LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- You see a lot of stories today about how football is hurting kids -- and those are important stories about the safety of the game. This is not one of those stories.
This is a story about football helping a kid.
Phillip Vandeveer will play in the Class 2-A state championship game for DeSales High School Saturday against Newport Central Catholic in Bowling Green. The senior offensive lineman is a four-year letterwinner at DeSales.
He says that winning a state championship would mean "everything" to him and his teammates. But just playing in the game is a victory of sorts for Vandeveer, after a tragic turn of events in January of 2011.
Phillip Vandeveer never had a very close relationship with his father, Phillip Sr., who struggled with substance issues and was in and out of Phillip's life. The son went to live with his uncle and aunt, Keith and Diana Vandeveer, when he was in third grade. They provided the stable home he needed, and Keith, a longtime substance abuse case manager for the Jefferson Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center of Seven Counties Services, gave Phillip's life a kind of normalcy. He got him involved in football, took him to University of Louisville football games and, when the time came to go to high school, sent him to DeSales, where he had gone.
Over time, Phillip's relationship with his father improved. But just as it was starting to turn in the right direction, his father died suddenly of a heart condition. That was on Jan. 9. Just a little over two weeks later, on Jan. 24, Keith Vandeveer was killed when he was struck by a vehicle after his car broke down on the Watterson Expressway.
Within the span of three weeks, Vandeveer lost the two most influential men in his life.
"It was hard, as anyone would imagine," Vandeveer said. "Football did actually help a lot. Family came together. It was a struggle, but you knew things would get worse before they got better."
DeSales coach Harold Davis said that supporting Phillip through his difficult times has been a team effort.
"He's had, obviously, a difficult time," Davis said. "I think football has helped him stay focused on schoolwork and being a good person. He's got friends -- his best friends are on this football team. But to be very young and have to go through those kinds of things is very difficult. He's got a good base, beginning at DeSales. The teachers and faculty and coaches, we all know, he's a great kid."
To get through that time, Vandeveer said he essentially had to just focus on those few things he knew he could control. And that meant school, and football.
"It's kind of strange for me to even think about it. I knew I had to focus, and keep a regular routine, or else I would mess my whole self up," Vandeveer said. "So that's exactly how I kept my head straight. I stayed focused. I knew how to take care of school. It was weird, that was the best grades I got during that time when all that stuff happened."
When the time came for the team father-son banquet, Phillip had volunteers lining up, from family members to coaches. But he wound up going to the banquet alone, because one of his teammates also had lost a father, and he thought he would show support for him.
With the championship game approaching, he says he does think from time to time about what his father and uncle would think of it.
"I think they'd be proud," Vandeveer said.
Davis said Vandeveer is a success story, no matter what the score of Saturday's game turns out to be.
"You've got to give credit to his aunt, who he lives with," Davis said. "Whoever goes through something like that, whether it's a teenager or an adult, it's a tough thing. But he stayed the course, doing the right things. I think he'll be fine."