Phil Saxon to be inducted into Hall of Fame

posted Fri, Sep 25, 2015 by Jon Buzby

Phil Saxon remembers exactly where he was the first time he was introduced to Special Olympics.

“Back in 1991 I was playing basketball with the Brandywine Social Club and Melvin and Claudia Brown saw me play and thought I’d be a good player for Special Olympics,” he recalled fondly. “And so they talked to me about it and I talked to my mom about it, and we both decided let’s go for it.”

While the script has been written for the start of Saxon’s participation with Special Olympics, the final chapter has yet to be written as the 61-year-old Wilmington resident plans to continue to play sports for many years to come.

But when Saxon finally does call it a career with Special Olympics, he will be remembered not only as a gifted athlete and eloquent spokesperson for the organization, but also as a Hall of Famer.  

On Oct. 7 at the annual Night of Heroes, Saxon will officially become the 26th member of the Special Olympics Delaware Hall of Fame, joining fellow athletes and longtime volunteers as a recipient of the organization’s highest honor.

“I was so excited,” Saxon said of his reaction when he received the phone call. “I said, ‘Whoa!’ I was yelling a little bit and I was glad there was nobody around to wonder what was happening to me. I was really happy and surprised to hear that I was selected.”

Saxon played basketball and ran track and field early on in his involvement and soon added the sports of volleyball, bowling, golf and tennis to his repertoire.

“Tennis is my favorite,” he admitted. “And golf is probably my second. I do like competing in all of them, but tennis is definitely my favorite.”

Phil pointed to his selection to play tennis at the 1995 World Games in New Haven, Connecticut, as the reason he fell in love with the sport.

“My partner, Charlie Sullivan, and I practiced a lot for the World Games,” Saxon recalled. “The more I practiced tennis the more I really enjoyed the sport.”

Saxon credits Joanne Cunningham, who introduced him to the sport and coached him at the World Games, for “nurturing” his passion for and development in the sport. Cunningham was quick to deflect the credit back to her pupil.

“When Special Olympics first started tennis, Phil was one of the first athletes to agree to give it a try,” Cunningham recalled. “Phil never missed a practice and was so committed to the sport that he had us build in a separate day for practice in case of rain. Phil was always early to practice to work on some part of his game. He was always committed to working on getting better at tennis and willing to put the time in to do that.”  

In 1999 Saxon returned to the World Games stage, this time in North Carolina where he won a bronze medal in the singles competition. 

“Phil has grown to be one of the top Special Olympics tennis players in the state,” said his longtime coach Mary Moore, whom Saxon credits for his continued success on the courts. “He has played all over the country and made Delaware proud. He has a wicked forehand.”

Saxon’s exceptional skills are the result of practicing for hours not just during tennis season, but year-round.

“If the weather is above 30 and not raining, you will find Phil and his tennis partner, Glenn Jones, on a court somewhere playing tennis for hours,” Moore added.

Saxon’s work ethic, along with his sportsmanship on and off the court, has set an example for his teammates.

“Phil is a great role model to other athletes with his work ethic, commitment and team philosophy,” Wilmington Area Director Ed Capodanno said. “He gives maximum effort at all times in practice and constantly encourages his teammates to do the best they can. He shows athletes, coaches and volunteers what commitment truly means. The best quality Phil shows other athletes is his sportsmanship. Win or lose, Phil is always there to congratulate the other team.”

Saxon’s talents and contributions aren’t limited to swinging a racket. He served on the SODE Board of Directors for more than a decade, chairing the Athlete Input Council and serving on the Sports Program committee. He also delivers speeches to audiences of all sizes, telling his Special Olympics story and the impact the organization has had on his life. It’s a skill he thought he could never master.

“I was nervous when I started speaking but then the audience kept on applauding and it really calmed me down,” Saxon recalled of his first speech at a Summer Games Opening Ceremony in the mid-1990s. “And that gave me the confidence to keep going and I realized then that I had the confidence to come up and talk in front of a lot of people.

“The speech was the springboard for me doing many more speeches for Special Olympics,” Saxon added.

Saxon admitted he has many fond memories during his nearly 25 years in Special Olympics. But when asked his favorite to date, he responded without hesitating.

“When I was chosen Athlete of the Year back in 2002,” he said smiling. “That was pretty special.”

His latest award is sure to be special too.