Daniel Phelps had an extraordinary heart.
His friends called him a “social connector.” He effortlessly bridged the gap between groups. Even in Seattle, this man was a sun, constantly pulling new planets into his irresistible orbit. He was “magnetic,” said his mother Mary Phelps. “He was open to everybody. He was like a light in the room.”
Daniel’s light burned brightest at the University of Washington, where he played soccer and earned a finance degree from the Foster School of Business. Where he received All-Pac-10 Academic Team honors three consecutive times. Where he won every fitness test, according to teammates. Where his orbit extended far past the pitch.
“He was involved in so many different networks,” former Husky midfielder Taylor Hoss said. “It’s like he was my social calendar. I’d call up Phelps and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?’ There’d be a menu of options, because he just developed connections and had relationships with all these different types of people.”
That much was clear on Dec. 5, 2015, inside a photo booth at Willows Lodge in Woodinville. Phelps wore a black suit with a white flower pinned to his lapel. He had big, brown eyes, a buzz cut and a thin, brown beard. He was one of seven groomsmen — and four UW soccer players — in Adam and Shanti Lang’s wedding.
And like a light in the room, he was everywhere at once.
“We have so, so many great photo-booth photos,” Lang, a former UW defender, said. “And Phelps is in so many of them, because he knew pretty much everyone at the wedding. You can tell he was connected with so many different groups.”
Such is life for a social connector. But despite the considerable competition, his UW teammates — Lang, Hoss and Stephen Fung, to name a few — also doubled as Daniel’s closest friends. For years they trained together and won together and lost together and lived together. They even golfed together (but more on that later).
On that first Saturday in December they also stood together.
“I remember so clearly that when he hugged me, Phelps was the only groomsman who said, ‘I love you,’ ” Lang said.
Five days later, Daniel Phelps was dead.
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He also had an extraordinary home.
Daniel was born in Tacoma in 1988. The son of a colonel in the U.S. Army, he moved nine times before he turned 20 — picking up new planets in each successive state.
Mary Phelps said, “He was able to make friends very easily, and I think that had a lot to do with moving in the military. Daniel always seemed to find five or six or seven or eight friends, and then he’d meet other friends from them. And everybody was always a little bit different.”
The places changed. The faces changed.
But soccer was the constant.
It was the sport that eventually brought him back home.
“He used to complain about Hawaii being too hot,” said Mary Phelps, laughing about Daniel’s high-school stop. “The Seattle climate just fit his personality. He didn’t mind the rain, because he’d play right through it, and he liked the cooler weather. He wore shorts when it was in the 50s.
“It just fit for him, and I think he felt drawn to Washington because that’s where he was born. Once he got accepted to the University of Washington, that was it. He got accepted to multiple other colleges, but that was it.”
That was it, for all of them. For Phelps. For Fung. For Lang. For Hoss. For midfielder Taylor Cochran, who made a habit of hosting at his family’s cabin on Lake Chelan. Together they went 29-24-2 in Phelps’ four seasons in Seattle.
But they also won in other ways. In irreplaceable ways.
“I’ve been doing team sports for 20 years now, and I think you remember the teams that seem to have a chemistry about them that make them strong together,” said Jon Drezner, UW’s team physician throughout Daniel’s career. “That usually shines on and off the field, and they were definitely like that.”
Added Mary Phelps: “It felt like he had a family. Daniel’s a smart kid, and he found a lot of happiness there. He was so proud of the University of Washington. Everything he had was purple and gold.”
But, like so often in his life, Daniel eventually had to leave. After graduating in 2010, Phelps was unable to secure a job in Seattle. Devastated, he accepted a position in Washington, D.C. It took him until 2015 to finally find his way home. And when he did, everything fell back into place.
Phelps found an apartment in Fremont, near Gas Works Park. He played soccer five or six days a week. On Sundays he watched “Game of Thrones” with Adam and Shanti. On Mondays he called his mother when she got home from work.
“He moved back, and he wasn’t even there a year,” Mary said. “But I can tell you that was the happiest he was.”
