DIXFIELD, Maine — Game time approaches on a sunny Thursday afternoon for Bob McPhee. Today, it’s a soccer match between Dirigo High School and visiting Mount Abram of Salem on his schedule.
Outside McPhee’s home, his good friend Ryan Palmer arrives to help the wheelchair-bound sportswriter into a van for the short drive to Dirigo, where McPhee is set to cover the game for the Sun Journal of Lewiston and the Rumford Falls Times.
For the 57-year-old McPhee, this routine of covering high school sports — his job since the late 1980s — has been both his livelihood and connection to his past, when he was as a three-sport athlete at Rumford High School during the mid-1970s until a sudden, tragic football injury left him paralyzed.
The damage to his brain stem left him unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair with no use of his extremities — save for a right hand capable of typing messages into a keyboard that speaks for him.
Four decades later, though, McPhee’s enthusiasm about sports remains strong as ever. And his efforts, especially his presence on the sidelines, exhibit a determination few are challenged to find within themselves.
McPhee’s writing career began at the University of Maine where he worked for the Maine Campus and served as the student newspaper’s sports editor.
This history is why on Friday night in Orono, the “M” Club is honoring McPhee’s personal and professional determination as one of six new members to be inducted into the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame.
In his typical self-deprecating manner, McPhee isn’t sure why he belongs.
“I am quite excited to be honored by the University of Maine, but at the same time there are a lot more deserving athletes,” he said. “I never played a sport at Orono.”
But for those who supported his induction, including Perkins and longtime former UMaine administrator Woody Carville, McPhee’s presence in the hall of fame reflects deserved recognition — if now outright awe — for his perseverance in carving out a notable sportswriting career while serving as a role model for the thousands of youngsters he has covered.
“Bob’s a hero and a champion in so many ways, and he’s always positive,” said Perkins, a former UMaine football player who serves on the ‘M’ Club board of directors. “I get tears in my eyes lots of times when I think of Bob, and a lot of people have told me that when things get tough for them, they think of Bob and he helps them get through it through his inspiration.”
Those that knew him as player echoed these sentiments.
“Bobby’s gone through pain and discomfort every day of his life since that day 40 years ago when his injury happened,” said Jerry Perkins, McPhee’s football and wrestling coach at Rumford High School.
“He’s the toughest kid mentally that I’ve ever known. I don’t know how he’s done it.”
McPhee was a senior center and defensive back for the Rumford High School football team on Sept. 4, 1976, when the Panthers played their final preseason game against Portland.
“Bobby had the world by the tail,” said Perkins. “He was 18 years old, he was going with the head cheerleader and he had just pinned the Austrian (junior) national freestyle wrestling champion that summer.
“Football was a sport Bobby did just to get better in wrestling, and he was a heck of a baseball player, too.”
But that idyllic life soon changed irreversibly when McPhee dashed from the right side of the Rumford secondary to tackle Ed Bogdanovich, Portland’s 215-pound fullback.
“I hit him head on,” McPhee said. “Back then tackling techniques weren’t like they are today, but they worked.”
McPhee rose from the turf with a sore neck that wasn’t enough to immediately sideline him, but 30 minutes later he began losing balance and felt numbness in his legs. Soon he was on his way to the local hospital in the back of a station wagon, then on to a Lewiston hospital via ambulance.
In and out of consciousness throughout the ambulance ride, McPhee recalls vividly the last words he heard that day.
“Someone said, ‘Step on it, we’re losing him,’” said McPhee.
Surgeons eventually drilled six holes in McPhee’s skull to relieve the swelling caused by a hemorrhage of his brain stem, located between the brain and spinal column.
He spent 17 days in a coma, and by the time he regained consciousness, McPhee could neither communicate verbally nor move anything but his eyelids.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” said Perkins. “I was never the same as a coach again after that injury. He changed my life in a lot of ways just because of my empathy and of being so worried about kids getting hurt because of how his life changed in an instant.”
Sportswriting as therapy
McPhee remained hospitalized until the following April but graduated with his senior class in June 1977, with lifelong friend Larry Gill pushing his wheelchair down the aisle.
Three years of rehabilitation produced only slight improvement, and that frustration led McPhee to make a major decision, to pursue his education.
