‘Pop’ and circumstance: The story of former Badgers QB Curt Phillips

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips throws a pass during the 2012 Big Ten football championship against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. (Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletics)
David Stluka

It’s been 10 years, but Curt Phillips remembers the sound as if it were yesterday.

POP! A torn ACL and a once-promising football future sidetracked.

“Obviously everything changed at that point,” the former Wisconsin quarterback said.

Before we go any further let’s make something clear: This is not a tale of woe, regret or life unfilled. Yes, there will be some unlucky breaks (and a lucky one) recounted, but it’s more about perseverance and drive, of not giving up and making the best of things. It’s the story of Curt Phillips.

For the uninitiated, Phillips was Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz back when Mertz was still playing Pop Warner. He was, according to 247 Sports, the first consensus four-star quarterback to sign with the Badgers.

That’s not the only thing which stood out about Phillips. He was from a small town in Tennessee, near the Virginia border, not exactly a hotbed of high school football or a place Wisconsin went to and found recruits. Phillips worked with a spread offense in high school, not playing under center or in a pro set like the Badgers, and was known for his ability to run. He was not a typical Wisconsin QB recruit to say the least.

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On top of all that, the Badgers weren’t exactly on his radar. Phillips laughs about it now.

“If you asked me to find Wisconsin on the map, I don’t think I could have told you where it was,” he admitted.

However, Phillips’ dad convinced him to go to any school which showed a lot of interest – “We were kind of road warriors,” Phillips said – but once he got to Madison, his decision was all but made. The lakes reminded him of home, he liked the kind of players Wisconsin recruited and then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was “just the type of guy I played for and always wanted to play for.”

But the clincher? Witnessing the offensive linemen firsthand in the weight room.

“I want to throw behind these guys,” Phillips remembered telling himself. “As a quarterback, how can you not be excited about that?”

Phillips committed in June before his senior year of high school and was Wisconsin’s prized offensive recruit – just one of two four-star players in the class overall – one which would include future NFL players such as tight end Jake Byrne and offensive linemen Peter Konz, Ricky Wagner and Kevin Zeitler.

It didn’t take long for Phillips to impress his new teammates as a freshman in 2008. He had that “it” factor you look for in a quarterback, a certain gravitas both commanded and earned.

“Some guys don’t know what it’s like to be a quarterback in college because in high school you’re more just a regular guy but in college you’re more put on a pedestal, and you have to act as such,” said former Badgers cornerback Marcus Cromartie, who was in the same recruiting class as Phillips and was also on the same official visit with him in August 2007. “You can go out, you’re a college student, you’re going to have your times at the bar, but you have to act according to who you are as a quarterback. I think he understood that early on, which has nothing to do with playing but understanding his surroundings. I think he was a natural-born leader.”

Phillips did it with his play, too. In 2008 as a freshman he was named Wisconsin’s scout team offensive player of the year (J.J. Watt was named the scout team defensive player of the year).

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips carries the ball during the 2013 Rose Bowl football game against the Stanford Cardinals (Photo by David Stluka, Wisconsin Athletics)
David Stluka

In a Twitter direct message conversation, former Badgers linebacker, and a starter on that 2008 team, Jaevery McFadden wrote of Phillips: “He would make us look like fools when it came to QB design plays. Like…it would piss us off LOL so in the locker room after practice we would kind of hate him, (but) ended up respecting him cuz he got us soooo ready for the game when ever we had a athletic QB.”

Phillips said that year did him a lot of good, not only helping him with the transition from a spread offense to a pro one, but also because it allowed him to figure out what he could – and couldn’t – do in college after getting away with most anything, including mistakes, in high school.

It all set up for a 2009 season in which the redshirt freshman Phillips was considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the starting job at quarterback. Then, out of nowhere, came junior Scott Tolzien.

“Scott just tore it up, I don’t think anyone would say they saw that coming,” said Phillips, who remains friends with Tolzien to this day, the pair communicating in some fashion every week. “It was fun to watch. I learned a lot from how he prepared. I think I took that for granted before, I was always able to rely on athleticism in those scenarios. But on the flip side seeing that way that Scott prepared, it’s unfortunate I didn’t have that at the time because that’s what set him apart. It certainly changed the way I prepared looking forward.”

Phillips was subjected to a backup role in 2009, getting into a handful of games, completing 7 of 12 passes for 65 yards and rushing for 138 yards on 14 attempts, 92 of those yards coming against Wofford.

With Tolzien returning in 2010 and coming off a good season, Phillips was again set to be a backup, although Wisconsin was setting up some special packages for him to run. It was then in a March scrimmage his life changed.

Early in the practice, Phillips dropped back to pass. Seeing a hole open in the middle of the line he took off running. Down the field, and he thinks perhaps even after the whistle blew, just “having fun,” he said, Phillips made a cut, but his foot got stuck in the turf.

