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More Than a Game : Football: Ryan Phelps started at quarterback for Irvine Friday. His father, Lyle, probably won't live to see his son play next season.


IRVINE — Lyle Phelps made a phone call a week ago to deliver a simple message to Irvine football Coach Terry Henigan. They talked about Phelps' son, Ryan, a junior quarterback for the Vaqueros.

The two go back many years. Phelps has been watching Irvine football for 20 years--his son, Mike, broke all the school passing records last year and earned a scholarship to Oregon--and Henigan has been coach the last 13.

"The cancer doesn't look good," Phelps told the coach. "The reason I'm calling you is I want you to keep an arm around my boy."

Lyle Phelps' colon cancer is terminal. He knows there aren't many Friday nights left for him. Henigan knows it too, so he called the family back Wednesday and asked if Lyle could make one more game. He was told no, that he was too weak.

"Talk it over," Henigan said. "I'm going to start Ryan. If you can get Lyle down here to watch him play, he can hear his son's name announced as the starter."

And that's what he did. The first drive, damn the consequences, belonged to Ryan Phelps.

"It meant the world to me," Ryan said. "I knew he wouldn't be able to see me play next year. I was kind of hurt by that. But when Coach pulled me over and told me I was going to play the first series, I was so grateful. It was one of he biggest favors anyone has done for me in my whole life."

It was no small favor. Irvine had lost three straight games and was playing unbeaten Newport Harbor in its first Sea View League game of the season.

"Ryan is our quarterback next season, I imagine," Henigan said. "(Lyle Phelps) may never get a chance to hear his son's name announced as a starter or see him quarterback a game, and I wanted him to be able to see his son play. I called the family to see if they could get him there."

That was no small task, either. Lyle Phelps, exhausted from signing some final paperwork earlier in the day, kept telling his wife, Carol, "I don't think I can make it."

"But we kept pushing him," Carol said, "because we knew it would be such a wonderful night for him."

Lyle watched the game from inside a van parked on the track in the end zone. The Phelpses have lived in the same Irvine house for 23 years. Ryan is the last of four children who have gone to Irvine High School. There were many well-wishers poking their heads inside the van before kickoff--parents, friends, former players.

As the drummers walked past the van, leading the football players onto the field, Lyle Phelps told his wife, "Boy, it's good to be home."

Irvine won the coin flip. Even though the Vaqueros always choose to kick off, they instead chose to receive, and Ryan Phelps debuted as a varsity starter on his 34-yard line. He handed the ball to Russ Diehl five times and moved to the Newport 43. Sean Clark rushed for six yards, and Diehl for seven. On first down from the 30, Phelps dropped back and lofted a sweet pass to the right sideline that landed in the hands of Danny Noisy for a 16-yard gain.

"Sometimes I got the feeling out there that the kids knew I was sick," Lyle Phelps said. "I can't help but believe they stepped it a notch."

Three handoffs later, the drive stalled at the 12 after a five-yard penalty. Jamie Bertolli missed a 29-yard field goal. It would be the difference in the game, a 9-7 victory for Newport Harbor, stopping Irvine's 17-game league winning streak.

As soon as Bertolli's kick missed to the right, the van drove away with Lyle Phelps inside.

"Irvine coaches don't do favors for anybody," Lyle said. "Irvine football is Irvine football. It was a total shock to me. When they announced his name and he led the squad on, it was one of biggest thrills a dad could have, and (Ryan) proved he could do it. . . .

"I'm a very honored parent and proud Irvine football fan. It was the biggest honor a father could ever have bestowed upon him. . . . The whole Irvine football family showed a lot of class that night."

When Ryan Phelps got home at 10:30 that night, he went directly to his father's bed, gave him a big hug and asked, "What'd you think, Dad?"

And Lyle Phelps said, "I'm so proud of you, Son."

And then both cried.

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