On Aug. 27, the West Alabama University Football team opened their 2005 season vs. Concordia College. And while the entire Tiger squad was thrilled to get the season under way, one player undoubtedly had a smile from ear to ear.
That player was former Greenbrier High School star Brandon Phillips. Phillips was a two-year defensive standout for Mickey Derrick's Wolfpack in 1998 and 1999, and he earned All-County and All-Area honors as a senior.
Phillips was a tenacious defender who gave Greenbrier's opponents fits. Like most talented high school football players, Phillips dreamed of playing college ball. However, at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he was undersized and got little attention from recruiters.
Through Coach Derrick, Phillips found out about a open tryout at Middle Georgia Junior College in Milledgeville. Phillips not only went to the tryout and made the team, but he quickly became a starter for Coach Rodney Pippin's Warriors. As a freshman he helped lead Middle Georgia to a 10-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking.
After Phillips' freshman year at Middle Georgia, his coach got offered the head coaching position at West Alabama University in Livingstone, Ala. Pippin offered Phillips a full ride to join him at West Alabama. But Pippin wasn't the only coach in pursuit of Phillips; the undersized high-schooler was now a 6-5, 260-pound college prospect.
Brandon Phillips, a former Greenbrier High School football player, battled back from leukemia to play college football.
Phillips wasted little time in deciding to follow Pippin to UWA. "He said that those other colleges wouldn't talk to him before, so he wasn't interested in them now." said his father, Vince Phillips. So Brandon was off to Alabama, full scholarship in hand.
Phillips quickly established himself as one of the Tigers' top defensive linemen, earning a starting job almost immediately. He tallied 32 tackles and a fumble recovery for a score as a sophomore in 2001. His junior campaign was even better; he started all 11 games and recorded 36 tackles for Pippin's defensive unit.
Phillips was playing college football, getting a free education and having the time of his life. So there was no reason to think 2003 was not going to be his best year yet.
But all those expectations came crashing down during the preseason. Phillips was feeling sluggish and just was not himself. His dad was concerned and so were his coaches. They sent Phillips to Birmingham to have tests run to find out why he was not feeling well.
Phillips was thinking he'd find out he had some type of virus, they'd give him some medicine, and he would go back to the gridiron. So you can imagine how he felt when he got the news from doctors that he had leukemia.
Only a decade ago this was almost the equivalent of a death sentence. To make matters worse, Phillips had an extremely rare form of cancer known as acute myelogenous leukemia.
His football career was definitely on hold, and likely over. However, Pippin told the family not to worry about his scholarship. He told Phillips to take as long as he needed and his scholarship would be waiting on him.
Phillips first underwent chemotherapy at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital. However, the Medical College had never treated anyone with AML. The family found out that the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance specializes in leukemia, and it had treated AML. So, despite the huge financial hurdle of getting treatment 3,000 miles from home, Phillips was off to Seattle.
His father is quick to point out that the family got plenty of help.
"My co-workers (at the Federal Prison in Edgefield, S.C.) donated vacation time, money, gas cards, you name it ... . They were tremendous to us," Vince Phillips said. While in Seattle, Phillips was informed that he would need a stem cell transplant in order to beat the cancer.
The former 283-pound defensive lineman, now 60 pounds lighter, was about to tackle an opponent like none he'd faced. In this battle his teammate would be his 14-year-old brother, Kyle. Kyle was the donor for Brandon's transplant. Doctors told the Phillips' family that if the transplant worked, and Brandon made it one year without the leukemia returning, there was a 70 percent chance that it would never come back.
Well, Phillips was a fighter and he got past the one-year plateau. Still, he had bigger goals. He wanted to play football. So when he met with doctors in Seattle at the one-year mark his first question was: Can I play now? They told him to give it one more year and let the medicine and chemicals get out of his system.
Something had changed during his time away from West Alabama. The coach who promised him his scholarship would be waiting was no longer the coach. West Alabama had hired Sam McCorkle as its new coach. So the family was understandably concerned. "It would have been easy for Coach McCorkle to say, its been two years and you have not played any football. There is no place for you here," Vince Phillips said.
Yet McCorkle told the family that Phillips was a member of the team before the illness, and he will be one on the team when he is ready to come back.
So, 22 months after he got the worst news of his life, Phillips is playing football again. He has gained back nearly all of the 60 pounds he lost.
Also, when he reported to the team this season, he was the fourth-strongest player on the team, evidence of all his hard work in the weight room while he was away from the game.
Phillips now has a new number (No. 77). He has switched from defensive line to offensive tackle, and he is no longer a starter. However, I have a feeling all of that is all right with Brandon. He's just happy to be on the field again.
So far this season, the Tigers are 2-0 with a 34-12 victory over Concordia College and a 37-0 shutout of NAIA Power Lambuth College.
Also, doctors say that if he stays cancer-free for two more months, his chances of staying cancer free are approximately 95 percent. Phillips' brother, Kyle, who displayed courage beyond his years donating stem cells to help his brother recover, is now a 16-year-old junior at Greenbrier. He is pursuing a different sport than his brother; Kyle is a 6-2, 183-pound wrestler for the Wolfpack.
To say the family is thankful would be an understatement. Now all that is left is for Phillips to graduate this year, complete his student teaching in the fall of 2006 and land a job coaching high school football.
I have a funny feeling Greenbrier will be awaiting his resume.
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