“It’s kind of an unmistakable feeling at that point,” Phillips said. “A lot of times when people get hurt or if I had an injury before it’s like ‘Ah, I wonder if I tore my ACL?’ But once it happens there’s no doubt.”

Phillips wasted no time. He got back in the weight room, determined to get his knee stronger than ever. Three months into his rehab, he was on the field throwing a football.

A little over six months later, there he was, back on the field during a practice in November.

“You only got so much time,” Phillips explained. “The competitive side wants to get out there and you also see this time kind of ticking by.”

Phillips was back on the scout team going against the No. 1 defense, which he desired. He wanted to put his rebuilt knee to the test.

“And I made another weird move and popped it again,” he said. “Start the whole process all over again.”

This rehab, though, didn’t go as well. Phillips was back on the field for spring ball in 2011 but said he never felt right. Looking back, there was an obvious red flag as he said he lost nearly 60 pounds – going from 240 to 185. He went back under the knife – the third one on his right knee in 13 months — and it was found he had an infection. Another season, his second straight, was about to be lost.

Especially compared to the previous year and Russell Wilson’s transcendent season, Wisconsin’s 2012 quarterback play wasn’t exactly covered in glory. Junior transfer Danny O’Brien began the year as the starter and was benched in favor of freshman Joel Stave, the pair combining for nine touchdown passes in eight games. When Stave was injured against Michigan State, Phillips was given the starting nod the next week at Indiana.

Phillips only attempted seven passes as the Badgers won easily. Wisconsin lost its next two games, but both were overtime defeats. Phillips had thrown four TDs with just one interception in his three starts. A date with Nebraska, a rematch as the Huskers beat the Badgers earlier in the season, in the Big Ten championship loomed.

As it turned out, Phillips didn’t have to do much in that game other than hand the ball off. Wisconsin rushed for over 500 yards – Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon both topped 200 and James White eclipsed 100 – as Wisconsin rolled 70-31. Everything the Badgers threw at Nebraska worked.

“That was by far the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” Phillips said. “Everything that could possibly go well, did. It was just a blast. It was just fun; the whole thing was a celebration.”

The only thing that didn’t quite work to perfection was a pass from Jared Abbrederis to Phillips, who was tackled just shy of the goal line. “Yeah, that was weak,” Phillips laughed. “That was a weak performance.”

It wasn’t lost on Phillips how far he’d come. He hadn’t played for two years, and now he was headed to and was going to start in the Rose Bowl. In 2010, while his team was gathering at Staples Center for an event at that year’s Rose Bowl, Phillips was stuck rehabbing his knee in a basement somewhere trying to step over Gatorade bottles.

Still, he also knew this wasn’t the Curt Phillips of 2008 or ’09. He estimated he was probably 60-70% of the quarterback he once was.

“My play was very limited at that point compared to what I had been able to do previously,” Phillips said. “Totally different player. But that’s what forced mentally or from a leadership standpoint, I had to completely change my game. I had already had a shoulder surgery, I had already had the knee surgeries, just trying to whatever you can do to get it done without compromising some other things.”

Said Cromartie, who like Phillips was a fifth-year senior in 2012: “To be at school and see all the guys who came in with you playing, it’s tough. For you to go through that and not quit – and a lot of people quit – I always say if you stick around long enough there’s the pot of gold at the end, so he might not have found the gold he was looking for but I think got some reprieve knowing he finished the race and nothing for respect can come from a guy like that.”

Head coach Bret Bielema surprisingly left Wisconsin for Arkansas after the Big Ten title game. Phillips was watching the news with his roommate, Mike Taylor, and others including Chris Borland. They decided right there to ask Barry Alvarez to coach them in the upcoming Rose Bowl.

That was by far the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. Everything that could possibly go well, did. It was just a blast. It was just fun; the whole thing was a celebration.

Curt Phillips on the 2012 Big Ten championship

“How cool, from a Wisconsin standpoint, to have coach Alvarez come back and coach you in a Rose Bowl?” Phillips said. “Coach Bielema made the move he thought was right for him, some of the guys may have potentially been a little frustrated, but it almost fit well with the season, how much adversity everyone had been through.”

The Rose Bowl didn’t turn out how Phillips, Alvarez or the team wanted – a 20-14 loss to Stanford. Phillips said he was always good at blocking out outside noise, but he did take an opportunity to soak up the moment.

“I remember jogging out one of the last series, whenever we had that last drive – unfortunately I threw an interception there to seal it – but just kind of seeing that whole atmosphere, with the sun setting and the Rose Bowl, like it doesn’t get much cooler than this,” he recalled.

After having a respectable showing to the 2012 season – Wisconsin lost by a combined 13 points in the three defeats in which Phillips started – Phillips, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, figured he had a decent shot at being the starter again in 2013. Adding to the mix was that new head coach Gary Andersen had a predilection for mobile quarterbacks.

