- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - The juggling, the unicycle riding, the traveling, the entertaining, the basketball officiating. Carl Phelps didn’t see a reason to stop doing those things.

The reffing was especially close to Phelps, a lifelong educator.

“I loved basketball, the kids, and school,” he says.

Except, Phelps doesn’t actually say that. I can hear him tapping over the phone. He’s writing words with a stylus pen into a square LCD tablet, and his wife Janice dictates them back to me.

Understand, Phelps kept up with his activities after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, slowly stole his words. He lost his ability to speak within six months of being diagnosed in April 2015. This past January he ate his last real meal. Now he eats and drinks using a feeding tube.

The Lawton Constitution (https://bit.ly/1MqgRno ) reports that it was important to him to continue doing the things he loved, difficult or not. People of all ages spurred him to keep going - the kids whose games he officiated, the people he reffed with, the elderly and sick people he traveled long distances to entertain.

But ALS is unforgiving. It assaults the nervous system and weakens muscles, and it hasn’t let up on Phelps. This week, the shade will draw on his officiating career.

Two Oklahoma Officials Association executive board members from District 1 nominated him to officiate a small school girls basketball Oklahoma Coaches Association All-State game in Tulsa. They didn’t do it out of pity or sympathy, but because Phelps, 63, is one of the good ones.

He’ll make the trip from his Chickasha home to call one more game using the special handheld whistle that got him through this past season. It turned out to be his bravest and most challenging year yet.

It’s easy to find Carl Phelps’ name in old newspapers. He was a basketball standout at Moore High School in the late 1960s, a regular in the Daily Oklahoman’s Wednesday and Saturday sports pages.

After high school he attended Christian College of the Southwest in Terrell, Texas, on a basketball scholarship. He eventually left hoops behind and graduated from Oklahoma State, then obtained a Master’s degree from Oklahoma. His career moved rapidly - first a teacher, then a principal, then Paoli’s superintendent at the young age of 24.

Later Phelps became superintendent at Purcell, then Chickasha. From 1985-88 he was director of teacher education and certification for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. After that, he and his wife Janice founded and operated Christian Care Retirement Village, a nursing home and assisted living center in Chickasha. They ran it together for more than 16 years.

When they sold the center in 2005, Phelps needed a retirement gig of his own. He picked up basketball officiating among other things.

He wasn’t a lifer, not quite the mainstay referee chosen for state tournament games every year. But Phelps was solid. Everybody knew it.

“His whole demeanor. He’d get along with anybody,” said Jay Craft, a member of the OOA executive board. “His people skills, being able to interact and manage a ball game, I always thought that was his best attribute. He’s got a great smile. It just disarms everybody. The biggest thing (about maintaining rapport with coaches) is being approachable, and he’s as approachable as anybody out there.”

Phelps jumped into officiating head first. He founded the Chickasha Officials Organization and served as its president for nine years.

Meanwhile, he and Janice began traveling to all 77 counties in Oklahoma providing entertainment at nursing homes. Phelps rode a unicycle and juggled, and spun basketballs on his fingers. They performed a 35-minute feel-good show, dubbing the program “Side by Side.”

The retirement life was good.

Then some information started leaking out. By the time Craft heard and phoned Phelps about it, Phelps was already in Galveston, Texas, seeing a medical specialist.

There was no official diagnosis yet, but Phelps already knew.

He had ALS.

Phelps’ words first began disobeying him as the weather cooled off, early in October of 2014. His daughter Jennifer noticed he was slurring.

What was happening to Phelps was no mystery to him. His sister, Phyllis, was already suffering from ALS and would die from her battle that November.

Phelps is part of the 10 percent that has what the ALS Association considers a familial, or genetic, strain of the disease. Janice did some research and counted nine people in her husband’s extended family who had some type of muscular issue.

In March 2015, Phelps was diagnosed. Within six months he couldn’t speak anymore. It was cruel. Phelps was never an introverted person. He had addressed people by the thousands. Groups would request him to emcee their meetings. He taught bible classes, served as president in clubs. His voice was perhaps his sharpest tool.

I ask Phelps about this in our phone conversation, with a little bit of dread in my voice, because the answer is obvious and painful - what was it like to lose your speech?

He pushes a button on the LCD board to erase a previous statement and make way for his next one. He starts with the pen again, tapping away.

“It was hard to deal with,” he writes, “but I had to do it.”

