For 12-year old Harrison Phillips, the goal he had just settled on was not a small one. For most kids that age, the goals are usually good grades in school, landing a part in the school play or making the modified team in middle school. Phillips was already on to his career.
He had already taped the goal to the ceiling over his bed and on the wall next to the mirror he looked into every morning when he was combing his hair.
The goal was just three letters.
It wasn’t a big goal. It was a gigantic one, especially considering his parents had only just begun to allow him to play football when he turned 12.
“We wouldn’t let Harrison play football until sixth grade, just because he was so big,” said his mother, Tammie Phillips. “We figured if he couldn’t get all the fundamentals of football down, why should we let him play? They weren’t going to let him tackle anyone because he was so big.
“All he talked about was how he couldn’t wait to tackle someone. We knew once he put a helmet on that it was over. He said he just felt like there was love in the air once he put a helmet on and could tackle people.”
In addition to his love for football, Paul and Tammie Phillips instilled a goal-setting mindset in their two children at an early age.
“We both come from goal-setting families.” said Mrs. Phillips. “We would tell the kids for dreams to come true you have to set little goals first and then hopefully as you accomplish those you’ll get to the big one. That’s what we started with, but of course Harrison went right for the big one.”
“The NFL logo has been the background on my phone since I had my very first phone in the sixth grade,” he said. “I’ve had my current phone for four years and it’s been there. I had a smart phone before that for four years of high school. I had one there. I set that background on a flip phone that I had before that.”
So how committed was he?
Phillips, at age 16, got a tattoo on his left deltoid, of a cross to represent his strong Christian faith, with seven footballs lined up inside it.
“When he talked about the tattoos that he wanted, he drew them out at home and showed them to us beforehand,” said Tammie Phillips. “We approved of them. He can’t go get them himself when he’s 16-years old. Our Christian faith is strong and he knew to really get them he’d have to incorporate some Christian values to sway us a little bit more. That helped. So when he drew that cross with the footballs in it, I thought it was beautiful. I went with him and he got it.”
“I didn’t have a Division I scholarship yet, but it was just that mindset of, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to make it.’ Just think it into existence,” said Phillips, who also has a bible verse of 2 Timothy on his side. “So much visualization and thought and prayer and positive reassurance. I just prayed about it all the time. I wanted it as a constant reminder of every decision I made.”
The right choices
When Phillips would check to see what time it was in the middle of the class on his phone, there was the NFL logo.
“I’d see that emblem and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be on my phone in class right now,’” said Phillips. “Or if I’m out and I check the time, I see it’s 11:30 and then I see the logo and I would think maybe I should head home.
“We were recently told by coach (McDermott) at the end of practice that everything you’re doing has to be like you’re winning. Even getting out of your car. Look like a winner getting out of your car. When you lace up your shoes, lace them up like a winner. Do everything playoff caliber.
“I think that I wanted to make those same life decisions, but instead of winning it was what I had to do to become a professional football player.”
Everything he did, or didn’t do, as a teenager was linked to that goal.
From taking a junior day visit to Stanford to compete with other top prospects to try to earn a college scholarship, which he did. To overcoming a knee injury that cost him his sophomore season. To being an active member of the community while at Stanford. Phillips did it all with the NFL in mind.
“In college I set an alarm on my phone at 10:30 every night and all it said was N-F-L,” he said. “And when it went off I would always think I’ve got to get to bed. You want to be a pro? You need your sleep. So, at 10:30 the alarm would go off and say NFL. I’d stop whatever I was doing and go to bed.”
“I never told him to do any of that kind of stuff, or eat properly, or get enough sleep,” said his mother. “He went to work out. Nobody ever had to say you need to work out now. When the kids were partying and experimenting with alcohol or whatever, I never ever worried about him doing any of that.”
Making the goal a reality
There’s no debating that Phillips had the benefit of being physically gifted as his three-consecutive high school state wrestling titles in Nebraska will attest, but to have the singular focus he possessed at such a young age is rare.
“I just found my why early,” Phillips said flatly. “The whole saying, ‘You’re more than a football player,’ I’m very passionate about things off the field, but for the longest time I did identify as a football player. That’s what I do. I play football.”