On Dec. 5, 2015, he wore a black suit with a white flower pinned above his heart.
On Dec. 13, 2015, he didn’t answer his phone.
It was an overcast Sunday morning in Seattle, and Daniel had plans to meet Lang to watch the Seahawks game. Adam sent a text. No answer. Then another. No answer. Then he called. No answer. Again. Again.
“If it was another friend I probably wouldn’t have thought anything about it,” Lang said. “But because he just loved sports and he lived by himself in his apartment, it would be very rare for him to just completely bail on us to watch a Seahawks game.
“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Am I overreacting here? Why isn’t he answering his phone?’ ”
So Adam drove to his apartment. He couldn’t get in the door. He found Phelps’ car in the garage, which only worried him further. He contacted Hoss and the property manager, and he waited, and he worried.
Together, the three of them found Daniel Phelps.
“He had already passed away by the time we got into the apartment,” Lang said. “He was just in his bed, sleeping. We tried to do CPR, get him on the ground, call 911. It was just too late.”
He died of sudden cardiac arrest, the leading cause of death in young athletes worldwide. While he slept, his heart abruptly stopped beating. He lay in bed for more than two days before they walked through the door. He was 27 years old, impeccably fit, a light that seemingly went out without warning.
“The whole thing — opening his bedroom door — it was just a traumatic experience,” Lang said. “It was the hardest thing in my life.”
Added Hoss: “It’s a nightmare you’re living in reality. It’s something you don’t ever think could happen to you.”
And yet, every year, it continues to happen. Sudden cardiac arrest — which can be caused by structural problems, congenital anomalies or electrical disorders in the heart — affects roughly one in 23,000 male NCAA soccer players, one in 9,000 men’s NCAA basketball players and one in 36,000 NCAA football players, according to the US National Library of Medicine. It’s most common in men and African-Americans.
Drezner said, “Thankfully, it’s not that common. But unfortunately, it’s common enough that we hear about it continuously. We hear about these tragedies. So whether it’s a hundred young athletes a year or a thousand young athletes a year, that’s 100 to 1,000 too many.”
Added Mary Phelps: “Of course they listed Daniel’s cause of death as natural, but it’s not natural to me to have your healthy 27-year-old child die.”
Daniel Phelps had an extraordinary heart — in more ways than one.
Drezner just wishes he would’ve seen it sooner.
“We’ve been on the forefront of using EKGs (electrocardiogram heart tests) for screening for many years,” said Drezner, the director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology. “We implemented that at UW universally in 2010 in our freshman athletes. Daniel was a freshman in 2006.
“You don’t know, looking back, if anything would have showed up if we would have conducted an EKG all the way back then. But I certainly ask myself that question. Knowing that we’ve done it with every athlete since 2010, it does make you think.”
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The day after they found Daniel, Mary Phelps woke at 7:30 a.m. and cried literally the entire day before going back to bed. For two years, the Phelps family decided not to celebrate Christmas. It didn’t feel right without him. What would be the point?
He left behind three younger siblings: Christopher, Kristen and Michael.
Not to mention a solar system of planets and stars and stories.
But on Dec. 18, 2015, they were all on display.
In the days after Daniel’s death, his UW soccer family organized a celebration of life in the Touchdown Terrace suites on the east side of Husky Stadium. Hoss said, “People flew in for Adam and Shanti’s wedding, and then a week later people actually flew back into Seattle to go to this. That’s just the commitment people had to grieve for Daniel’s passing.”
In the suites beyond the east end zone, photos of Phelps were broadcast on the many monitors mounted on the walls. Lang estimates that more than 125 people attended. They laughed and cried together. They stood together. Daniel served as a social connector, even when he wasn’t there.
“When I walked in and saw that crowd … it was just overwhelming,” said Mary Phelps, as the tears returned. “Heineken was always Daniel’s favorite beer, and everywhere was just Heinekens. The (UW) kids all got up and talked and told stories.
