Josh Phillips completed two comebacks during his career with the Albion College football program. While his goal of returning to win a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship with the Britons didn't materialize, Phillips graduated at the end of the fall semester with a fulfilling student-athlete experience that taught him valuable communication skills and produced lifelong relationships.
Phillips arrived at Albion as a defensive lineman in 2008. He was plying his trade in the third junior varsity game of the season when his career was sidetracked by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
While Phillips rehabilitated the knee and made the move to the offensive line, where he became an all-MIAA second-team performer in 2010, the impact of the U.S. recession on Michigan’s automobile industry was causing pain for his family. A native of Commerce Township in Oakland County, north of Detroit, Phillips depended on his grandmother to co-sign his college loans after his parents lost their jobs.
Albion took the final step toward winning the MIAA title in 2011 – it tied for second the previous two years – but Phillips could only watch from the bleachers when he could not find a co-signer.
Phillips was emotionally drained after no one answered his plea for assistance with the loans, but Lauren Forshee, his girlfriend who played volleyball for the Britons, wouldn’t let him give up on completing his degree at Albion as she compiled a list of scholarships. Phillips also had to take the step of reaching out to Albion’s financial aid office to let the College know about a new circumstance.
"My brother was beginning to enroll in community college and I started talking to some people in the financial aid office in mid-November [of 2011] to find out how much I would owe. I don’t know how, but the figure was half of what I previously needed to take out. I knew most of my federal aid would cover that and it gave me so much hope.
"It was weird when the Albion coaching staff happened to be at the restaurant when my buddies and I went out for all-you-can-eat chicken wings in late November," he added. "I didn't talk to [head] coach Craig Rundle like I needed to. That was part of the learning process – knowing people were available to help."
With all-MIAA performers Chris Ogston and Eric Woods slated to join Phillips on the offensive line for the 2012 football season, Phillips’ hope ignited into a burning passion as Albion established goals of winning another MIAA championship and earning victories in the NCAA Division III Playoffs.
"Knowing the mental state of the guys – knowing everyone wanted to go for the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship – I knew that’s something I wanted to be a part of," Phillips said. "The intensity – whether it be in practice or lifting in the offseason – was unlike anything I had experienced in high school sports. I constantly had guys pushing me to get better. It was something I loved and couldn’t wait to get back to.
"I had so much passion and I made sure the coaches saw it, whether it was in the weight room, spring practice, or early-morning running," he added.
The 2012 season started according to the script as Albion throttled Defiance (Ohio) College, 55-0, and scored a touchdown in the final two minutes to upset the nationally ranked team from Wheaton (Ill.) College, 22-21.
"We were the team we thought we would be," Phillips said.
Albion was on its way to improving to 3-0 – it scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and jumped out to a 28-7 halftime lead at Benedictine University – but the third game again proved fateful as Phillips tore the ACL in his right knee.
Phillips, who initially asked athletic trainer Sara Koski for any taping treatment that would get him on the field, transitioned to mentor first-year players who were pressed into action as Albion had to find replacements for both tackles and left guard.
"Josh was the voice of excitement and passion on the sidelines for every game after his surgery," said quarterback Spencer Krauss, an all-MIAA second-team performer in 2011 who was limited to spot duty in the final three games of the season after suffering a shoulder injury in the Benedictine game. "He stood, on crutches, on the sidelines yelling until he lost his voice for his teammates. Josh went from being an outstanding talent to an unsung hero. The rest of the guys respect and admire his love for the game and his team."
Phillips added, "I wasn't sure what my role on the team was going to be after the injury, but I knew I was still going to be at practice and help them out. I started to think this was meant for me to help the younger guys. I would constantly be watching their feet, their hands, their technique during drills and on film and I would provide feedback. They would come back to the sideline and say 'That worked really well' and they seemed to understand I have some insight."
A biology major, Phillips expects to pursue a 14-month nursing program before entering the work force. He leaves stronger for the experience.
"Yeah, I won’t win a championship, but it has made me stronger," Phillips said. "I put my whole self into the program and no matter what, I’m still a champion. It feels great to know I finished and left the program better."