By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In rural Alaska, a plane went down in rugged terrain, and Colter Phillips’ life changed forever. Among those killed in the Aug. 9 crash was his father, Bill Phillips. Survivors included 13-year-old Willy Phillips, the youngest of Colter’s three brothers.
“You always hear of things like this happening, and I never in a million years would have thought it would happen to me,” Colter said Wednesday evening on a post-practice teleconference with reporters. “It’s just one of those things that you see on the news and you’re just like, ‘That’s terrible,’ and all that, and you just never really think it’s going to happen to you.
“This is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through. My dad, he was one of the most important people in my life, and having to move on and do a lot of the things that he helped me with, it’s been difficult. At the same time, it’s made me be a lot more independent. I feel like I’ve had to grow up 10 years in the past month.”
Phillips, a redshirt sophomore from Darnestown, Md., is a tight end on UVa’s football team. His other two brothers play college football too — Andrew at Stanford and Paul at Indiana.
After the plane crash, the brothers left their respective schools and rushed to help their mother deal with the tragedy.
“We were all prepared to do whatever she needed,” Colter recalled. “If we had to miss the season, if we had to stay home with her and figure everything out,” the brothers would have.
From the start, however, Janet Phillips insisted that her three oldest sons would “go back to school and do everything that my dad would have wanted us to do this year,” Colter said. “That was hard for us at first, because we thought we needed to stay at home with her and take care of her. But she’s a very strong woman, and she’s been doing an amazing job at keeping her composure and figuring everything out.
“It’s going to be tough for her, but she’s going to be OK, and she has all four of us to take care of her.”
The funeral for Mr. Phillips, who played football at Evansville, was held Aug. 20 in Potomac, Md. About 60 people from UVa bused up from Charlottesville, including football coach Mike London and many of Colter’s teammates.
“It just absolutely meant the world to me to have all the guys come up and support me and my family and to truly be there for me when I needed it most,” Phillips said. “It just absolutely meant the world to my mom, and it was really nice of Coach London to change the schedule and allow everyone to come up and see me.”
Phillips returned to Charlottesville after the funeral. He was happy to be back with his teammates, but it was a difficult time for him.
“First of all, I was out of shape. I hadn’t worked out in two weeks,” Phillips said. “I was behind on my assignments, I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I was just really angry. I was not mentally doing very well.”
Before his father’s death, Phillips said, he’d been playing well, and then “I come back and I’m not playing well … It was a very frustrating time for me. But after about two or three practices, I started to get my assignments down and get back into it and started catching the ball.
“Right now I feel like I’m playing the best that I’ve ever played. I know my dad’s up there watching me, and he’s helping me when I’m out on the field.”
In Virginia’s opener last weekend, Phillips had a reception on which he tumbled into the end zone, but the official ruled that he was down at the Richmond 1-yard line. A video review upheld the call — to the displeasure of the crowd of Scott Stadium, as well as UVa players and coaches — and Phillips had to settle for a 12-yard gain. The Cavaliers scored on the next play and won going away, 34-13.
“It was an awesome effort by Colt to make that dive and that flip into the end zone,” quarterback Marc Verica. “It would have been nice to see Colt get it, considering what he’s been through, but he still made a great play. We’re all rooting for him, and I think he’s going to have a good season.”
London said: “He’ll get his chance to get in the end zone. We’ll make sure that happens for him. But he’s an ultimate team player.”
Asked Wednesday night about the play, Phillips said it “really just happened so fast. I didn’t know where I was when I landed, but when I stood up and saw that I was in the end zone, I just assumed the best. But the referee made the call, and I’ll respect his decision. It would have been nice to get a touchdown, but I’ll just have to get one next week.”
The Wahoos (1-0) are scheduled to fly Thursday to California, where they will meet 16th-ranked USC (1-0) on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. Across town at the Rose Bowl, Stanford’s game against UCLA will start at the same time.
“So my mom is going to start at my game, and then she’s going to find a way to get over to [Andrew’s] game for the second half,” Colter said.
Janet Phillips would love to have Willy accompany her to L.A., but he may not be able to make the trip. He’s had three operations since the plane crash and is still recovering from his injuries: a badly broken foot, a broken nose and a broken wrist.
After the plane went down, Colter said, Willy was the only survivor who was mobile. “So he was running around helping everybody out. He had a broken foot, and it can’t be easy to walk around on a broken foot, but everyone else’s injuries were so much more that they wouldn’t have survived without his help. So he’s an absolute hero, and I’m just so proud of him for really stepping up when he needed to.”
Before every practice, Colter writes his father’s initials on his wrist. He did that before the UR game, too.
“And then I saw my mom at the game, because she has tickets right behind our bench, and I pointed to her and then I pointed up to the sky to my dad,” Phillips said. “That’s just kind of what I’m going to do for the rest of my playing career. He’s always going to be with me when I’m out there.”
One month after his father’s death, there “still is a sense of shock when I’ll think of something and in my mind, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ll ask Dad about that,’ and I’ll have to kind of think again,” Phillips said.
“It’s been a very shocking experience, but at the same time I’ve also learned that there are a lot of people in my life that love and support me, especially my team and my family and all my friends here at UVa, and it’s been such a great experience to have all of them support me and be behind me through this whole thing.”
And so Phillips perseveres. His father would have expected nothing less from him, he knows.
“It’s what you’ve got to do,” Phillips said. “You’ve just got to keep moving forward and staying positive.
“Every day when I wake up, I just try to live it like it’s going to be the best day of my life, because you never know when it’s going to end. I learned that really personally, and I’m going to carry that with me for the rest of my life.”