And Phillips played it very well. It’s rare, both in college and the NFL that a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme will lead the team in tackles. They’re typically entrusted with tying up a pair of blockers so their linebackers can run and hit and make plays. Phillips had those same responsibilities, but made over 100 tackles anyway to lead the Cardinal in his senior season.
A first-team All-Pac 12 honoree, Phillips was also a Lott Trophy finalist, an FWAA second-team All-American and was selected to the AFCA Good Works team for his community work. His parents have his awards, along with those of his older sister Delanie, an accomplished soccer player, in a seven-shelf curio cabinet in the front entry way of their home.
“I think we personally as parents believe that helps them see their accomplishments every day and know if they’re satisfied with that that’s great, but if there’s more that you want, there’s always that blank space in the curio cabinet,” said Mrs. Phillips. “There’s always that blank spot in there for the next one as a motivator.”
“I’ve always lived by, ‘Anything in life worth doing, is worth overdoing,’” Phillips said. “So when it comes to study habits and film, it’s worth it to watch film, so let’s over watch film. It’s worth it to be recovered and to get in the training room, so let’s be in there for two hours instead of an hour. The weight room - everything.”
Harrison credits his strict adherence to that mantra to his wrestling background.
“I think most of my habits that I developed started with wrestling because it was my first sport,” he said. “It’s a mindset that you want to always get better. You have to be tougher than the other person.
That wasn’t an easy task for Phillips, who was wrestling before he was in kindergarten.
“He was so big that at three or four-years old he was wrestling kids that were eight because he was the same weight,” said Tammie Phillips. “He was losing every match because these kids were more mature and knew what they’re doing. They knew what takedowns were and he’s four-years old and he can’t quite comprehend some stuff.”
But there was one part that Phillips understood perfectly. In his mind no one was going to beat him.
“When he was losing he just kept saying, ‘I still going to beat him anyway,’” said his mother. “I think that first year he went 2-10. He lost all the time because there were all these big kids he had to wrestle against. It was a great learning year for him, to understand that yes he was losing, but while he’s losing he’s getting better because he’s learning from the kids he’s losing to.”
“You have to work harder than the other person,” said Phillips of his wrestling days. “So that’s kind of the approach that I had.”
It’s an approach that meshes unusually well with the culture Sean McDermott is building in Buffalo’s locker room. The Bills head coach wants grinders and Phillips unquestionably fits the description.
“He works hard, definitely a blue-collar mentality,” said Bills DE Trent Murphy of Phillips. “He’s got to prove himself still so he’s got that chip on his shoulder, but he’s cut from the same cloth. He’s from a wrestling background so he wants to get down and dirty and he’s an intelligent player too, so he’ll be just fine.”
The next step
Phillips is quickly realizing he’s been dropped into a very fortunate situation being surrounded by veterans like Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei, Murphy and Kyle Williams. The Bills rookie is trying to be the best sponge he can be.
“He does ask a lot of questions for sure, but it’s good,” Murphy said. “He’s excited and he wants to learn. You’d rather have somebody ask too many questions and try to absorb everything from the dudes around him than have someone who’s the other way around.”
Also benefiting Phillips is the willingness of veteran players at his own position to share their knowledge with him in the hopes of bringing him along faster. That doesn’t happen in every NFL locker room, where some rookies are viewed as a threat.
“I think he’s going to be in a direct advantage with myself inside and Star, where we’re going to teach him and bring him along and show him everything because withholding information from him does us no good,” said Kyle Williams. “The better and faster we can bring these young guys along the better our football team is going to be, and that’s all I care about.”
For the longest time, the NFL was all Phillips ever cared about. Now that he’s here, what’s next?
Will that NFL shield on his phone’s screensaver be changed to something else?
“My girlfriend Shae has definitely mentioned it a lot,” Phillips said. “She’s like, ‘Alright let’s change your background now. Can we get a picture of us?’ She’s like, ‘I’ve been looking at this thing for five years. Can we get something else?’”
As Phillips sits and thinks about his girlfriend’s request, he’s contemplating how to get around it because he already has the next goal in mind.
“Maybe I’ll get an I-pad and put what she wants on that,” he said. “Because if I do change it on my phone, unfortunately for her it’ll be the Lombardi trophy.”