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Bills rookie Harrison Phillips seeing rewards for paying the price

PITTSFORD — At 16, Harrison Phillips understood something other football-playing dreamers his age didn’t. If you’re serious about playing in the NFL one day, you must pay a serious price to get there. That doesn’t mean simply working hard. It means working well beyond the point when your body starts screaming at you to stop. It means showing a tolerance for pain and exhaustion that can cause some people to question whether you’re actually human.

Phillips has reflected on those days quite a bit since the Buffalo Bills opened training camp at St. John Fisher College on July 26.

“It was all worth it,” the rookie defensive tackle said.

He was dripping with sweat after a recent practice under the scorching August sun. Yet, he knew the amount of energy he expended on the field was child’s play compared to what he did through his final three years at Millard West High School in Omaha.

“When you’re young and have all that testosterone and hormones and everything going, the body can handle it,” Phillips said. “I couldn’t do (that routine) anymore.”

Right before his sophomore year of high school, he began a maniacal regimen that had him training five to six hours a day. He’d arrive at the school gym at 5:30 a.m., for a 90-minute workout before classes began at 7:45. Then there was an hour-and-a-half of weightlifting he’d do during school, a two-and-a-half-hour football practice and another two hours with a strength and conditioning coach each night.

The idea wasn’t merely to perform well enough to receive the accolades he did in high school, becoming Nebraska’s Gatorade Football Player of the Year as a senior, as well as a three-time state champion in wrestling. Nor was it to land the athletic scholarship he received from Stanford, where he displayed the brainpower to graduate with a double major in sociology and science, technology and society, and a minor in education.

It was to fulfill that ultimate dream, which came when the Bills made Phillips a third-round draft pick in April. Now, he gets to show exactly how much at home he is at the game’s highest level, a process that got off to a strong start with his sack in last Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.

Phillips’ teammates reacted enthusiastically on the field and front of the Bills’ bench, a sign of the affection they’ve quickly developed for him because of his no-nonsense approach and kind nature exemplified by an instant connection with cancer-stricken Bills superfan Pancho Billa and the thousands of dollars he has raised for inner-city elementary schools by selling cleats and gloves he wore at Stanford.

“He’s one of those guys that a lot of players are pulling for because they like who he is,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.

“It’s nice to see a young man get his first NFL sack; that was fun to watch and fun to watch the sideline react,” said coach Sean McDermott. “He worked hard for it.”

How hard? Phillips carries a long receipt in his head of the price he paid.

“I remember some of those workouts, it was to the point that I was tearing up, it was so painful and there was so much lactic acid buildup,” Phillips said. “Or I’d be hanging from a bar doing pullups and wanting to drop as bad as I could, but still hanging on.

"Or I’d be hitting the leg workout so hard that I couldn't drive home. I had to call my parents to come pick me up because my legs were cramping and I just was scared that that I’d get stuck hitting the gas or hitting my brake or whatever. So both my parents had to come. One drove my car and the other one drove theirs.”

An exhausted Harrison Phillips lays on the track after a 2012 workout. (Photo courtesy of Matt Richardson)

‘Man among boys’

Matt Richardson, an Omaha-based strength and conditioning coach who worked with Phillips then and continues to do so, didn’t find out about the severe leg-cramping until about two months after the first of several times it occurred. It resulted from his initial session with Phillips, who gave no indication of the agony he was feeling.

“I’d always tell him, ‘Listen to your body, don’t listen to me. Your body's going to tell you want to stop,’ ” Richardson said by phone. “Obviously, he did not listen to his body, but he didn’t even look like he was struggling. He came in and did the entire workout that seasoned guys could barely get through.”

Richardson had seen the considerable media attention Phillips was receiving for his athletic prowess. He watched game tape and noticed it was fairly common to see Phillips tackle the quarterback and running back at the same time. "An absolute monster," Richardson said. So he reached out with a Facebook message to offer his services.

