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How family of hospitalized football player found perspective in its darkest hours

Tecumseh captains, including offensive lineman Jackson Phelps (77), go out for a pregame coin toss. Phelps has since been hospitalized with pneumonia and will miss the Savages' first-round playoff game against Cache. [PHOTO PROVIDED]
Tecumseh captains, including offensive lineman Jackson Phelps (77), go out for a pregame coin toss. Phelps has since been hospitalized with pneumonia and will miss the Savages' first-round playoff game against Cache. [PHOTO PROVIDED]

Lance Phelps just wants his son to get one more team bus ride.

Sure, he’d love if his oldest child could play football again. Line up with his buddies on the offensive line. Wear the gold and black of Tecumseh High School.

But with his son, Jackson, in the hospital for almost two weeks, Phelps would be giddy over a bus ride.

He and so many others in Tecumseh have learned over the past few years — and sadly been reminded over the last couple days — to appreciate the little things.

During a week in which the Pottawatomie County town south of Shawnee should be flush with excitement over a football team back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, people are mourning, too. Tecumseh sophomore Ryder Kinsey was killed Tuesday in a one-car accident that also critically injured his girlfriend. That tragedy comes less than a year after a basketball player died and two other students died in a car accident.

“Our small town has been through so much,” Tecumseh football coach Ty Bullock wrote on his Facebook page, “and what amazes me is how it bounces back time after time. We will unfortunately have to rally again over a sudden and too-soon loss of life.”

They are rallying, too, for Jackson Phelps.

He is a senior and a captain on the football team. At 6-foot-1, 325 pounds, he played center and anchored the offensive line. But he’s more than a big guy. He’s a big presence.

“He’s known as the hype man on the team,” his dad said.

He chuckled.

“He loves football. He loves everything about football.”

And there’s been lots to love this season.

Tecumseh won just once during Jackson’s freshman year. But then Bullock took over as coach, and the team went 4-6 two years ago and 5-5 a year ago.

This season, though, has been a big breakthrough. Tecumseh upended Seminole in non-district play for the first time in many moons, then won three of its first four games in rugged District 4A-2. After walloping McLoud in Week 9, Tecumseh punched its ticket to the playoffs.

Jackson was so excited.

But even as he was relishing this season, he was fighting through some physical troubles. He battled strep for several weeks, then started having serious pain in his back. His parents, Lance and Jana, took him to a chiropractor, and a week ago Monday, Jackson told them after practice that he felt as good as he had in quite a while.

“It didn’t hurt no more,” he said that evening. “It’s kind of starting to let up.”

Then in the middle of the night, Jackson woke up his parents. He was stumbling around and nearly falling over. Worse, he was breathing extremely hard.

“I can’t breathe,” he told them.

Jana took him to the emergency room in nearby Shawnee while Lance stayed home with their two younger children. Not long after Jackson was admitted, doctors told Jana his condition was serious. They suspected pneumonia and intubated Jackson so he could breathe.

Around 8 a.m. that morning, he was transferred to OU Children’s Hospital.

He’s been there ever since.

A week ago Thursday, he had surgery to remove fluid around his lungs. Doctors knew he had at least a liter pressing on his lungs, hampering his breathing and causing his back pain, but they ended up draining more than two liters.

That’s the equivalent of a half gallon of milk.

But even as Jackson lay in the hospital with a tube to help him breathe, football was never far from his mind. At one point when doctors brought him out of sedation, he scribbled a note with three questions.

How long have I been here?

Surgery?

Practice?

His query about practice was scrawled in the biggest letters.

His passion for football is part of the reason why Lance and Jana instituted a no-football-talk rule while Jackson was intubated. It made him emotional, and that led to coughing and problems with his breathing tube.

So, they didn’t tell him he missed Senior Night and his last home game. Didn’t tell him he missed the practices leading up to Friday’s playoff game at Cache either.

But Thursday morning, after coming off one of his powerful meds, Jackson started putting things together.

His folks will eventually show him the video of the Senior Night ceremony when his younger brothers got to wear his jersey and walk on the field with the rest of the offensive line in formation around them. There’ll be time, too, to watch game film from that night.

If Jackson is feeling up to it, they might let him watch a bit of the playoff game Friday night.

But Lance and Jana aren’t going to do anything that would risk his progress. They know he still has several more days in the hospital and several more hurdles to overcome before he can even go home.

They just want their boy back to normal.

And if he is – and if Tecumseh wins at Cache – Jackson might just get to ride the bus with his teammates to a second-round playoff game.

“It would probably be the second best thing that can happen,” Lance said.

Is it the best-case scenario?

Of course not.

Jackson wishes he was still playing, and his parents do as well. But after the past couple weeks, they know sometimes dreams have to change. They know the ultimate dream, after all, is Jackson being healthy and home.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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