A Tribute to Tom Phelan

Jun 3, 2012 by

On August 15, 2007 at the age of 46, Tom Phelan died suddenly in his home in Belleville, Ontario from a pulmonary embolism.  He died far too young.  He was an old friend and its finally time I tell you a little bit about his impact on the Kingston Soccer community and what he meant to me personally.

Tom Phelan was a unique member of a small community that I am grateful to have been a part of.  He was one of the founders of the Kingston Youth Soccer Association (KYSA), and a key figure for the Kingston Kicks soccer club, playing many roles from president to coach, from 1985-1991.  The Kicks were a branch of the KYSA, a competitive soccer club composed of Kingston’s finest youth that competed in a league in Eastern-Ontario along with small cities such as Belleville, Peterborough and Port Hope to name a few.  It was an organization that was largely overshadowed by its winter counterpart as the omnipresence and infrastructure of the Greater Kingston Hockey Association, made it very difficult to retain elite young talent and the leadership necessary to build a similarly respected program.

Not unlike most Canadian towns and cities, Kingston is a hockey-centric place with the resources, talent and commitment by adults and youth alike which dwarf that of any other competitive athletic program and probably always will.  With limited financial support and a small community of passionate volunteers and talented committed boys Tom helped build and lead a competitive program that for a short time had the appearance of something that would be lasting and impactful for generations to come.  However, it was unable to maintain a presence in the community and by the early 1990’s; the competitive branch had fallen apart for reasons typical of any failed sports organization, such as lack of funding, lack of commitment etc.  Offshoots of the Kicks have developed since with various degrees of success, but it all began with the foundation laid by men like Tom. In the 1990’s he would continue to be a mainstay in the local soccer community, and he would go on to serve on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA), from 1995-1996, and play various leadership roles in both youth and senior men’s soccer up until his death in 2007.

Tom’s accomplishments in the KYSA were many, but his qualities as a man were equally significant, if not greater.  Tom didn’t give the appearance of your typical athletic leader; he more resembled a casual beer indulging sports fan.  He wasn’t particularly athletic, he carried extra weight and with his long shaggy hair and his trademark worn blue jeans he appeared somewhat aloof and casual.  His demeanour and character were particularly striking in a setting that is typically governed by fit, authoritative, middle-aged men, regurgitating the militaristic values and discipline that is often intertwined with competitive youth sport.  Despite his unorthodox traits, his passion for soccer could not be underestimated.  He was a scholar of the game and understood its minutiae and nuances well, but most importantly he was a devoted supporter of youth soccer in Kingston. Even if he wasn’t coaching, he regularly drove to games in other cities hundreds of kilometres away, both as a chaperone and also to show his support to the various age groups in his program.  He volunteered a great deal of his time with no chance to benefit financially from the program.

Tom never married or had children, but hopefully the kids in the KYSA filled a void in his personal life; and for some of us he filled an absence in ours.  For boys like me, he was like an older brother or uncle. He knew when to offer advice and when to be stern.  After a game you sought his counsel because you knew you would get a fair appraisal, he wouldn’t deride or castigate every mistake, but he wouldn’t sugar coat things either.  He was fair and candid and most notably he was refreshingly calm.  He responded the way you would want a leader to respond in tense and competitive moments.  He was not a raging, misguided lunatic revealing every emotion, a type which is so often celebrated by bellicose sports fans and so sadly typical of competitive youth coaches.  He was a composed, cool leader, a coach and a friend and he meant a great deal to me personally. Allow me to tell you why.

Tom was a key conduit for allowing me to participate at a higher level of sport. I grew up in a single family home with my mother and younger sister.  Financially we struggled, money was extremely tight, we could barely afford the basic necessities and we certainly didn’t have a car.  This was a problem because I travelled weekly, frequently several times a week.  I would scrape by getting money from my father when I could and when I got into early-middle adolescence by refereeing soccer and buying and selling hockey cards at the local flea market.  Playing competitive sports was a burden on my family, but for me it was everything and I was good enough to compete at a higher level and I fought for the right just to play.  However, I still had to find a way to get to the games and almost always needed a ride.  Car pooling was common and many a parent gladly offered, but I always felt an irrational guilt, and shame for not having the familial support so common among my teammates.  Often it took away my confidence and changed me from an outgoing fun kid to a shy restrained shadow of my natural self.  I felt differently with Tom though and I always tried to get in his car if he was making the trip.  He was cool and fun and he allowed us to be boys, even if it meant embarrassing him along the way.  Countless times we would pull pranks like dropping our pants down and pressing our cheeks against the back car-window mooning passersby, especially in instances when we passed a car with a cute young girl or maybe a serious-looking couple that looked like they needed a smile.  Tom wasn’t a rigid authority figure that I associated with parenthood and he seemed to relate to kids more naturally than most adults.  More importantly I didn’t feel judged and embarrassed for needing a ride and I always felt apprehensive about asking another parent to take me somewhere I felt my own parents should have.  I felt at ease in his car and the guilt and shame I felt with others would dissipate with him.  Eventually it even allowed me to feel more comfortable with accepting help from other adults, but interestingly, to this day, I still feel awkward sitting in the backseat of another car. Getting comfortable with him was really important for me, because it allowed me to excel, be myself and just play – which is all I really wanted to do.

