Jordan Phillips doesn’t remember his mother. She died in a car crash when he was 2.
He barely knows his father, who was in prison for a large portion of Phillips’ life. In fact, Phillips’ mother was on her way to visit his jailed father the day after Christmas when her car tragically slid off an icy road in Wichita, Kan.
As the 26-year-old Phillips recounts this dark chapter of his life, he’s standing on the sideline in the Buffalo Bills’ fieldhouse. Practice has just ended. Phillips is still in his blue No. 97 jersey, reflecting on his past but unmistakably feeling a sense of pride about his present.
After all, how many kids go from where he came from to where he is: a defensive tackle in his fourth NFL season? What allowed Phillips to make such an improbable journey?
“I had a whole village that raised me,” he said. “I had probably about seven or eight different families that took care of me. I just felt, everybody's putting this much time into me, I need to do something good with my life. I just tried to stay on the right track.
“They kept me out of trouble, and now I’m here.”
After his mother died, grandparents cared for Phillips and his older sister. When his grandmother suffered a stroke, his sister was already off on her own, but his 70-plus-year-old grandfather couldn’t continue to look after Phillips. The summer of his freshman year of high school, he moved in with a family whose son was one of Phillips’ friends.
Families of Phillips’ other friends pitched in to make him feel supported and loved, but none more than Shane and Cindy Waggoner. As pleased as Phillips was with the Bills claiming him on Oct. 3 after his release from the Miami Dolphins, he knows it will never reach the magnitude of a 2017 transaction involving the Waggoners.
At age 25, Phillips asked Shane and Cindy if they’d adopt him. They readily accepted. Although Phillips kept his last name, he had always felt like a member of the Waggoner family.
He began calling Cindy “Mom” in middle school. He was at the Waggoners’ house in 2015, when the Dolphins made him a second-round draft pick from the University of Oklahoma. Not long after the Dolphins called, Shane provided some fatherly advice about Phillips making sure he “still had money to live on” when his football career was over.
From the start of Phillips’ career with the University of Oklahoma Sooners, Cindy has sent him the following pre-game text: “Play hard. Stay safe. Do what you do best.”
“They've always been there for me,” he said. “They’ve always really been my backbone.”
He told Cindy and Shane he wanted the adoption mainly so his 18-month-old son, Malik (his middle name his Vonn, giving him the initials MVP), would have grandparents from Phillips’ side “who could really take care of him if something happened to me.” Cindy, who owns an insurance agency in Wichita, and Shane, an electrical engineer, regularly visit Malik, who lives with his mother about 10 minutes away from the Waggoners.
Cindy constantly sends Phillips photos and videos of Malik. Phillips will Facetime with his son pretty much on a nightly basis. “He’s just the most precious thing,” Cindy said by phone. “The other day, when I sent Jordan a picture, he said, ‘Mom, he is getting so big.’ ”
When she first learned of Phillips’ early hardships, Cindy’s maternal instincts took over.
“My heart just ached,” she said. “We didn't talk about his mom too much. We didn't talk about his dad too much, either, just because I knew it was painful for him. But as time went on, and especially around the adoption, we learned more.
“I’m sure he would have loved to have had those memories with her. This past Mother’s Day, he put up on his Instagram, ‘To my two beautiful mamas,’ and had a picture of her and me. I would have given anything to know this person.”
Zach Lohmeyer, Cindy’s son from a previous marriage, has been Phillips’ closest friend since their sophomore year of high school. Zach lives in the home Phillips still owns in Miami.
“It was the craziest thing,” Cindy said of their close bond. “I still have a picture of Jordan's first game at OU with Zach standing beside him. And they couldn't be more different. Here's this 6-6, 300-pound black kid. And here's this 6-foot and maybe 140-pound white kid sitting next to him. And you couldn't separate them.”
They have opened up to each other on numerous topics, including how Phillips felt about his estranged father, who didn’t contest the adoption. They wish to keep the details of those conversations private.
Phillips did reveal that he and his father spoke for the first and only time a year ago, for about 10 or 15 minutes, at the nursing home where his dad resides.
“He had a stroke, so his speech is kind of gone,” Phillips said. “I thought he was going to pass away, so I thought it was something I needed to do, to go and get that closer with him.”
The reason for his father’s prison stint is something Phillips prefers not to discuss publicly. Those who know the player best say he doesn’t dwell on his misfortunes.
“You would never know that that sort of stuff has happened to him when you met him,” Lohmeyer said by phone. “He definitely keeps his head high and he’s motivated.”
Just how motivated Phillips is each time he steps onto the field, however, has been a controversial subject since he left Oklahoma. Media have raised questions about the consistency of his effort, whether his “motor” is always revving at a sufficient level on each snap.
That, Phillips said, was a large part of why he was so demonstrative in his Bills debut, a 13-12 victory against Tennessee on Oct. 7. Phillips was dancing and exalting the crowd after making a few plays, the biggest of which was knocking down a pass. Although the crowd responded favorably, he insisted it was far more for him than it was for the fans.
How did the whole motor issue start?
“I didn't make a lot of plays in college and there wasn’t a lot of film on me because I came out as a redshirt sophomore,” Phillips said. “So when I left Oklahoma, that's how they labeled me. Before my rookie year, I had never played in a system like the attack defense (the Dolphins used). I was a zero technique, reading (rather than attacking), so it took me a little bit longer to get a going. My second year was the same way. My third year, I had a really good year; I was one of the most productive people out there, but the labels never go away.
“If you go back and look at Miami's film, I'm one of the hardest players that they had. It's just, once you get a label on something, people don't want to take it off. Even when I got here, they were saying, 'Hey, we need you to play every play.' I said, 'Hey, you guys go look at my film because you're obviously not seeing what I've been doing. Because that's not an issue.’”
Lorenzo Alexander marveled at the way Phillips was “running past guys that are normally your hustle guys” against the Titans. The veteran linebacker believes Phillips has too many players around him who consistently give a full effort to fall below their high standard.
“He’s in a room with professionals,” Alexander said. “You have Kyle (Williams) and Star (Lotulelei) and Jerry (Hughes), guys that are elite athletes, but they run and play hard, too. I don't see that as an issue, but if it was, you have to follow that leadership in your room or he won't be here. It’s just how it works.”
One way Phillips has addressed his in-game energy level is by working with Oregon-based sports psychologist Darren Treasure, a noted performance coach Phillips found through former Dolphins teammate and fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It was Treasure who encouraged Phillips to celebrate his good plays with zeal, saying that would do plenty to get him to consistently play harder.
“He helped me get my mental game right and we decided that that's something that needs to keep being incorporated into my game because that's when I play better,” Phillips said. “I’ve got to get my juices going.”
There was speculation he might have been a bit too emotionally charged in what would be his final game with the Dolphins, a 38-7 loss on Sept. 30 at New England. Phillips had what was reported as a heated sideline exchange with his position coach, after he wasn’t inserted to replace a teammate who Phillips said was injured and had asked Phillips if he would go in for him.
“I said, 'Why do you keep taking me off the field?' ” Phillips said. “There could have been some different language used there. It's football, it's an emotional sport. It's men and a lot of testosterone out there. It was a normal football discussion.”
Even if the incident didn’t directly lead to Phillips’ release from the Dolphins, it was seen by some in the media as the final straw in a deteriorating relationship between the player and the team.
Phillips disputes the notion that the Dolphins were looking for an excuse to get rid of him.
“That wasn't the case,” he said. “I just was not happy and I didn't want to be there. They did me a favor.”
Of course, as favors go, nothing can match the one the Waggoners did for Phillips and his son last year.