In Sept. 26 IssueRussell County NewsBy Wade Daffron, Columnist
A coworker and I were grabbing a quick lunch after working in Wayne County last Friday.
We were talking about sports, and who could be considered “a local legend” when she asked me a question that I will now never forget.
“So,” she said, “You seen or heard from John Carl lately?”I replied that I hadn't, and mentioned I usually saw him at the gym-but hadn't had a chance to go much lately.
“He's a pretty good guy,” she said of him.
Later that day, after returning home, I saw a message pop up on the computer.
“Don't know if it's true...John Carl Phelps may have passed away today in Wayne County.”
I stared at the message for what seemed like forever.
When I finally tried to reply, the person who sent the message was already off-line.
I was stunned.
It wasn't possible.
Especially since I had just been talking about him just a couple of hours earlier.
I mean, he was 41-years-old. Younger than me!
The phone rang.
No, no, no.
Just not possible.
I soon saw another message-this time from a family member asking for prayers.
I slumped in my chair, shaking my head.
You don't think about people like John Carl Phelps dying.
He was truly “larger than life.”
They say some people “light up a room” when they enter it.
John Carl lit up entire areas...cities...counties...states.
It was almost like an event when he walked in somewhere.
He'd nod, “fist-bump,” “high five,” wave, holler, wink-he greeted everybody because everybody was his friend.
Everybody seems to have a “John Carl story.”
I'll share a couple...
When I was in grade school, I remember his family had a clothing store on Main Street in Russell Springs (and of course, wouldn't you know it-I can't think of the name of it right now-maybe someone's name, or a combination of names...I'll think of it later).
One day, he came to school with the neatest, coolest, most awesome pair of tennis shoes I'd ever seen in my life.
They were beautiful.
And I just had to have a pair.
My mother talked to John Carl's mother (who was also one of my favorite teachers) about getting me a pair of those shoes.
Problem was, they were so new and so popular, they were hard to get.
A couple of weeks later, they had located a pair of shoes...but they were two sizes bigger than what I wore.
After throwing a fit which I believe involved me laying in the floor and screaming, I left with the new shoes.
When I wore them to school the next day, it was obvious they were too big for me.
WAY too big.
They looked, quite honestly, like clown shoes.
Everyone noticed and made fun of me.
At one point, there was a group of kids gathered around me-pointing at my shoes, laughing, and calling me names like “Bigfoot.”
They suddenly parted as John Carl walked up.
“Stop picking on him!” he shouted.
I was surprised because I really didn't know John Carl all that well.
“Hey,” he said. “I like your shoes.”
I nodded as I wiped away my tears.
“I'll swap shoes with you if mine will fit you better,” he said.
His feet were way bigger than mine, but I thanked him, anyway.
A couple of summers ago, I was asking him about the best kind of cleats for a young athlete.
“By the way,” I said, “do you remember back in grade school, when you had a pair of shoes, and I got a pair of shoes just like them, and...”
“The blue Converses with the white star!” he excitedly interrupted. “Yeah, man, I loved those things, didn't you?”
I remember one time I was sitting in a parking lot with my car hood up.
I had left my lights on, or done some other kind of stupid thing, and my battery had run down.
I had just made arrangements for someone to come give my car a jump when I saw John Carl's vehicle circle around me.
“Hey,” he said, “I saw you sitting here and it looked like you were having car trouble. Anything I can do to help you?”
No, just needed a jump, I told him.
He rummaged through his vehicle for a few minutes seemed genuinely upset when he couldn't find any jumper cables.
“You need me to take you somewhere...or need me to go get you some help” he asked.
No, I was fine, help was on the way.
“OK,” he said, apologizing profusely for not being able to offer any further assistance, and reluctantly drove away
Someone showed up with some jumper cables and got my car going again.
Just as I was shutting my hood, I saw John Carl pull up again.
“Did you get it going?” he asked.
I told him I thought I'd be able to make it home now.
“I got down the road and thought I'd better come back and check on you,” he said. “You go on and pull out on the road, and I'll follow you home to be sure you get there.”
I protested that it was several miles out of his way, and he held his hands up to signal there would be no more discussion on the matter.
All the way home, I watched him following closely in my rear-view mirror.
As I pulled in my driveway, I saw his big, beefy arm, extend out the window and wave good-bye.
A lot people think of “J.C.” the pro softball player, and his immense power.
They think of how he drilled a softball faster, longer, and harder than anyone else.
Holy cow, he even had his own model bat!
Whenever you'd hear that “booowooop” noise he made-you knew it was showtime.
He brought prominence to Russell County, and was proud to hail from here.
I think of John Carl-the devoted family man.
I would often see him in the yard playing ball with his children, and I'd think to myself, “I should be doing that.”
He especially enjoyed working with youth, and instilling in them the importance of hard work and perseverance.
He walked the walk, and talked the talk.
It's sad, I tell you, really sad.
But legends don't die.
They live on.
John Carl will.
Oh, you bet.
Whenever someone smacks that ball, or crosses that plate, or achieves any kind of goal, John Carl will be there clapping his hands, offering words of praise and encouragement.
And a word to the wise-If you happen to be around Heaven, look out for softballs flying over the gates.