MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin’s football program holds its annual senior day festivities during Saturday’s final home game, nine players will be honored for their contributions to the team. Though the class is small, each man carries his own notable story of perseverance.
Running back Montee Ball endured a tumultuous offseason but now stands one touchdown shy of tying the NCAA career record. Offensive lineman Robert Burge nearly quit the team in January. Left tackle Ricky Wagner went from converted tight end to Outland Trophy candidate. Others dealt with injuries that required weeks or months of rehabilitation.
And then there is the story of quarterback Curt Phillips, whose persistence despite undergoing three ACL surgeries on his right knee would be admirable even if he never played a down of football again. On Saturday, he’ll cap his Camp Randall Stadium career with his second straight start — and his first career start at home — against undefeated Ohio State.
It’s certainly been an awfully long journey for Phillips, a fifth-year senior who arrived at Wisconsin in 2008 from Tennessee as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. Despite all the accolades, injuries prevented him from fully recognizing his tremendous talent for nearly five seasons. Now, wearing a bulky black knee brace, he holds the keys to the car as Wisconsin’s starter for the final three games of the season.
“It seems like it definitely has been a long time, but it’s flown by at the same time,” Phillips said. “I’ve really enjoyed all of it. I definitely don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made along the way. I’d do it all over again.”
Phillips earned the starting quarterback job over Danny O’Brien during practice two weeks ago. Starter Joel Stave broke his left collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State, which created the opening. Phillips, who missed both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, had not completed a pass since 2009.
During his first start against Indiana last Saturday, he completed 4 of 7 passes for 41 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in a 62-14 victory. Wisconsin also broke the single-game program record for rushing yards with 564.
Phillips was asked if he’d like to throw the ball more than seven times against Ohio State.
“Obviously playing quarterback I love throwing it,” Phillips said. “But I really could care less. Whatever the situation calls for. I have a lot of fun watching those linemen and the backs go for 500 yards. It’s a lot of fun for me too. It doesn’t really matter.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said that while Phillips rarely threw the ball against Indiana, he played smart football and used his mobility to scramble for first downs when opportunities existed. Phillips gained 68 yards rushing on seven carries.
“People that read the stats and make bad conclusions don’t understand he played a really good game running and throwing,” Bielema said. “My guess is Saturday is going to be even better.”
During Phillips’ darkest hours, teammates continued to rally around him, drawn to his perseverance and leadership qualities. The fact that he is actually playing makes Saturday’s game even more special.
“The way that he works and the way that he leads the team is just tremendous,” Wisconsin center Travis Frederick said. “Everybody has always had a tremendous amount of respect for him and the way that he plays and the way that he acts as a person. For him to get a chance to get in there and play and succeed is a really good feeling for us.”
Phillips never has been one drawn to the limelight, but even he admitted playing was more fun knowing his teammates were pulling for him to succeed. And there could be more good news on the horizon.
Because Phillips missed two full seasons with his knee injuries, he is planning to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Although Bielema called it a textbook case, Phillips understands nothing is certain with the NCAA.
“I know my parents and myself have made phone calls to the NCAA,” Phillips said. “They can’t tell you a yes or no answer, but it does seem pretty clear cut.”
If the NCAA sides with Phillips, he is hoping his story isn’t finished just yet. He may even be back to celebrate a second senior day at Wisconsin.
“It definitely wasn’t my plan initially to be here that long,” Phillips said. “I’ve enjoyed it. If I get a chance to stay around, I’d love to.”