This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 20, 1995:
By Wes Platt
The night Nathan Phillips came home from college, about two dozen of his buddies from Land O’Lakes High School flocked to his family’s house in Foxwood.
His mother, Barbara, pulled him aside.
“Am I going to see you at all this weekend?” she asked.
It had been a month since the 18-year-old had left to become a freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He had pledged Kappa Kappa Psi, joined the college marching band and found a new crop of friends.
His mother missed him. She didn’t mind washing the laundry he brought with him, but she wanted to spend time with him, too.
Nathan had plans for Saturday. The high school marching band had practice, and the former drum major planned to help out. Anything for his alma mater, which last year elected him homecoming king.
“I’ll go to practice tomorrow, but I’ll come home early,” Nathan promised. “I’ve got a test on Monday, and I really need to study for it.”
Nathan never made it home. He died in a wreck Sept. 30 while riding with a friend, Mike Knapp, 19, to a convenience store about a mile from the high school.
Mike spent nine days in St. Joseph’s Hospital recovering from a collapsed lung and broken ribs. In the two months since the accident, Mike’s injuries have nearly healed. But serious emotional scars remain.
Mike had made a choice, the sort people make every day: Can I make it? He took a chance and made a left turn into the path of an oncoming car on U.S. 41. He didn’t make it.
In an instant, one life ended and others changed irrevocably.
Mike takes support and comfort from his mother and adopted father, Alice and Richard. But he also takes solace from Richard and Barbara Phillips and their surviving sons, Sean and Keith, who might just as easily have turned their backs on him.
“You can’t help but wish both Nathan and Mike were well, but it’s not Mike’s fault,” Barbara Phillips told the Times. “We’ve got to get him well. What good is it going to do if he doesn’t come out of this? He’s like one of our own.”
They rode together
That autumn afternoon turned out to be a scorcher. The marching band practiced outside near the Swamp, the high school football field. They had drinks, but no ice.
Mike, like Nathan a June 1995 graduate of Land O’Lakes High, had come to help the drummers. He was recruited to make the short trip to the Land O’Lakes Food Mart.
Sam Portalatin, the new drum major, offered to ride with him.
“No,” Nathan said. “You’ve been out in the sun all day. Stay here. I’ll go.”
Nathan and Mike had known each other since their days at Sanders Memorial Elementary School and became friends at Pine View Middle School.
An average student, Mike had overcome a learning disability that affected his motor skills and eventually excelled at playing the drums.
“We were just kind of surprised when Mike told us he wanted to play drums,” his mother said. “At first, he was always a beat behind, but he worked hard and did well.”
He and Nathan often rode together to Tampa Bay Storm games and band events. Sometimes, Mike drove his Chevrolet Camaro. Other times, Nathan drove his Dodge Dynasty.
This time, they took the Camaro.
The Florida Highway Patrol report says this is what happened:
Mike drove north on U.S. 41, following a large, slow-moving rock truck. At the Food Mart entrance, just north of Causeway Boulevard, he turned left.
A 1980 Jeep driven by John Duval of Istachatta plowed into the passenger side of the Camaro at about 50 mph.
Nathan probably never knew what hit him.
Duval’s 16-year-old son, Jaime, got a broken nose.
Knapp blacked out. His ribs were broken and his lung collapsed.
He doesn’t remember much about the accident. Just flashes. Starting the turn. The Jeep in the corner of his right eye.
The Knapps said their insurance company told them Duval described the accident differently.
The other version is that the rock truck had been behind a tractor driven by Ron Hagman of Port Richey. Hagman’s tractor slowed the truck to about 15-20 mph, so Hagman pulled right to encourage the truck to pass.
The truck swerved left to avoid the tractor just as the Jeep appeared in the southbound lane.
Mike made the turn then, presumably thinking he had a clear shot to the parking lot.
Duval, said FHP Corp. Dale Weeks, apparently never hit the brakes – no skid marks were on the road.
Mike said that when he saw the Jeep in the corner of his right eye, it was too late.
“If I’d waited, or maybe if I’d hit the gas a little harder, I might have made it,” he said.
Weeks said Mike probably followed the rock truck too closely and turned without seeing the Jeep.
Alcohol was not a factor, Weeks said. Mike has not been charged with a crime, but he was cited for making an improper left turn.
