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Decades behind the mic

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

He's won many an award -- and a plaque that went with them -- through the years, ranging from the highest one awarded by high school athletic directors in Kansas and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

But none might have touched Tad Felts' heart more than the one he received Saturday night during the finals of the 2013 Mid-Continent League Basketball Tournament at Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays.

Felts, a longtime news and sports director of KKAN/KQMA radio in Phillipsburg, was met at mid-court by referees, coaches and administrators he has worked with during his 40-plus years calling MCL events.

"That sure was special," Felts said. "It meant a lot to me; even officials who I've worked with were there."

Following back and neck surgery last summer, Felts' doctor recommended "I don't do sports anymore," he said in reference to calling live sporting events.

"My doctor said, 'I fixed your problem,' " Felts said. "All that sitting and not moving for several hours at a time for 45, 50 years was hard on me."

But, Felts added, "He said I'm all right if I can move around."

That was all Felts needed to hear.

Lending a hand at the MCL tournament not only would help out his replacement, 22-year-old Jesse Rhea, but it would give Felts a chance to keep his hand in what he loved as well.

So there was Felts during the weekend, in a chair courtside beside Rhea as the young man more than 50 years his junior carried on a tradition Felts started approximately 15 years ago.

In the late '90s, Felts thought it would be a good idea to broadcast every game of the two-day semifinals and finals basketball tourney at GMC. With boys and girls combined, that adds up to 12 games.

This year, several people walked by the scorer's table to say hello to the popular sportscaster, glad to see him attending the MCL tourney in person.

Most relieved to have Felts nearby was Rhea, a Phillips County native who had taken radio and TV classes at Colby Community College but returned to Phillipsburg to work at White's Foodliner when he didn't find a job in broadcasting.

Last year, a friend of Rhea's told Felts about Rhea and his desire to become a sportscaster, and they got in touch with each other.

Rhea then became one in a long line of younger broadcasters who got their start under Felts.

"He was a good mentor; I learned so much from him," said Gerard Wellbrock, sports director of KAYS Radio in Hays and now the voice of the Fort Hays State University Tigers. "The work ethic, how to deal with people, the relations you build with athletic directors and coaches and all that.

"It's hard not to like Tad. And you learned a lot about work, and life, just by being around him."

Rhea said "everybody asks me how I'm going to replace a Hall of Fame broadcaster."

His answer is simple.

"You can't replace a Tad Felts. I just try to learn from him," Rhea said. "He helps me every step of the way."

Funny thing is, Rhea mostly had worked in TV until he started filling in at the radio station in college.

Now, radio is his favorite.

"I love everything about it," he said.

Rhea hopes to someday get his chance to step in, while patiently biding his time.

Even though he will turn 80 in June, Felts isn't going anywhere.

His wife, Pat, suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and Felts goes to the rest home in Phillipsburg to feed her at noon and dinner time every day while still working his full schedule of 50 to 60 hours a week.

"I wanted to quit work and stay home with Pat when she was diagnosed about seven years ago," Felts said. "But the doctor said, 'We don't want two sick people.' "

Rhea continues working at the local grocery store and calling high school games while learning from one of the best.

"I'm very lucky to have a guy in radio like that to help me out, help me get started," Rhea said.

Felts said he also is lucky to be able to turn the night sportscasting over to someone as passionate as him about that field, while still getting to watch area youngsters play ball himself.

One of those times was Saturday night.

Phillipsburg's boys won the tournament title with a victory of Plainville. The last Panther team to accomplish that feat was the 1974-75 squad, of which one of his sons, Marc, was a member.

"Pretty special," said Felts, who wasn't just talking about Saturday night.

"I've had some great experiences over the years," he said. "My life now is work, home and rest home, and that's OK."