EDITOR’S NOTE: This continues a regular feature on DawgNation called “Throwback Thursday.” It offers a chance to revisit the recruiting stories of former UGA greats. The last few installments have been on 1984 defensive team captain Donald Chumley, undersized linebacker Rennie Curran, Vince Dooley era tight end Kirk Warner, fan favorite Randy McMichael, and former offensive tackle George Foster. This week’s feature catches up with one of the most unlikely NFL Bulldogs in program history.
A group of statistics on the NCAA website states there are almost 1.1 million high school football players every year. It estimates a 2.5 percent chance that any one of those athletes will play Division I football.
Those odds are necessary to understand why former UGA safety Jermaine Phillips is a walking lottery ticket that paid off handsomely.
Commit those odds to memory and consider the following regarding Phillips:
- He received just one SEC offer and took one official visit.
- He just evaded the junior college ranks as a partial qualifier.
- He still graduated in four years and thus earned a fifth year of eligibility.
- He was selected in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
- Phillips earned a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a rookie.
- He eventually took over the spot manned by John Lynch, a potential Hall of Famer.
- The average NFL career is roughly four years. Phillips played eight seasons.
That’s the football fairy tale. It’s hard to place odds on what Phillips pulled off, especially considering that he only played his senior season at Roswell High School by chance.
“My senior year I made a deal with my cousin,” Phillips said. “My junior year I didn’t even play football. So if he played basketball, I would play football. I came out, played football and have really never looked back since.”
Kenny Cook, his cousin, actually never held up his end of the bargain.
“I tell him all the time: As much as I wanted to punch him in the mouth back then, it turned out OK,” Phillips said. “Because he didn’t play basketball. But it turned out OK. I can tell him I appreciate him for doing that now.”
What happens to his NFL life if he never makes that deal?
“Maybe that decision to play football doesn’t happen until I go to a mid-level school,” Phillips said. Maybe I never go to the University of Georgia. Maybe I still go to the pros as a football player, but as a free agent.”
Phillips was known as a physical defensive back in the NFL. The roots of that go back to when he returned to football for the spring practice heading into his senior year. as a high school senior.
“I knocked out the running back on the first or second day I was there,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘You have to play now.’”
Phillips was a basketball player at heart. He played on a state championship team his senior year and didn’t want to miss any games on recruiting visits.
“I went up (to UGA) and had a great time,” Phillips said. “Earl Chambers was my host, and Demetric Evans and Richard Seymour and all those guys were up there. It was just a bond you felt as soon as you got there. You knew it was the right place. That was the only visit I took because it was basketball season. But I didn’t need another visit. When I got there, I understood why folks call it ‘God’s Country,’ and it was a perfect fit. That was where I was supposed to be.”
Phillips is in his second year coaching the defensive backs at Roswell High School. He’s a community coach that does not teach at the school. He’s fortunate enough his NFL career means he’s not chasing paychecks. He’s working with four college prospects in the secondary. He’s already seen two of them earn SEC offers.
“I wish I could take credit, but we have a group of guys who don’t mind working hard,” he said. “I try to correct them where I see fit and teach the techniques I was taught to be successful. And give them things like their attitude in their mental toolbox to sharpen them and make them complete players.”
He wants those guys to soak up more of the recruiting experience than he did.
“I took one visit,” he said. “I was a one-and-done. Boring, right? I tell the guys they can choose the school they want to go to early. But still go see all the different schools and the campus life there. Take your visits. That doesn’t mean they de-commit or anything, but I want them to be sure to see what’s out there. I tell them if they don’t want to take it for themselves, then take it for me. Let me live through you a little bit.”
Phillips said he was the first partial qualifier ever accepted at the UGA football team. It meant he wasn’t able to play his freshman year, but he earned a fifth year of eligibility when he graduated in four years.
He didn’t play his first year at UGA and his sophomore year was spent mostly on special teams. Phillips still gave the same outstanding effort he always has, and it was noticed.
“Vince Dooley came up to me and said, ‘Son, I really appreciate the way you play’ and ‘I love the way you play’ after one game,” Phillips said. “That stuck in my head forever. He probably doesn’t even remember it, but at those same time it meant so much to me. It lets me know little words here and there to whoever can be so encouraging and so life-changing at any moment.”
Phillips also became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. When he speaks to young people, he brings out his diploma and his Super Bowl ring.
“I always ask them which one of those things is more important,” Phillips said. “I know what my answer is. I ask what they would rather have. That Super Bowl was nice. It was a bunch of great memories. But that diploma will last forever. I try to get them thinking out of the box and let them know if I can beat the odds, then they can, too.”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.