Duval declined comment for this story except to say, “I’m very sorry that it happened.”
No matter how it happened, Mike is not the only motorist to take the same risk with tragic consequences.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles keeps statistics on left-turn crashes in all 67 counties.
In 1993-94, 950 such accidents were reported in Pasco. Thirty-two people died. Injured: 1,576. Young drivers, ages 15 to 19, caused about 11 percent of the wrecks.
A knock at the door
Richard and Barbara Phillips were about to leave for the Sun Dome in Tampa, where they would sell drinks and snacks at a Bob Dylan concert, when a group of band parents knocked on the door with news of the accident.
Mike had been flown to St. Joseph’s Hospital, but the highway patrol wouldn’t immediately tell the Phillipses anything about Nathan.
About an hour after the accident, they talked to a relative who works for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. She told them Nathan probably had died. A state trooper later confirmed it.
It took two hours to identify Nathan because, for some reason, he had no wallet. It’s still missing.
Nathan carried with him only a black pledge notebook with names and addresses, pages adorned with lipstick kisses from various students, and a plastic pocket holding a pledge congratulations card, a red Crayola crayon and a packet of Sweet & Low.
The toddler the Phillipses had adored in his Tampa Bay Rowdies regalia was gone.
The serious and oh-so-organized teenager, ripped away from them.
The man Nathan might eventually have been, lost.
“We were just devastated,” Richard Phillips said.
Richard Knapp was dozing in a chair in his Pilot Country home when a state trooper knocked on his door. His wife, Alice, was in Ohio at the bedside of a terminally ill friend. He decided not to panic her with the news until he got to St. Joseph’s and found out how Mike was doing.
About 6 p.m., he called: Mike was in critical but stable condition in intensive care.
In a sedated stupor, Mike told his father he remembered someone had been with him in the car.
“He was drawing a blank, like he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to accept it,” Richard Knapp said.
After a while, his father asked, “Do you know what happened?”
Mike opened his eyes. “Nathan was with me.”
During the first two days afterward, friends from Land O’Lakes High came to visit Mike – as many as 15 at a time.
Linebacker Darnell Stephens from Mike’s beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers stopped in to chat and deliver a T-shirt, backpack and coach Sam Wyche’s autograph.
But the attention seemed to wear on Mike after a while.
“I realized he wasn’t eating. He was so fatigued,” said Alice Knapp, a nurse at Carrollwood Community Hospital. “How can you eat with everybody staring at you?”
She told the visitors to give Mike space and time to recover. They stepped outside to the waiting room.
“You want me to send them home?” she asked him, gently.
Somber and weak, he nodded.
On Sunday, he asked: “What happened to Nathan?”
They told him, and he cried, “Oh, no.”
Monday evening, the Phillipses held a viewing at Loyless Funeral Home in Land O’Lakes. They expected maybe 200 people.
Before it was over, though, 1,400 people spent as long as 45 minutes waiting to spend a few last minutes with Nathan.
“I couldn’t believe an 18-year-old could touch so many people,” Richard Phillips said. “It’s just amazing.”
The next day, they buried Nathan at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
“We know they’re hurting,” Alice Knapp said. “They’ve lost a child. You expect to see your parents die eventually, but not your kid. It’s heart-wrenching, especially when it’s such a good kid.”
Said Richard Phillips: “Of course, we felt the loss for ourselves, but we’re very thankful that Mike is okay.”
Mike could just as easily have been buried that day, the Phillipses say. Sure, Nathan was focused and serious, but his parents and brothers say he sometimes drove as fast as 85 mph on the interstate.
“It could have happened at any time,” said Barbara Phillips, a teacher at Denham Oaks Elementary School in Land O’Lakes, “and it could have been Mike in the passenger seat.”
The day after the funeral, Richard and Barbara Phillips visited Mike in the hospital.
He tried not to look at them, they said. They could see him starting to cry.
“Look, Mike,” Barbara told him, “you’ve got to get better. We know you’re upset. We’re all upset. But you’ve got to get better.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing you could do,” she said.
Mike looked at her, held her hand and then looked away.
An exceptional family
In a way, it seems, the Mike people knew had died with Nathan.
