By Glen Andresen
The ice rinks throughout The State of Hockey produce some of the most interesting, compelling, and inspirational stories found in Minnesota. Case in point is the story of Sam McPhillips, a Pee Wee in the Andover association.
The ice rinks throughout The State of Hockey produce some of the most interesting, compelling, and inspirational stories found in Minnesota. Case in point is the story of Sam McPhillips, a Pee Wee in the Andover association. Sam has had a prosthetic leg for more than 11 of his 12 years of life. Putting on his leg every morning is as habitual to him as hitting the snooze button a couple times in the morning like a typical seventh grader would.
“It’s just like an everyday thing,” claims Sam matter-of-factly. “When I go to bed, I take it off. When I wake up, I put it on. I have it on all day.”
Sam enjoys sports, spending time with his friends and playing video games, just like a typical seventh grader does.
Passing a puck, swinging a bat and catching a lacrosse ball come as naturally to Sam as they do to any typical seventh grade athlete. Despite his prosthetic leg, there is really not a challenge he hasn’t been able to take on in his short life, except for maybe one.
In 12 years, Sam still hasn’t quite mastered the pronunciation of the affliction he was born with.
“Febilino?” he wonders aloud while looking to his father, Tony McPhillips, for help.
Actually, as Tony points out with a smile at his son’s latest attempt, Sam was born with Type 3 Fibular Hemimelia, which means he was born without a fibula bone (or calf bone) in his left leg. When he was nine months old, Sam underwent a Syme amputation and was fitted with a prosthetic leg at 10 months.
Sam hasn’t known anything other than having one composite leg, which attaches just below his left knee. He hasn’t let it affect him in any aspect of his life, especially sports.
Just last month, Sam made the Andover Peewee "A" team, which to many might seem like a remarkable feat. To Sam, it is just another step toward what he hopes is a future career in the National Hockey League.
Sure, it’s a lofty goal, but Sam has also accomplished a lot in his brief hockey career, perhaps the most important of which is having earned the respect of his teammates, who frequently forget that Sam is built a bit differently from them.
“He’s just one of the kids, that’s the best way to say it,” said Mark Manney, one of the co-head coaches of the Andover Peewee "A" team. “The subject of his leg never comes up with the other kids. I think sometimes Sam may be a little self-conscious of it, but I’ve never heard another kid even mention it.”
“It’s his effort that allows him to be one of the kids,” he continued. “If he took a night off, or started feeling sorry for himself, maybe the kids would treat him differently. But he doesn’t.”
In fact, Sam doesn’t take a night, a day, or a shift off. During preseason peewee skating sessions, Sam asked the coaches if he could participate in the early and late sessions. The coaches obliged, and were blown away by his effort in both.
Sam is that player that opposing players can’t stand to contend with. He’s not the biggest kid on the ice. In fact, he’s one of the smallest. He and his dad also can’t point to blazing speed or extreme muscle as the reason, either.
“He made the “A” team because of his heart, and his effort,” said his dad. “Every shift, he tries real hard. He has a big heart.”
When trying to gather a puck out of the corner, Sam is going to be the one pestering the opposing defenseman from behind with his stick, constantly jabbing at the puck. He’s the little water bug that hops to whatever spot the puck is going to be, not giving the opposition time to think about what to do with it. He’s the kid that will poke away at a rebound until one of three things happens: a goal is scored, a whistle blows the play dead, or he’s is pulled off the pile by every opponent and referee on the ice.
“He goes hard from whistle to whistle…and sometimes after,” joked Manney.
“He’s very, very competitive,” adds Tony, who was asked to be an assistant coach after Sam made the team. “He likes to win.”
Neither coach, nor dad will get an argument from Sam on that assertion. “I love competing, and being out there with my friends,” says Sam. “I hustle a lot.”
A spectator would have to be told that Sam has a prosthetic leg to know his affliction when watching him compete. The leg is hidden by shin pads and socks, and there is certainly no evidence in his skating ability.
“I found out about Sam’s leg after about five or six practices when one of the other coaches mentioned it to me,” said Manney. “I was amazed, because I think part of the reason he gets treated like all of the other kids is because he outworks all the other kids. He shows up and goes hard from beginning to end.”
“I don’t think there is any doubt that he is the hardest worker. I don’t think any of the other kids would argue with that.”
Almost as impressive as Sam’s work ethic and accomplishments, is the way his teammates have responded to his situation. Sam is open about his leg, and in turn, his friends and teammates rarely, if ever, bring it up.
“They just ask me how it happened, and then they just accept it,” said Sam of both his teammates, and classmates. “I just tell them it’s a disease with a really hard name to pronounce.”
Tony admits that there was a bit of concern that kids may not be as accepting of his son because he is a bit different from them below one of his knees.
“I don’t know if it’s because we treat him like anybody else, or if kids these days are different from when I was little,” said Tony. “His friends all accept it, and they treat him like anyone else. It’s nothing that they’re afraid of.”
While Sam would probably prefer to have two legs like anyone else, his affliction hasn’t stopped him from having fun every day on the playing field. Because he is so active, Sam gets fitted for a new leg every three or four months at Shriner's hospital. Each time he gets one with a cool design, showcasing favorite teams like the Twins, the Wild, and currently, the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota.
Sam can have fun with it off the playing field as well.
During elementary school, Sam’s parents worked through his teachers to make the first day of school a show-and-tell day for Sam. That way, he was able to get the subject out there for discussion right after the bell to open the school year. Each time, he would take off his leg, pass it around the room and tell them why he has one prosthetic leg. Of course, one year he got a little carried away and said that he was bitten by a shark.
“I’m sure he’d rather have two legs, but that’s the way it was meant to be for him, and our family,” said Tony. “We’ve been waiting for the ‘why me?’ conversation, but we haven’t had it. He hasn’t had that kind of attitude, ever.”
Sam has never had a hesitation about anything. He plays sports with reckless abandon, and he doesn’t hide his prosthetic. Every summer, he’ll be wearing shorts on a daily basis. He’s got nothing to hide, and his situation has inspired those around him, including his proud father.
“I’m not the best communicator,” admits Tony. “I used to have to get up in front of 100 people for my job, and I would think about Sam before I went up there. If he can live life and not be shy, what do I have to fear in getting up and saying what I know in front of these people?”
“So I’ve learned some things from him.”
Sam is likely not aware of his inspiration to his dad, and now others. After all, he’s only 12, and he’s had his detachable leg nearly his entire life. It hasn’t made him different from any other kid.
He’s just your typical seventh grader, with one fake leg, and one enormous heart.