Soccer was my true passion as a child and it was an escape from the realities of a difficult home life.  Without it I know my life would be very different today.  Even as a child I was proud to represent the city of Kingston with the Kicks.  Many of our opposing squads had sponsorship and wore brands like Umbro and Diadora and had enviable matching accessories like warm up jackets and bags, but I was still proud to wear our unsponsored, no name, red and white jerseys bearing the white stitched KYSA logo.  Many weekends we travelled to tournaments and stayed overnight – these were the events I looked forward to the most.  The youth soccer equivalent to the Little League World Series was the Robbie (to this day still held in Toronto) the tournament we all held in awe, but sadly never participated in. We had mixed success, but didn’t have the resources and widespread commitment needed to become an elite program. Nonetheless, through the Kicks I was given the opportunity to see much of south-eastern Ontario and upstate New York.  Many of these cities are small working class towns, with populations no greater than 50,000, and yet for me these cities held a mystique.  Growing up travelling the circuit of these small towns was like travelling through the big leagues, or so it seemed to a naïve uncultured young boy.

There was an otherness, in that it wasn’t hockey related, about our league which made it so compelling and my commitment and love for the game never wavered.  In my early adolescence in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there wasn’t a North American professional soccer league to look up to (some might argue there still isn’t – I being one of them).  With the exception of the World Cup every four years, professional soccer, or football, as is more commonly referred to abroad, was regarded by many of us as some kind of inaccessible fantasy sport, played overseas and other cinematic lands, which we yearned to have access to and yet seemed so far away from.  Remember there was no internet back then and sport channels were not nearly as developed as they are today; so cities like Peterborough, Port Hope and Brighton became our Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool.  In many ways the distance between reality and our league made our experiences even more magical. As a thirty-something living in Toronto, today it’s difficult to imagine Belleville as being magical, but for a 14 year old it was meaningful regardless of where we played. Performing in the smouldering heat, on a Wednesday night in mid August, under the lights in front of forty or so people was exhilarating and fulfilling.  These sentiments and memories might appear absurd to most, but as a competitor there is nothing more gratifying than the act of competing, whether it’s front of ten people outside a barn in Trenton or in front of 20,000 people in downtown Toronto.  I concede the latter would still be preferable.

Tom wasn’t the only one who played a part in my development as a boy transitioning into adulthood. So much of the Kicks’ success was dependent on the volunteers, coaches, parents and administrators that created and fostered this opportunity for us to travel and experience our tiny, little-known premiership.  That is why I’m writing today.  There were numerous unacknowledged volunteers like Ed Grenda and Wally Wescott (who also recently died in 2011) to name but a few, that contributed to my escapism and love for sport and I thank all of them.  But no one person left as much an impression on me as Tom and knowing how he died and not being able to say goodbye has bothered me since his death, more so than those of some of my own family members who have died. He was a channel to another world.  He wasn’t the only one but to me he was the symbol for all of those who took part.  And I needed him. Growing up in a humble and fractured home it was especially significant to me to witness a person act so selflessly.  Most of the time my mother was busy doing her best to raise our family and didn’t always know where I was going or whom I was staying with and she certainly didn’t have any money to help me with my travels, with gas and food costs and hotels.  She trusted I was in good hands, but I’m not sure she ever had a choice, because even as a 13 year old I was extremely independent and rebellious and would have chosen the game over anything.  I would have slept in the park, and stolen from convenience stores, just for the right to play. As long as I could hit the road in the morning and go somewhere new and compete – that whole process of preparation and competition was what I lived for.  It offered me an escape from my reality and it allowed me to experience the only thing that at the time I felt offered me the reciprocal love that I could believe in – and that was the game of soccer and the people around it.  I gave all I had in return until other forces put an end to the Kicks in later adolescence.  To this day I don’t think I’ve given as much to anything as my commitment to the Kingston Kicks and so much of that had to do with the selfless work and genuine support from men like Tom Phelan.