“Those stories have kept me going. Along with the memories that we have, those stories have kept me going.”
Lang, Hoss, Fung and all the rest wrote those stories down and gave them to Daniel’s parents. Mary and Jim Phelps have two full books of soccer stories and college stories and wedding stories and friendship stories.
But the best Daniel Phelps story is the one he inspired.
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His light still shines, if you know where to look.
Take hole No. 19 at the Golf Club at Redmond Ridge, for example. Or the mask. Or the Ray-Bans.
But first, let’s back up.
In 2016, Lang had the idea for the DP Open — an annual charity golf tournament to “make sure Daniel’s family knew how many people loved him.” They held the inaugural outing at Redmond Ridge in 2017, with the proceeds going to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. In the years since they’ve partnered with the Nick of Time Foundation — a nonprofit organization named after Nick Varrenti, a 16-year-old football player who died of sudden cardiac arrest on Labor Day in 2004.
At its core, Nick of Time has three primary missions: raising awareness about heart conditions in the young, providing schools with proper emergency action plans and defibrillators, and offering advanced heart screenings to young people who wouldn’t otherwise receive one.
To this point, Nick of Time has screened more than 25,000 high-school students in the Puget Sound area alone. And the DP Open’s attendance grew from 54 golfers in 2018 to 104 last year. They’ve raised nearly $35,000 in three annual events, and Lang added that they have “huge goals for the future.” They’re hoping to donate a portion of future proceeds to financial-aid programs that will help kids participate in local sports clubs as well.
Every year, their orbit continues to expand.
“We’re trying to think like Daniel,” Lang said. “What’s next?”
If the coronavirus pandemic cooperates, the next DP Open will be held Sept. 12 at Redmond Ridge. And, as in previous years, Drezner — the medical director for Nick of Time — will speak about sudden cardiac arrest before the first foursome tees off. And then, after the traditional tournament ends, hole No. 19 — Daniel’s uniform number — will serve as the designated “soccer hole.” Each group will be tasked with kicking a soccer ball into a mini-goal to potentially take a stroke off their team’s total tally.
The whole event, Mary said, “just embodies everything Daniel was about.”
Once a year, Seattle’s favorite sun and social connector brings everyone back home.
“He would have been in our foursome, no question about it, when you think about the friends you’ve had in your life,” said Hoss, who lives in Kenmore, five minutes from Lang. “And so much has happened in the last five years. People have gotten married. He wasn’t able to attend my wedding. There have been babies born. There have been new friendships. It always hurts when you think, ‘OK, Daniel’s not here to witness that or experience that with us.’
“But that’s why we put a lot of effort and time into this event, to make sure we build new memories with him. For us, the DP Open is an opportunity for people who attend the event to create a memory … on behalf of Phelps. So he’s kind of always there with us, even though he’s gone.”
Like a light in the room, he’s everywhere at once. He’s at the Phelps’ new home in North Carolina, where they resumed celebrating Christmas in 2017. He’s at the Cochrans’ cabin on Lake Chelan, where a new street name has been officially registered with the county. In white type, it reads, “Phelps Ln Pvt.”
He’s with his brother Michael, everywhere he goes. It’s not enough that the Phelps’ youngest son bears a striking resemblance to his brother. Michael also inherited Daniel’s trusty Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. When his house burned down in college, it’s one of the only things he saved.
Of course, he’s with his mother — a cardiac nurse.
“If I have to work around COVID, I’m going to do it honoring my son,” Mary said. “I got a University of Washington scrub cap and a University of Washington mask, because he just loved that school.”
Nearly five years after he stepped out of the photo booth, Daniel Phelps’ light continues to transcend. Through the DP Open, through the Nick of Time Foundation, through a street sign in Chelan, through a persevering pair of Ray-Bans, through a purple protective mask and a soccer hole in Seattle, through the kid who gets a screening he doesn’t know he needs, Daniel’s heart still beats. His mother can hear it.
“I hear him say he’s with me every day,” Mary Phelps said. “He talks sense into me. He lives in my heart.”