However, Phillips had yet another surgery after the Rose Bowl to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. He wasn’t 100% for the spring but he didn’t want to rest on his laurels. Andersen picked Stave to be the starter.

Even though I was like ‘You’re the sixth-year guy, you don’t have to take all the snaps,’ I didn’t ever want to take advantage of that. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything and give anyone an excuse,” Phillips said. “At the end of the day, they not only saw the talent in Joel, but I’m sure if I was a coach do I really want to invest in this guy and can I trust his knee to make it through a year? Even though I disagreed with that I understood, but it was a tough blow.

“You try to handle that as well as you can but it’s definitely something I was frustrated with. I felt like I put myself in a position to play, didn’t end up the way I would have liked.”

Phillips got into two games during the regular season, against Indiana and Purdue. He finished with two pass attempts and one carry. It certainly wasn’t how he expected his final year to end.

But it wasn’t over yet.

He had no expectation of playing in that year’s Capital One Bowl against South Carolina – see his above statistics for the reason why – but Stave got hurt and his name was called. Phillips didn’t exactly light it up – completing 7 of 12 passes for 37 yards with two interceptions and running once for seven yards – but at least he got to play in his final collegiate game.

“That was definitely not how we drew it up,” Phillips said. “I hadn’t taken many snaps in a while, but that was fun. It was kind of fitting just with the through the year it was fun having that last chance and playing against Jadeveon Clowney and the special player he was, it was a super-cool experience to go out with an unexpected opportunity to play.”

Phillips’ final collegiate tally: 60-of-107 passing for 642 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions, 44 carries for 248 yards and four surgeries on his right knee (and one on his shoulder).

“Thru all the stuff he went thru, I would go to battle for Curt!” wrote McFadden.

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips lines up under center Travis Frederick  during the 2013 Rose Bowl (Photo by David Stluka)
David Stluka

But remember, this is not a story about what could have been. It’s about what did happen. It was about time for Phillips to catch his lucky break.

After the Capital One Bowl, Phillips and some of the players were at a hotel bar where a kid was running around wearing Wisconsin gear (note: Phillips pointed out it wasn’t that late, hence the kid being there). Phillips and other players signed his shirt. Suddenly, the boy’s dad appeared. Phillips had never seen the man before but after striking up a conversation he asked the now-former quarterback, “What’s your game plan now?”

That question turned into a two-hour dialogue. As it happened, the man worked for Synthes, a medical device company specializing in, among other things, orthopedics. Phillips had been pre-med at Wisconsin and was readying to take the optometry admissions test. He wasn’t really aware of this field, but it sounded intriguing. Three weeks later he had a job offer from Synthes, he accepted, moved to North Carolina and, as he says, “never looked back.”

“Kind of laughed, the day football ends something else starts,” Phillips said.

Phillips is now back in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., where he works as a sales representative for Arthrex, another orthopedic company. As it turned out, all those injuries in college have helped him in his professional career.

“I do a lot of what unfortunately I know a lot about from my sports career,” he said. “Fixing ACLs, rotator cuffs, all the sports injuries, and then do a little of everything, traumas, joints, but primarily sports medicine. It’s been fun.”

That natural-born leadership and competitiveness of an athlete has helped him in the role as well. He manages a team of sales reps and makes it a point to often hire athletes.

“We’re managing surgeries on a daily basis, coming up with a schedule and game plan. It’s obviously a sales industry but it’s also a service industry … for athletes I think that comes naturally,” Phillips explained. “If you’re playing in college you don’t have to be told to put in any additional hours. If you want to be good at it, you’re going to do it on your own. That certainly translates to the work force.”

Phillips has taken away plenty of other things from Wisconsin as well, besides the constant reminder of his playing days, which limits his athletic activities these days to things like biking or snowboarding.

“I always joke it’s a pretty hard retirement,” he said. “I don’t run, I don’t do any impact stuff, I don’t play basketball, I try to keep my weight down. I try to stay active but it’s all non-impact stuff.”

But he formed a great many relationships, such as Tolzien and former strength coach Brian Bott, who will be a groomsman at his wedding. A wedding that was supposed to take place in May but because of the coronavirus has since been moved to September. It’s to take place on a ranch in Austin, Texas, which allows for plenty of social distancing. Phillips said, “travel will be the only issue.”

Phillips still tries to make it to Madison every year when possible to attend a game as well as Indianapolis when Wisconsin makes the Big Ten championship and a bowl game here and there, although he said now it’s more about reuniting than the football. If he can’t make it, he’s watching on TV.

Ask him about Wisconsin and be prepared to listen to Phillips brag about the school’s success not only in football but also academics.

Even with all the talk of injuries, opportunity lost and things not turning out quite as he planned when he committed to play at Wisconsin back in the summer of 2007, it’s hard not to get positive vibes from Phillips.

“I would not do it any differently,” is a phrase Phillips often uses unprovoked when discussing his time at Wisconsin. “It was just perfect.”