Nov. 9, 2012
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Senior Night approaches for UVa's football team, which plays its final home game Thursday against North Carolina. For tight end Colter Phillips, the pregame ceremony, during which parents accompany their sons onto the field at Scott Stadium, will remind him again of the loss he suffered Aug. 9, 2010.
In rural Alaska, his father, Bill Phillips, was among the five people killed in a plane crash that day.
Colter Phillips' heart is sure to ache on Senior Night, but it's not as if his father is ever far from his thoughts.
"I miss my dad every day, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him," Phillips said. "I think the hardest thing for me, at least during the season, is after games, because he's the first person I would talk to after every game, regardless of what happened. If he was there, we'd talk in person, and if not, on the phone. With time it's gotten better, but it's definitely something that I've had to learn to deal with."
A fifth-year senior from Darnestown, Md., who will graduate from UVa next month, Phillips has leaned on his teammates and his family for support since the death of his father, a former University of Evansville football player. His best friends on the team include his roommates Kyle McCartin, Bill Schautz and Ausar Walcott, offensive lineman Matt Mihalik, linebacker Steve Greer and tight end Paul Freedman.
"His family, and then the football family, have really kind of put their arms around him, and that's a good thing," Virginia coach Mike London said.
Phillips said: "I have a ton of great teammates that have always supported me and helped me out through the thick and thin. Without those guys on the team, I definitely think that I would not be where I am today."
Freedman, who's from Belleair Beach, Fla., said his parents and Phillips' mother, Janet, have grown "interchangeably close" since the plane crash. Freedman and Phillips have visited each other's homes and room together on the road during the season.
"I think he's done an absolutely incredible job with the way he's handled it," Freedman said, "and I think it's a reflection of the entire family, and I think it's a reflection of Mr. Phillips, too, how he raised them."
In June 2011, Colter's mother moved to Charlottesville with the youngest of her and Mr. Phillips' four sons. Willy, who was badly injured in the plane crash in Alaska, is a ninth-grader at St. Anne's-Belfield School, where his friends include London's son Korben.
"I see them probably once a week," Colter said of his mother and his brother. "They're all busy and I'm pretty busy. But they come to most of my games, and it's definitely been nice to have them around, especially for my little brother to be able to hang around with my friends and I. It's definitely something that I think has been special for him, to be a part of my life."
His relationship with his mother has changed over the past two years, Phillips said. "There are certain things that we've had to deal with together, because my dad isn't here, and together my brothers and I have all had to pick up the slack and contribute to our family in whatever way we can."
Phillips' brother Paul is a redshirt sophomore tight end at Indiana University. The oldest brother, Andrew, is a Stanford alumnus who spent the 2011-12 academic year at UVa, where he earned a master's degree in the McIntire School of Commerce. Andrew, who played football at Stanford, now lives in the Bay Area and works for Google.
"He got married this summer," Colter said, "and he's just kind of living the dream out there."
Starting Saturday, when UVa (3-6, 1-4 ACC) hosts Miami (5-4, 4-2) at Scott Stadium, the 6-6, 250-pound Phillips has three regular-season games left in a college career marked not only by tragedy but by physical setbacks. Injuries -- to his hamstring, his foot and his ankle -- slowed him in his first three seasons, and he had major surgery to repair ligament damage in his left ankle early this year. But Phillips has endured the pain, missing only three games during his career. He's made 27 starts and long ago established himself as a player on whom the coaching staff can depend.
"Just do what Freedman and Colter do," strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus likes to tell young players in the McCue Center weight room.
Phillips, a graduate of Georgetown Prep in Maryland, has six receptions for 37 yards this season. For his career, he's caught 32 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns. He's unlikely to be selected in the NFL draft, but Phillips won't put away his cleats when his senior season ends up.
"I've played this game my whole life," he said. "I think it's definitely worth pursuing what I can do at the next level, and if it works out, great. If not, I'll just have to figure out what the next step is."
Eventually, Phillips said, he'll probably attend graduate school. He's majoring in anthropology and minoring in environmental science at UVa. His brother Paul is in Indiana's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Andrew majored in classics at Stanford. Their father, Phillips said, stressed the value of a liberal-arts education.
"Don't study something just to make money," Phillips said. "He always said it will work itself out, as long as you enjoy what you're studying and you really put forth effort and do the best you can. That's what college is all about."
As for where he'll be and what he'll be doing 10 years from now, Phillips said, "I honestly have no idea. It could be anything from being a fishing guide out in the middle of Alaska to being head of a company somewhere. I'm going to just kind of figure out things as they come and try to have some fun on the way."
With only one class this semester, Phillips has more time for film study and for treatments in the training room. "I've been really taking care of my body, and it's definitely been helping me out on the field," he said. "On top of that, I've also been doing a lot more community service stuff."
Once or twice a week, as part of the ACE program, Phillips serves as a mentor for area youths. He also visits patients in the hospital and volunteers with the Charlottesville Boys and Girls Club.
His attitude toward athletics has changed since his father passed away, Phillips said.
"It made me realize that sports weren't the only thing," he said. "I was raised in a great family, went to great schools, and never really had to worry about anything growing up. Losing my father right before my sophomore season was definitely something I had to learn from. I used to get upset about messing up on a play -- and it still happens -- but I take things out on the field a lot less seriously and realize that there's a lot more to life outside of football."
The funeral for Mr. Phillips was held Aug. 20, 2010, in Potomac, Md. About 60 people from UVa bused up for the service, including London and many of Colter's teammates. Colter returned to Charlottesville and rejoined the team after the funeral, his life forever changed.
"I think in an interview right after I came back from being away I said, `I feel like I've grown up 10 years in the past 10 days,' " Phillips recalled, "and that's definitely something I feel like I've had to do. Before, I always had this safety nest of my father and not having to really worry about the future or financial issues or anything like that. It's definitely made me a lot more aware of what's going on in the world and what things I need to do to be self-sufficient and successful."
London said: "People handle grief in their own way. When Colter leaves here [after practice], or at night, I don't know how he handles that. But on the surface it appears that there's not a day that goes by that he doesn't think about his father. But at the same time he understands his legacy will be lived on through him and his brothers."