“He walks different,” Alice Knapp said. “He’s not as happy-go-lucky as he used to be. He’s not as quick to smile. He’s matured a lot.”
He quit his job at McDonald’s in Lutz to work for his father’s house-moving business.
He withdrew from classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College until next semester.
Mike still helps at band practices, but not with the same energy that inspired one instructor to create the Mike Knapp Award for Enthusiasm while he was in the drum line.
Two weeks ago, Mike went to the cemetery to see Nathan’s grave.
“That was a hard time for Michael,” his mother said. “The hardest part is trying to get back to a normal life. He’s doing better, but sometimes he seems real drifty. He’s got a lot to deal with.”
His parents are helping him accept and cope with his mistake.
The Phillipses are too.
Their sons, Sean, 14, and Keith, 16, spend time with Mike. At the recent high school homecoming game, Richard and Barbara Phillips sat with him.
That the family could so easily and warmly embrace Mike surprised the Knapps.
“You just don’t find families like that anymore,” Richard Knapp said. “I can’t say enough about how exceptional they’ve been.”
Said Alice Knapp: “They’re special people who’ve done a great job with their kids. I don’t know what would have happened if it had worked out the other way around, if Mike had been the one. I don’t believe I’m that emotionally strong.”
Mike is trying to rebound. He is helping friends James Gray and the new homecoming king, Charlie George, qualify for competitive winter drum line.
He and his parents had hoped to take a large step toward putting the accident behind them Friday, when Mike appeared before County Judge Robert Cole in a Dade City courtroom to answer for his traffic infraction.
His mother stood with him at the lectern.
Mike pleaded no contest to making an improper left turn. The judge checked his driving record, which he described as “very good.” The young man’s prior record consists of a 1992 careless driving citation and a 1989 helmet law violation.
But because someone died in the September accident, Cole said, he wants to know more about the case before sentencing. The potential penalties range from a fine to revocation of Mike’s license.
Cole set another hearing for Dec. 19 at 9 a.m.
“Why do we have to come back again?” Alice Knapp asked the judge. “Why can’t we take care of this today?”
“I can’t sentence knowledgeably without the facts,” Cole said.
Minutes later, outside the courtroom, Alice Knapp wiped away tears. “It was just an unfortunate accident and a misjudgment. Yes, someone died, but all we want is to put this behind us and get on with our lives. Why drag this on for another month?”
The last, best year
Nathan Phillips’ life, and his personality, echo in his bedroom.
In a wooden hutch, one finds a shrine to baseball legends Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson and NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt. Eleven miniature batting helmets – representing the Florida Marlins, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, among others – are arranged like votive candles on an altar.
In a drawer is a “Far Side” cartoon clipped from a 1994 newspaper. The caption: “Throughout their songwriting careers, the Gershwins rarely discussed their younger brother, Nathan, who played gutbucket.” In another drawer: Nathan’s junior deputy badge from the fifth grade, signed by former Pasco County Sheriff Jim Gillum.
On the wall, football and baseball team pennants are arranged in perfect symmetry. In a bookcase, Encyclopaedia Brittanica volumes stand in precise numerical and alphabetical order.
In cabinets stand a stack of Mad magazines from as long ago as 1957, reams of sheet music, Police Quest and Gretzky Hockey computer games, and notebooks full of football trading cards.
On a bulletin board, bumper stickers promote Power Pig and Say No To Drugs. There is a ticket stub from the Sept. 10 Bon Jovi concert at the Sun Dome.
He kept news clips about the high school band. His apron and uniform from his days as a bagboy at the U-Save are neatly folded.
His parents found an essay in his Packard Bell computer, written four days before he died.
Titled “From Peasant to King,” it tells of his surprise at rising in stature from “geek” to homecoming king in 1994.
“Everyone knows that people in the band are geeks, and the drum major is simply the leader of the geeks. I even had times when I believed this stereotype,” Nathan wrote.
He figured a quarterback or some other jock would win the title, and he was stunned.
“The night of the homecoming game brought out a personality that no one had ever seen of me. I was confident and excited,” he wrote.
After his name was announced, a “burst of self-pride . . . ran through me, and I realized I was no longer Mr. Loser. Instead, I was Nathan Phillips, respected by my peers, drum major of the band and homecoming king.”
Said his mother, “He couldn’t have had a better year.”