Part of dealing with it was continuing to do normal things. Refereeing basketball was one of the normal things, but a return to the court would take help and courage - a lot of both.

Blowing whistles wasn’t an option anymore. His daughter Jennifer researched online and found a squeezable handheld whistle. She ordered three different kinds just to ensure he got one he was comfortable with. All he needed to do was squeeze it to issue a foul or a travel, or make a stop in play. He was still mobile enough to get up and down the court. To communicate his calls to the scorer’s table - and every single person watching in the gym - he made sure his hand signals were more crisp than ever before.

Phelps eased in slowly, practicing his new method at elementary school games before getting the nerve to try high school again. He eventually got there. He kept his LCD board at the the scorer’s table in case he ever needed to elaborate on a call.

By Jan. 19 he was doing games weekly, even though he couldn’t talk and was now getting all nourishment from a feeding tube, which presented a new issue - hydrating himself during games. He needed a tight shirt to conceal and keep the tube in place, so his youngest daughter, Cara, handcrafted some adjustments to an Under Armour top to make it more comfortable. Phelps began slipping behind closed doors for a quick drink, then would return like nothing happened.

“He’d go into the bathroom and pop back out, and have that same good attitude, that same smile,” Brett Barrett said.

Barrett and Phelps became close during the past four years while officiating together. They teamed up when Phelps worked a full slate - about four games a week - and were paired more frequently after Phelps’ diagnosis, when he worked as few as two per week.

Phelps was especially comfortable doing games with Barrett, who has a boisterous and jovial personality and wasn’t afraid to speak up since Phelps wasn’t able.

The two had a pre-game routine where Barrett would gather the captains and explain that Phelps had ALS and couldn’t talk, that he’d be making calls using a handheld whistle, and that if anybody wanted to converse about a certain call, they needed to do that with Barrett.

Then to break the ice, Barrett would tell everyone that not only could Phelps not talk, he couldn’t see or hear either. I can hear Janice and Carl giggling over the phone when I remind them of the story.

“That was the joke,” Barrett said. “He (Phelps) would hear it and get that big smile on his face. It wasn’t to make fun of the situation, but just to get people comfortable with the fact that, hey, he had a disability, but he was dealing with it.”

Phelps finished the season flashing his signature grin, yucking it up with coaches. His friend Paul Powell drove him to almost every game, and Janice rode along for as many as she could. Phelps did the grind. He reffed county tournaments. He ate and drank from the tube. It was tough - he expected it would be - but he managed.

Phelps’ voice went silent, but his relationships with people never did. Fort Cobb-Broxton boys coach Scott Hines pulled him aside one game.

“I’m glad you’re still out here,” Hines said.

The Carnegie girls basketball team knew Phelps on a first-name basis. Sayre girls coach Brian Richardson was on the sidelines during Phelps’ last game this season at Amber-Pocasset. Later Richardson, who lost his grandfather to ALS in 1989, penned him a thoughtful letter: “Thanks for being an inspiration in just the two short hours I had to be around you,” one passage said.

Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association director of officiating Mike Whaley has been around long enough to see all the ugly corners of officiating. Refs are sometimes the most controversial figures in sport, but they’re also the most necessary. That Phelps was willing to put himself and his personal heath battle on public display in order to be part of it represents something special.

“We can talk all day about what’s bad about officiating,” Whaley said, “but there is not anything is better than Carl Phelps being part of it.”

I ask Phelps if he ever thought about walking away from officiating. Doing the job has never been easy, let alone like this.

“It was hard,” he writes, “but everyone made me feel great. The referees, the coaches and the (scorer’s) table.”

Officials sometimes stir the worst in people. Phelps stirred up the best.

“Always has a smile. Always,” said Jay Craft, who is Phelps’ friend and one of the OOA executive board members who selected him to call his last game. “He’s a great inspiration to everybody else. A true example that you take what life gives you and make the best of it. One of my favorite pictures is of him and I at the state tournament this past year. He just makes you feel good. You’d never know he has ALS.”

You’d never know, that is, unless you need to talk to him. Unless you needed words - his words.

As my conversation with Phelps winds down, I hear him tapping on his board. He writes and again Janice dictates. He confirms that Wednesday’s game in Tulsa will be his last. From talking with others and understanding Phelps’ medical timeline, I get the picture pretty easily. ALS is brutal. So too would be another basketball season.

I ask what the past year has meant to him. The words “hard” and “tough” aren’t there anymore. But he scrawls the word “love.”

Twice.

___

Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com

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