During their first conversation, Richardson admittedly thought Phillips “sounded a little silly” when he matter-of-factly mentioned playing in the NFL as if it were less of a wish than an item on a to-do list.

“Then, seeing his work ethic, I knew that he would reach that,” Richardson said. “He’s just a man among boys, really, especially in the weight room. I had guys that had D-1 offers or D-2 offers that were seniors and they were working out with Harrison when he was a sophomore, and he was out-lifting those guys and outworking them.

“I was even working with some NFL guys at the time and he would go a whole lot harder than those guys would. And he would give me more effort than they would. I think I got a text every night from him (saying), ‘Hey, what's the workout for tomorrow?’ Even when he was sick, he always showed up. He’s just built differently than any other kid.”

In Phillips’ junior year of high school, Richardson, looking for new ways to challenge someone who had no weightlifting peers in the gym, decided to seek the loftiest competition he could find. Shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the coach showed Phillips a list of how prospects had fared in the bench-press, where rankings are based on the number of repetitions each player does lifting 225 pounds. 

“We threw on 225 and I said, ‘Let’s see where you’re at compared to these men who have been through three or four years of college,’ ” Richardson recalled. “He did 225 37 times. I think he would have placed in the top five or six of that year’s Combine.”

At last February’s Combine, Phillips’ 42 repetitions was the best of his draft class.

“He got a lot out of me,” Phillips said of Richardson. “But even when he wasn’t there, in the morning when I was by myself and I wanted to hit the snooze on my alarm, I never did. And when we had optional weights in that weightlifting class I had during school, the football players didn't have to lift because they had practice later that day, I was in there with the wrestlers lifting.”

Harrison Phillips works out as part of his high school routine. (Photo courtesy of Matt Richardson)

Got to have milk

Incredible drive and persistence were qualities Tammie Rose Phillips recognized in her son from the time he was a baby. The target then had nothing to do with sports. It was milk. Harrison has always loved milk; he still can down a gallon of chocolate milk in one sitting.

When he was 15 months old, the family lived in a two-story house. Each night, Harrison would walk into the bedroom of Tammie and Harrison's father, Paul, and indicate — communicating as best he could because he hadn’t started talking yet — that he wanted milk.

“I’d tell him, ‘You just had a big glass of milk before bed and you can wait until the morning,’ ” Tammie said by phone. “The next thing Paul and I would hear is the refrigerator door downstairs opening. Harrison would grab a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator and carry it up the stairs, one step at a time. You’d hear his step and then the gallon of milk hitting the stairs. He’d come up — step by step by step — and he’d bring that gallon of milk in one hand and his little cup in the other into the bedroom for me to fill it up. He did this almost every night.

“So we knew right then, ‘This kid is something.’ He is determined. No matter what his goal is, he is going to fulfill it. And that is how he has been all his life.”

Since Phillips' freshman year at Stanford, Tammie has done her part to help fuel the fire that burns inside her son by sending him texts before a game that include inspirational quotes she finds online. It's a tradition she started when his older sister, Delanie, played soccer at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

"Just little things to pick them up and to know that we're thinking of them and that we'll be there if we can," Tammie said. "If we can't be, we're still going to be there in spirit."

The same approach Phillips took to working out applied to studying for each opponent in high school and college. He gave up chances to hang out with friends and go to the movies, because he said he “wanted to game prep and watch film on opponents. I did the same stuff in college. I didn’t go out or drink or anything like that.”

His laser-focused, ultra-intense approach hasn’t been lost on his new teammates. Kyle Williams, in his 13th season as a defensive tackle for the Bills, is widely viewed as what Phillips will look like and sound like — minus the Louisiana drawl — a dozen years from now. He likes the rookie’s chances of having that sort of rare longevity at one of the most unforgiving positions, smack in the middle of the mayhem on every play, in an unforgiving sport.

“I think, more than anything, he wants to be good,” Williams said. “And, you know, not a lot of people talk about that. It's important to him. When you have somebody that it's important to him, in my opinion, the sky's the limit for guys like that.”