He originally enrolled at Bangor’s Husson College but transferred to the University of Maine in 1981 and soon caught the sportswriting bug after answering an ad in the student newspaper.
The Maine Campus office in the basement of Lord Hall wasn’t handicapped-accessible at the time, but McPhee eventually did much of his work in press boxes in Orono and around New England.
“What are you going say, ‘No, you can’t do this?’” said Joe McLaughlin, sports editor of the Maine Campus at the time and now the print sports editor at the Bangor Daily News. “Your first reaction is to give the guy a chance to see if he can do it and if he can do it, then full speed ahead.”
And it has been full speed ahead on the sports beat ever since for McPhee.
Initially, it came with the help of a device that allowed his questions for coaches and players, and his general conversations, to be printed out on a ticker tape.
“I had competed and knew what playing sports required,” he said. “I couldn’t do it physically any more, but I still could do it mentally.”
McPhee first covered wrestling and field hockey for the Campus, then went on to write about football, basketball and baseball. He attended as many games as possible and turned in his assignments on typewritten sheets with the aid of friends and colleagues.
He eventually ascended to sports editor, a job he shared during the fall semester of 1983 with varsity basketball player Paul Cook and then performed individually the following spring.
“I was told that in five years after I got injured I’d be better than I was, but after three years of rehabilitation and not much improvement it seemed like it was time to move on and make a life,” said McPhee, who graduated from UMaine in May 1984.
A calling to coach
While McPhee secured some newspaper work and remained in the Orono area for the next two years, the River Valley called him home in 1987.
He bought a ranch-style home not far from where he had grown up in neighboring Peru and soon began writing for the Lewiston Sun Journal, a job he has maintained ever since.
He continues to write for the Rumford weekly and has authored an autobiography titled “It Could Be Worse,” all efforts aided by technological advances both personal and professional.
In 1991 he went from talking via ticker tape to communicating through the “Liberator,” a device that includes a keypad able to generate a computerized voice. The advent of email has simplified the story-filing process — important given that he lives 40 miles from the Sun Journal office.
What hasn’t changed is his approach to his job.
“I enjoy the competition, I like to recognize the student-athletes and it has earned me a comfortable living,” said McPhee. “We all face adversity. It’s all in how you handle it.”
More recently McPhee has discovered a new passion that brings him even closer to the field of play, serving as an assistant baseball coach at Dirigo for the last five seasons.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations and talked about all the things he’s done in life even with his injury, like whitewater rafting and mowing his own lawn even though he was in a wheelchair,” said Palmer, Dirigo’s head coach. “We got talking one day about sports and he said the one thing he had never done was coach.
“That was a no-brainer for me. I said, ‘You’re coming with me,’ and he’s been with me ever since.”
While McPhee can’t physically demonstrate baseball’s fundamentals, Palmer and the players rely heavily on his understanding of the game.
“When Bobby speaks you can see all the players’ eyes are just glued to him, they listen to everything he says,” said Palmer. “He’s so knowledgeable about baseball, it’s really helped our program.”
Sometimes McPhee provides inspiration without his keyboard uttering a sound.
“One kid we had was a great baseball player but never liked to practice and always had an excuse, a cold or a sore throat or a headache,” said Palmer. “I remember one day a couple of times he over looked at me and I looked at him and nodded and looked toward Bobby and said, ‘Really, you’re going to complain now? Here’s a guy who’s here every day regardless of what he’s been going through for 40 years.
“It never happened again.”
McPhee helped the Cougars win back-to-back Class C state championships in 2012 and 2013.
“I never considered coaching until Ryan invited me to coach with him,” he said. “The main thing is trying to remain positive and teach the players about the game. You support them when they do well and when they are experiencing shortcomings just point out adjustments that could be tried.
“But it comes down to how each individual is willing to battle it.”
That’s something Bob McPhee knows more about than virtually everyone he’s ever come across, though he doesn’t see his personal battle as anything more than making the most of a life nearly lost.
One living-room wall in his home is filled with the rewards of many successful battles, including plaques from the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and Maine Amateur Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame, various journalism awards and a trophy he received as the 2011 recipient of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Medal of Courage.
It’s a professional life McPhee plans to continue, “until the wheels fall off,” he quipped.
“Everyone says I am so inspiring,” he said. “Well for me it’s just my life.”