July 11, 2014
By Michael Lewis
Remembering a great photographer and a gentle soul
He had this drawl, this Texan drawl that if I closed my eyes, I would have sworn it was JR Ewing talking.
Well, Phil Stephens was from Texas, actually Dallas, Texas, which explained a lot in the similarities in the voice, sometimes in his laugh as well.
But unlike the notorious villain in the legendary TV series, Dallas, Phil Stephens did not have a bad bone in his body. He was a gentle soul who passed away at the age of 65 Thursday morning.
I was unaware that Phil was ailing, but news like that about a friend and a colleague in the business is always sad and stunning.
Phil was what we called a triple threat in our business. He was a fabulous photographer that captured the emotions and the excitement of a soccer game, a photographer who could write stories and edit them as well years prior before all of us became "instant photographers" thanks to our cell phones.
When I was the editor of Soccer Week, a weekly publication that reported about the sport for enthusiasts in the New York metropolitan area, I ran many of Phil's photos, from the 1989 U.S. Youth Soccer championships and 1991 Women's World Cup, among other competitions.
When I went national with Soccer Magazine in 1993, I used Phil's photos and stories about youth soccer, tournaments and Dallas.
I got to know Phil in 1987 when we were both covering the FIFA Under-17 men's World Cup in Canada that June. We were following the U.S. team in the Nova Scotia area. We paled around together around Halifax, driving around the countryside with Phil, stopping for a couple of times because he wanted to take pictures of cemeteries.
About a month later, Phil, Lynn Berling, then the publisher of Soccer America, Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner and writer Dan Woog and myself were invited media on a trip of a lifetime to cover youth soccer teams in Brazil, particularly Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The highlight of the trip, however, did not take place in those two metropolises, but rather in Belo Horizonte, the site of the USA's great 1-0 upset of England in the 1950 World Cup.
It was more than just a visit to an historic soccer stadium. There were some other visitors aboard -- Walter Bahr and Harry Keough, two members of the American team -- and Wilf Mannion of England. In one of the most surreal moments of my soccer life, I had two tape recorders out -- mine and Phil's (Stephens asked me to hold his recorder while he took photos) -- while Bahr explained how the lone USA goal was scored.
I had the opportunity to cover two Dallas Cups in 1989 and 1990. The night prior to the 1989 finals, Phil gave me a tour of downtown Dallas, which included the Texas School Book Depository and a memorable meal at a Tex-Mex place. My stomach certainly remembered it the next day as I spent more time than I had planned in the Highland High School press box bathroom. Enough said.
When the U.S. Youth Soccer championships were held on Long Island later in the summer of 1989, Phil stayed at my condo for several days.
That is, of course, what friends do.
We covered a few more events together, including the 1999 Women's World Cup and some MLS Cups, but getting together at various events and tournament became few and far between.
It turned out to be both of our losses.
I'm going to miss that soccer photographer with that JR drawl.