth football.
Also pivotal has been the support of the MDI coaching staff, including Norwood, football coach Mark Shields and baseball coach Mike Swanson.
While Phelps can hear the crowd or an official’s whistle, each sport has unique situations that have required improvisation to enhance the communication process.
In football, for example, Phelps has to get each offensive play from the sideline, then relay the information to his teammates in the huddle.
Last fall, Shields had players wear a wristband listing the plays on it to facilitate that process. This year, that’s unnecessary.
“Now Jon comes halfway over to the sideline, and I just make sure I’m looking directly at him so he can read my lips, though most of the time he knows what we want to run anyway,” said Shields. “We may have had two or three plays miscommunicated this year, but you’d have at least that with any quarterback.”
Phelps’ teammates are familiar with his voice, but Candage is always nearby in the huddle to provide any clarification.
In basketball, Phelps must adapt quickly to an opponent’s strategic adjustments and does so by either making eye contact with his coach or making his own decisions.
Phelps hopes to continue his playing career beyond high school, and already has received college feelers for basketball or baseball — including from Gallaudet, a leading university worldwide for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing.
But his most immediate aspiration has little to do with being deaf.
“My goal,” he said, “is for my team to go to the state championship.”