He is the kind of boy who dreams of three-point shots and towering home runs, the kind of kid who would love to linger for hours at the sporting goods store. But his reality is far different, and so very cruel. Fifteen-year-old Philip Tepe has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Tepe, a hemophiliac, contracted the virus through a blood treatment when he was 4. For nearly a decade, the Lone Wolf, Okla., youngster remained relatively healthy, going to school, playing with his friends, exploring the family farm. But now, even talking on the telephone seems too much for him. He is too sick to attend school, too tired to do much more than sleep. His 5-foot frame has withered to 80 pounds.
Yet Philip remains a fighter. His parents say he tells them he still hopes to play basketball this winter. If he can’t get strong again in time, he says, he’ll aim for baseball in the spring.
Jim and Dorecia Tepe aren’t about to tell their son otherwise. “We never give up hope, we never do,” Dorecia says. Especially after what Philip went through last basketball season.
The Tepes tried since the beginning to keep their son’s HIV status a secret, hoping that he wouldn’t be a victim of the ostracism and discrimination those with HIV often face. But last November, rumors started circulating that a boy on the Lone Wolf basketball team had HIV. Not long after, opposing players started boycotting Lone Wolf games. The players believed playing against Lone Wolf put them at risk of contracting HIV.
Hoping to end the misinformation and speculation, the Tepes decided to go public. They pointed out that Philip’s doctors had always approved of his participation in sports, that medical experts agree that the risk of transmission of HIV through sports is basically nil, that what people needed was a little more education and a lot less hysteria. A state epidemiologist came in for a public hearing to further dispel the myths. Yet the fear and prejudice persisted.
The rumors became more and more ridiculous. HIV, some of the area’s residents theorized, could be passed on by a mosquito. Others claimed it could be picked up from doorknobs, pencils and school books. Sadly, fiction was more popular than fact.
There were lawsuits as well. Schools that refused to play the Lone Wolf boys’ team often canceled their girls’ game against Lone Wolf, too. Because of this, some of the parents of the Lone Wolf girls demanded that Philip quit the boys’ team or be kicked off entirely. This whole mess is Philip’s fault, they said. Why should he ruin the girls’ season, too?
An area minister agreed, though not in so many words. At a school board meeting, he told a parable about a young girl with HIV who quit the basketball team for the good of her teammates. The minister, whose daughter plays on the girls’ team, suggested the Tepe family interpret his story however they wish.
“It’s hard to explain to a 14-year-old why people who have always been so nice to you in the past suddenly don’t want anything to do with you,” Dorecia Tepe says. “People who were once his friends turn their noses up at him to this day.”
Fortunately, most of the 500 residents in Lone Wolf support the Tepes and treat Philip with compassion and caring. If there is a bright side to any of this, Dorecia says, that would be it. That, and the fact that some people had the courage to seek the truth about HIV instead of playing into the paranoia.
Philip Tepe is not the only high school athlete with HIV. Experts believe thousands of teen-agers in the U.S. carry the virus, though many don’t yet know it. Some are playing sports, perhaps even here in Orange County.
It would be nice to think that the pressure and prejudices Philip Tepe experienced in Oklahoma wouldn’t happen in a similar situation here. It would be nice to believe that education and understanding would rule out confusion, that compassion would be far more prevalent than fear.
But more importantly, it would be great to see the focus where it ought to be. People can argue about whether or not someone can transmit HIV on the football field or on the basketball court, just as they can wonder whether they’ll be hit by a meteor next time they walk outside. Why waste so much time and energy on something medical experts say is so remote? If a parent keeps his kid from playing against an athlete with HIV, shouldn’t he also never allow the kid to drive? The risks of being in a traffic accident probably are at least a million times greater.
It seems far more useful to concentrate on reality, to emphasize not what’s going on on the athletic field, but off. To think about what needs to be done as far educating kids about sex and the deadly risk it now carries. To remind athletes that drug and steroid use sometimes involves needles. Needles that, when passed from one user to another, might bring with them the risk of HIV.
“People better realize that this is an issue that isn’t going away,” Dorecia Tepe says. “The increase in HIV is greatest in our young people. And it’s not from sports, it’s what happens off the court. . . . The risk is in your behavior.”
The people of Lone Wolf now know that. Hopefully, those around here can say the same.