There are so many positive things to say about Tom, but I’ll always remember our trips to McDonald’s, especially when we were on the road, usually at one of the highway stops on the 401. He would buy us Big Mac combos knowing how little we had and how much joy we got from such a small treat and told us the KYSA was paying for our meals, like he was pulling a fast one on the organization on our behalf.  Like it was one big laugh; and for those of us who benefited it was our little secret. Every kid loves McDonald’s, but strangely it always seemed to taste better when the KYSA was paying. For the longest time we were foolish enough to believe the KYSA paid, but as we got older we realized Tom was the one paying and not the organization. It might not seem like a lot, but to those of us who didn’t have much, a simple sweet gesture like occasionally buying us McDonald’s while giving the credit to someone else speaks volumes about the man. Not only did he give his time and energy to help build a platform on which we could compete, he brought joy to our lives in such simple but lasting ways.

When people believe in you and try to foster your growth, you will always remember them.  Tom was one of the few outstanding men I have met in my life.  On the surface he was an average man, a university drop out employed in working class jobs.  Tom had no false pretensions about himself. He was not rich, or highly educated, but he had purpose and a gift to share. As a man now I can appreciate his contributions even more knowing how hard it is to juggle ones’ priorities, let alone finding time to volunteer.  As I get older I see the value in mentoring people and the purity in selfless acts.  I also see the beauty in finding time to help people in my life and how ugly it is to spend every waking hour obsessing over earning more money and climbing socially and economically – pursuits which are so disgustingly common among my peers.   I know I have made a difference in other people’s lives and look forward to continuing to build those relationships and forging new ones along the way; and I have someone like Tom to thank for setting that example for me.

You might not recognize his name, but chances are if you’re reading this piece there’s a good chance you know someone just like Tom Phelan. Many of us who grew up playing competitive sport without the financial wherewithal or familial support have a Tom in our lives.  He was a selfless, dedicated, passionate, supportive friend and candid observer.  He did not have an agenda or demand recognition for his time served, nor did he seek financial compensation or have unreasonable demands. He was a guide to young boys and helped build and foster an environment which allowed for the development of passionate young athletes and helped them to transition into manhood with a more enhanced sense of dedication and commitment.  Tom was a devoted volunteer and integral part of youth soccer in Kingston from the mid 1980’s into the 1990’s and was a key figure in the senior men’s soccer program up until his death.  In his vocation he earned a working-class living as a delivery-man, but his commitment to the KYSA revealed that his job represented but a fraction of his capabilities as a leader and a builder. He loved kids and he loved the game of soccer and he was a good man who died far too young and although I never had a chance to tell him personally, he played an unforgettable role in my life.  I miss you and thank you for everything Tom, you have not been forgotten.  I’ll make sure to continue buying Big Mac combos on behalf of the KYSA.  I hope some of the readers here learn to do the same.

by NIck Kazos



In many ways Tom’s passing inspired me to build this site and I would like to commemorate his influence. So I would like to ask you to share with me your own personal stories of sports volunteers who have made a dramatic impact on your life.  Please submit your stories to nickkazos@thesportingspectator.com and I will read them and if they meet a certain standard of care I will post them on this site as a way of remembering people like Tom.


  1. Jennifer Phelan

    Hi Nick,

    I am Tommy’s sister and want you to know how much I loved your tribute. Tommy was an amazing brother and I miss him everyday. I have two small children who were born after Tommy passed and I am going to save this tribute for them to read when they are older.

    Kindest Regards,


    • Nick Kazos

      Hi Jenn,

      Im very glad to hear that your family is aware of the piece and that you enjoyed it. As you can see this site is in its earliest stages of development and only a few are aware that it exists, but its fitting that a member of Tom’s family is the first to make a comment. I plan on always having a place for Tom’s tribute on the thesportingspectator.com.


      • Jenn Phelan

        Do you mind if I share this tribute on my Facebook page so that our family and friends can read it as well?

        • Nick Kazos

          Jenn please do. Believe it or not, I do not use facebook, nor have any intentions of doing so; however, I understand how common it is today and encourage you to share Toms tribute, or any future content, with your family and friends however you choose.

  2. Luanne Chore

    Hi Nick
    I am Tom’s older sister and this is the most beautiful tribute to my great brother. He is so missed everyday, I have 5 children who were so blessed to know him and yes he had a great impact on their lives. His nieces and twin nephews played soccer for many years and he was able to watch them when we lived in Ottawa. I am so proud of him for being a great mentor in your life not surprised you saw his large heart. My sisters young daughter and son will forever have a memory. Thankyou

    • Nick Kazos

      Hi Luanne,

      Before writing this tribute I did not know Tom had such a large family. Funny enough, up until recently I didn’t even know he had any siblings. Hence, I didnt realize there was such a large familial audience that I was unknowingly addressing; however, it’s really quite comforting to hear the kind words I have received both privately and publicly. It is lovely to hear from all of you.
      Thank You

  3. Antonio

    Hola amigo, congratulations on your website, I know the passion you have for sports and really shows on your writting, more important writting about someone and the importance that Tom had in your life makes it more special I wish you the best and hope to read more from you


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