When a former professional football player steps forward to volunteer as an unpaid assistant coach for a high school football program, the school usually asks what it can do to help. In the case of Denver North (Colo.) High, the school's football program is being told it can't open its doors to Vince Phason, who not only has a professional football past, but goes out of his way to make it to practice via public transportation in a wheelchair.
"It kills me that we can't have him out here with us," Denver North head coach E. Paul Kelly told the Denver Post. "The guy's done so many great things in football, and to take that away from these kids is ridiculous."
Phason was a starting defensive back in the Canadian Football League in the 1970s and '80s and is a former draft pick of the San Diego Chargers. The defensive back was a CFL All-Star and also played with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL. He was paralyzed in an auto accident in 1998, and the 57-year-old travels everywhere in his wheelchair with a service dog named Kekoe. According to the Denver Post, Phason travels 90 minutes each way via bus from his house to Denver North High four days a week, where he attends Denver North's afternoon practices despite having his application to be an assistant coach rejected by Denver Public Schools.
"He still has a lot to impart to these kids," Denver North assistant coach Dave Sidwell told the Post. "And coaching? It's all he's got. He could have $40 million, but what's that going to do for him? Is it going to make him walk again? He wants to coach. They won't let him do it."
The reasons for Phason's rejection have not been clearly outlined, but they appear to stem from a background check, which revealed less than the assistant coach did himself. While the official background check only brought up two motor vehicle violations -- one for driving an unsafe vehicle and one for driving under restraint -- Phason himself came forward to admit both a possession of marijuana charge from when he was 21 and an armed robbery conviction, which was later taken off his record. Both of those charges stem from his days as a college star at Arizona.
Still, when Phason and the other Denver North coaches have inquired about why Phason was rejected, they have not been given a straight answer.
"The matter is currently under review, and the district can't comment at this time," DPS deputy communications officer Kristy Armstrong told the Post when it inquired about the Phason decision.
If Phason can be blamed for his own rejection due to past actions, one can hardly blame him for not coming forward and explaining why each happened. The unofficial assistant coach wrote a two-page letter explaining each prior conviction and faxed those letters directly to the DPS human resources department. When he got no response from that, he faxed them over again.
Growing more desperate, Phason has taken to calling the human resources department himself, leaving a message asking them to reconsider his case in time to spend at least one more game on the sideline with the team's seniors. To date, no one has responded.
The lack of response seems likely to keep Phason off the sideline for Denver North's final game of the season on Saturday, a sad end to the coach's attempt to give back for what he once received himself.
"I was blessed to survive my automobile accident, and I had a dream at that time that life is about helping people," Phason, a graduate of Manual High who played college ball at Arizona, said in his living room. "I feel like young men, our young people, period, need the most help. Football is my avenue, where I can be the most use to the community -- and especially in Denver, where I was raised."
- Vince Phason