STARKVILLE — It was a hot afternoon in August and Mississippi State had wrapped up a steamy day of double practices.
Sweat was bleeding through Jonathan Phillips’ maroon socks as the sun set over his left shoulder. A cup of Gatorade in his left hand, his back to the practice field, he smiled and squinted.
“I’m not stuck here,” said Phillips, a 23-year-old walk-on defensive back. “But the Lord gave me a couple years of my life back.”
Football is a reprieve for Phillips, whose life took an unexpected detour in December of 2008. Phillips enrolled in the Army National Guard after high school and expected to be overseas fighting a war.
But shoulder surgery delayed his deployment, and instead of finishing his enlistment and training with the Army – and ultimately rolling out with his unit overseas – he enrolled at MSU, seeking a degree in Industrial Technology. He gave up enlistment but continued training courses with the ROTC in his pursuit to earn commission and graduate as a 2nd Lieutenant, an officer in the National Guard.
“Some of the boys I went through basic training with have been killed in action,” Phillips said. “That’s hard to deal with sometimes, when your buddies are getting killed doing the same job I was trained to do and wanted to do, and I’m sitting here at school.”
He is on schedule to earn commission next fall, before shipping off to Fort Benning to finish officer school. His goal is to earn a spot with the special forces, fulfilling a dream he’s had since he was a child.
Until then, he stays in shape and maintains a sense of military camaraderie by playing football.
In the summer of 2009, Phillips tried out for MSU’s football team.
It was Dan Mullen’s first year as MSU’s coach. Phillips impressed the coaches and earned a spot on the roster as a “glorified tackling and blocking dummy,” Phillips said, laughing.
It was all new and daunting, obviously, for Phillips. Even a helmet-fitting proved stressful.
When a member of the MSU equipment staff was perplexed by the walk-on’s small noggin, Phillips was asked for his helmet size in high school.
Phillips paused. “Well,” he said, “we didn’t have anything this nice.”
Phillips was sidestepping the truth: He never played high school football.
Phillips grew up on the outskirts of Starkville, with 12 brothers and sisters. Their mother, Maureen, held court as their home-school teacher. Their father, Randy, is a minister.
Yes, Jonathan never played high school football, but he certainly knew the rules of the game. After all, his father was an All-Gulf South Conference tight end at Delta State from 1975-78.
Maureen was also an athlete, lettering in volleyball for three years at Mississippi State, where she met Randy, who served as an assistant strength coach under football coach Emory Bellard in the early 1980s.
Randy Phillips coached a couple of nearby high school teams through the years, but focused more on his children in their own backyard football league.
“He always loved it, like most kids do,” Randy Phillips said of Jonathan. “He’s always been very, very tenacious.”
That tenacity shows through in everything Phillips does, says his brother James, a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer.
“Jonathan has never done anything and not been the best at it,” said James, one of four Phillips boys who serve or have served in the military. (All four finished at the top of their respective classes in basic training.)
At MSU, Phillips leads the pack in nearly every conditioning drill, especially when the team travels to Camp Seminole and traverses through a military-like obstacle course.
“It’s amazing when you see a guy who’s able to do that so effortlessly when it’s so hard for everybody else,” said Matt Balis, MSU’s strength coach.
On the field, however, it was sensory overload for Phillips. The mechanics of the game had to be learned slowly. Simple exercises like back-pedaling, breaking on the ball and polishing his footwork were difficult.
“The main thing I told Jonathan was take it day-by-day,” said Tim Bailey, a former MSU defensive end and a 2nd Lieutenant with the ROTC program at MSU. “Being a walk-on, it takes a lot. You’re doing it voluntarily and the main thing I told him was to take it day by day, learn the playbook and listen to the coaches.”
Said Phillips: “After my first spring, I got a chance to learn some things.”
In 2010, amidst some confusion before a kickoff, Mullen motioned for Phillips to run on the field late in a blowout win against Alcorn State.
“He got in one game last year for one play and made one tackle,” MSU safeties coach Tony Hughes said, laughing. “That tells you how special of a guy he is. Even though he has never played football before, he gets in a game for one play and makes one tackle, which is amazing.”
More amazing, perhaps, was that Phillips played part of the season on a broken leg. Doctors discovered that his noticeable limp was actually the result of a broken tibia.
The injury healed in time for Phillips to play in MSU’s spring game in March. For the second year in a row, he recorded an interception.
On Sept. 1, Phillips played in his second career game, lining up on the kickoff team three times in MSU’s 59-14 victory against Memphis.
He hasn’t played since, but he makes an impact every day.
“He’s a great role model for a lot of kids,” says Mullen. “His work ethic on the field is tremendous. … He’s a very, very valuable part of our program that you don’t get to see on Saturdays.”
Phillips’ family attends every MSU home game. Like the military, it’s become a tradition for the family. On game days, James stands under a goal post in his MHP uniform, waiting for a high-five or bear-hug from his little brother at halftime.
“If you’re in a fight, you want him,” James said. “If you’re going to babysit a Sunday school class, you want him. If you have an impossible task, you want him. He doesn’t understand no-can-do.”
As the time ticks on his college career, Jonathan Phillips knows in his heart he should already be fighting overseas.
“I thought about quitting school and football several times, even after I recovered after being hurt,” he says. “I want to be back over there.”
He talks almost daily with his military buddies. One friend, a Marine bunk mate of his brother, Jesse, serves as a reminder of what’s on the line. His friend, who visited Starkville this summer, earned two Purple Hearts after he was shot in the head and chest in Afghanistan.
“He should have been dead both times,” says Jonathan, who understands the risks involved.
“If I left, I might not come back,” Jonathan says. “I have nothing but things to be thankful for and I have a couple years of my life back. I’ve been nothing but thankful for that.
“But you can’t help but question things sometimes. Why am I the one here and my buddies are gone?”
He makes the most of every moment at his family’s home, where he bunks. After a busy day and night at school, in ROTC training and football practice, he can be found snoozing in a recliner in the seven-bedroom house his father and brothers helped build on the western edge of Highway 45 on the outside of town.
“He doesn’t want these little kids growing up not knowing him,” Maureen Phillips says.
Every decision and every detour has led Phillips to today, he contends. He didn’t join the military to earn money for college. In fact, he had no intention of seeking a degree. He’s also not in love with the military lifestyle.
But there’s something about serving his country and “helping people first-hand” in special operations that motivates him.
“That’s something worth living for and, in my opinion, something definitely worth dying for,” he says. “Five or 10 years down the road – and if I live to be older than that – I don’t want to look back and have regrets. I want to spend my life doing the things I want to do.”