Frazier describes Phillips as a “by-the-book” type of player. “Whatever you ask him to do, he's going to try to get it accomplished,” Frazier said. “His teammates respect that.”

‘A lot of hip-flip’

Phillips’ wrestling background — which made him a natural pick for McDermott, a two-time national-championship wrestler in high school — constantly shows up in his game. He uses his leverage to his fullest advantage and understands the best angles to take and ways to maneuver to separate from blockers.

“Outside single leg was my signature move,” Phillips said. “It worked because I was a lot faster than the heavyweights I was going against. How does it apply to football? A lot of hip-flip, I guess.”

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips stretches before practice in Orchard Park on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

For Phillips, though, the game is far bigger than what his 6-foot-3, 307-pound body — the ideal frame for in-line brawling because he isn't too tall but has enough girth to mix it up with similarly built offensive linemen — allows him to do. He recognizes that he needs to rely even more on his knowledge.

“He asks the right questions,” Williams said. “Depending on, if we're looking at formations or things like that, (he’ll say), 'Hey, when we're getting this formation, are we expecting this run or that run?' Kind of the line of questioning is really what you look for and you know that his wheels are spinning the right way.”

The kind words don’t change the fact the 35-year-old Williams and the Bills’ other veteran defensive linemen still see Phillips as a 22-year-old rookie. They seize any chance to give the kid some playful verbal jabs, such as the ones Williams couldn’t resist delivering as Phillips stood in front of a camera the day after his preseason debut.

“I’m the little brother and that's fine,” Phillips said. “They can bicker with me or fight, give me a hard time, but they know I can dish it back, too. I think that’s fun. And if I didn't love being here, you’d be able to tell and it’s pretty obvious I love what I’m doing.”

Tammie Rose Phillips loves that her son is living out his dream with the Bills. She did admit that, before the draft, she said a little prayer he’d end up “somewhere warm.” However, she was overwhelmed by all that she and her husband and other family members took in when they were in Western New York last week for the Carolina game.

‘Horrible Harry strikes!’

Tammie, her husband, sister, brother-in-law and niece didn’t have a whole lot of time to see all they wanted to see of Western New York, but they managed to get some wings at the Bar-Bill Tavern in East Aurora. They were also impressed with all aspects of their experience at New Era Field, although Tammie didn’t sample any food.

“I couldn’t even eat on game day, I was so excited,” she said. “The sweetest lady sat behind us. She was a 20-year season ticket holder who told us all about the team’s history. We had our 99 Bills jerseys on. Everyone could see who we were, because we were the ones standing up screaming.”

The loudest screams came with a little more than three minutes left in the second quarter, with the Bills holding a 10-7 lead in the game they eventually would lose, 28-23. Phillips, starting in place of Williams, was lined up across from another rookie, guard Taylor Hearn. Although Phillips gave up a little size to the 6-4, 315-pound Hearn, he had a distinct advantage in strength that he used on the way to getting his arms around quarterback Garrett Gilbert and swinging him to the ground.

He also went to a quick mental file he already had on Hearn.

“When I had faced this offensive lineman before, I took him inside, so I knew he would be kind of anticipating that,” Phillips said. “So I just hit him with a bull-rush and as he jumped, I kind of pulled it away. When he set in, I kind of just swam and ripped off of him and was free to the quarterback.”

Tammie’s 17-year-old niece yelled, “Horrible Harry strikes!”

The proud moment had Phillips’ mother thinking back to a conversation she had with her son before the game.

“I had asked him, ‘What is your goal for being here in Buffalo?’ He said, 'I want to do whatever I can to help this team into the Super Bowl,’ ” Tammie said. “And then he said, 'Sacking somebody every game would be wonderful.' He pretty much almost got a sack every game at Stanford.

“It was just amazing. Tears just well up in your eyes. Because of all that hard work, he accomplished that. He always told us his goals, so that we could help him prepare to get them.”

The first step was being willing to pay the necessary price.

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