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MASTERSON ONLINE: An all-American 'Invictus'

by Mike Masterson | February 29, 2020 at 2:39 a.m.

Most adults will experience the highest and lowest of times as decades fly by. It's all part of this challenging process we agree to call existence.

In the process, there are those who continually rise like a phoenix above the fray to achieve notable success, while others fade from the wear and tear of the struggles.

Harrison native Bill Phillips at 71 years old certainly has had more than his fair share of dropping into the of deepest gulleys only to remarkably soar to the mountaintops time and time again.

The personable All-American offensive guard for the 1970 National Champion Arkansas State University football team, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round. Later he would become vice president of governmental relations (top lobbyist) for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. His life gives all of us an inspiring example of an overcomer who never surrendered to the low points.

Using the same grit, determination and intense focus that made him a champion and Arkansas Sports Hall-of-Famer, Bill has repeatedly risen to overcome multiple broken bones, Type I diabetes, cancer and other setbacks. Today Bill is tackling his most frustrating opponent, a stroke that paralyzed part of his tongue last August.

Yet the struggles life has handed him haven't come close to making it tough enough for congenial "Big Bill," as he continues to rehabilitate and improve daily.

He's been steadfastly supported through many vicissitudes by Peggy, his amiable and devoted wife of 50 years, and today a prayer chain that stretches well across America and the world. Bill, you see, has made so many caring friends during his years on Earth.

"All prayers are welcome. It's amazing how many are praying for him following his stroke. You'd have to look far and wide to find someone who doesn't like Bill. He has an easygoing, very likable way of breaking down barriers with people," said Peggy, fashioning a smile through her voice. "Not everyone can be that way. He just gathers people who stick with him."

I asked Bill's sister, Kaye Harris of Harrison, for her perspective. She, too, had nothing but positives. It struck me the deepest as she explained how Bill, even in his youth, "never liked bullies and always took up for the underdogs. He's also worked hard over the years to help deserving high school seniors college acquire scholarships. Bill is just always upbeat and always with a story to tell. I'd also say he's so much more than a comeback kid."

Bill always has been one to whom others naturally gravitated. His 6-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound frame and gregarious nature toward virtually everyone make him easy to like and admire.

It's a quality that proved ideal for his chief lobbyist's role at Blue Cross and, years after that job, as a partner with son Bradley in their private lobbying firm.

In talking with the upbeat Peggy, it quickly became obvious their relationship that began when both were juniors at ASU (the year he made All-American and the Southland Conference's All-Decade Team) became an enduring match that was planted and blossomed in the highest spiritual realm.

Bill's story of accomplishment began in junior high school at his hometown of Harrison when he was injured in a football game only to emerge stronger than ever, until breaking another bone during a game in his senior year.

That injury likely kept then-Razorback Head Coach Frank Broyles from offering Bill a scholarship. But it didn't deter Arkansas State University coach Bull Davidson, who would become an influential and respected mentor to him.

Bill's career was shining like a newly cast penny when he broke his ankle from a helmet spear during the 1971 season's first game with Wichita State. Despite that setback, he was selected by the Denver Broncos in the NFL draft's third round.

During his second year with the Broncos, Bill was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, which led him to leave the rough-and-tumble sport he dearly loved and that loved him. It was the same disease that years later would claim the relatively young life of his older brother Jim, a former classmate of mine. Bill would not allow that to happen to him.

The couple returned to Harrison where Bill held a series of jobs until landing in his sweet spot as a sales representative with Blue Cross, which in turn would lead to the chief lobbyist position. They moved to their permanent home on Beaverfork Lake at Conway where they have lived since.

Then, five years ago, doctors diagnosed him with stage four internal melanoma, a life-threatening cancer that once again challenged Bill's formidable will and inner strength. After many treatments at M.D. Anderson, even the doctors were amazed to discover how significantly "darn near miraculously" the cancer had retreated.

He was receiving the ongoing cancer treatments when his stroke laid him low last summer, paralyzing the right side of his tongue and body to some degree and making it impossible to swallow.

During his recovery from that setback, he also has fought off two serious bouts of pneumonia directly linked with the stroke. Today, Bill can communicate minimally, and is undergoing regular rehabilitation with the ever-supportive Peggy standing alongside him at every step. Makes me want to shout, "OK, God, just when is enough, enough for this man?"

"He is improving," she said. "It was actually a Godsend the stroke wasn't worse than it was. He will recover from this, as Bill always has come back time and time again from adversity. It's just who he is. I assure you, all the prayers are helping a lot." Then she paused and laughed again, saying, "Besides all that, he really, really wants to be able to eat a hamburger. And we still have to make that trip we planned to Egypt and take our 5-year-old grandson Little Bill (grandpa's namesake) to Disney World."

Although we're both from Harrison, I remember meeting Bill only once during a charity function for Arkansas Children's Hospital here a few years back. Just as Peggy has described her husband, that evening he was fun, rattling off jokes and visiting with groups who gathered around him.

Bill and Peggy are the kind of couple--and have had the close relationship and shared adventures in life--that so many wish they could emulate. From an 8-by-33-foot mobile home as married students at ASU in 1970, they have built a union based in mutual support, respect, admiration and love, with Christianity firmly at its center. "It's a great love story," said Peggy.

And from such a humble start at that university, Bill has gone on to be named an ASU Distinguished Alumni, a member of ASU's Ring of Honor as well as its Hall of Honor, just to name a few richly deserved recognitions.

I honestly could fill this entire column with nothing but a resume of his accolades and achievements, both in athletics and the real world.

Yet Bill's most significant honor I believe lies in the remarkable example he sets for each of us as we forge ahead through life's challenges. He truly is a man who simply refuses to surrender to multiple challenges he remains committed to overcoming with Peggy always beside him.

For me, his indomitable spirit is a prime example of what the poet William Ernest Henley recognized in his popular 1875 poem, "Invictus," which translates from that Latin term to mean unconquerable or undefeated.

So, valued readers, my money's on Bill, the unconquerable All-American, soon to be wolfing down a juicy double burger, experiencing King Tut's tomb with Peggy, and taking Little Bill to Disney World.

Confounded typo

In a recent column, I reported on some compelling findings in David Fitton's new book Resurrecting Respect, available on Amazon. Unfortunately one item contained a numerical typo that left even me, who wrote it, confused. Here is how that excerpt correctly reads: "Currently there are just under 3 million civil service employees who represent almost 20 percent of all union workers. Nineteen percent of federal employees earned salaries of $100,000 or more in 2009. The average federal worker's pay was $71,208 compared with $40,331 for comparable positions in the private sector, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In 2010 there were 82,034 workers, or 3.9 percent of the federal workforce making more than $150,000 annually compared with 7,240 in 2005!"

Interesting, eh?

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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