He was entitled to a full-on meltdown or, failing that, several minutes of quiet, dignified weeping. But Andrew Phillips is an offensive lineman to the marrow of his mastodon-sized bones. That means he is disinclined to attract attention to himself. It means that, in addition to striking a blow, the 6'5" 302-pounder has been trained to absorb one. It means that stoicism is his default mode. So Phillips, who starts at left guard for Orange Bowl--bound Stanford, sat stone-faced on an airplane on Aug. 10, coming to terms with the worst news of his life.
This is an article from the Dec. 20, 2010 issue
He'd been awakened around four that morning by a call from his mother, Janet, who told him that his father, Bill, and 13-year-old brother, Willy, had been two of the nine people on a single-engine float plane that crashed into a mountain in southwest Alaska the previous afternoon. There were survivors, Janet told him. But no one knew yet whether his father and brother were among them.
Andrew hustled to the San Jose airport to catch a flight to Seattle, where he would connect to Anchorage. With the plane still taxiing to its gate in Seattle, Andrew phoned an aunt, who had news: Willy was banged up—he'd broken his nose and shattered his left ankle—but was going to be O.K.
"I asked her, 'Well, what about my dad?' " recalls Andrew.
"And that's when she just lost it."
The fog and rain enveloping Alaska's Lake Nerka had lifted. And so, shortly after 2 p.m. on Aug. 9, pilot Terry Smith agreed to fly a party of eight friends from a corporate lodge to a fishing camp 52 miles south and east, on the Nushagak River, where they hoped to catch the daily allowable limit of feisty, arm-long silver salmon. The plane never arrived, slamming into the side of a mountain with such force that it gouged a 300-foot-long trench, traveling uphill, before coming to rest. (The NTSB is still investigating the cause of the crash.)
Five died, but four lived—thanks in large part to Willy, who had crawled out of the fuselage and waved to a passing search plane. Without his signal, rescuers would have assumed that there were no survivors and taken much longer to reach the wreckage.
Because the dead included Ted Stevens, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, news accounts made only fleeting mention of the other victims. The pilot was killed, as were 48-year-old cable company executive Dana Tindall and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey, a 4.0 student who'd earned the men's respect the night before by taking their money at poker. The news stories that dwelled on anyone other than Stevens tended to mention his longtime friend Sean O'Keefe, the ex-NASA chief who survived the crash with broken bones, along with his 19-year-old son, Kevin. The fourth survivor, a Washington lawyer named Jim Morhard, broke 11 ribs and suffered other injuries, which, while severe, were not so debilitating that they prevented the thirsty Morhard from asking paramedics for permission to drink the beer that had been on the plane.
Rating only cursory mention was Bill Phillips, whom news outlets described as a "Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Stevens chief of staff." While he was both of those things, that description doesn't begin to capture the oversized personality of this giant of a man. The 6' 7" Phillips, a former defensive lineman for the University of Evansville from 1972 through '75, was raised in Cleveland to have a love for the outdoors. One of his first jobs out of college was as an officer for the National Bank of Alaska in the backwater town of Homer, described on a local bumper sticker as A QUAINT LITTLE DRINKING VILLAGE WITH A FISHING PROBLEM.
"He was almost fired for one of his first loans," recalls Janet. Bill, as the story goes, was part of a team that had green-lighted a line of credit to a company that made, among other things, Moosel-toe or "Christmas ornaments fashioned from hardened moose-droppings," recalls his wife. Bill Phillips was not afraid to take a chance. While living in Alaska in the late 1970s, he bought his first commercial fishing boat, which would eventually evolve into Supreme Alaska Seafoods. "That industry was macho, dangerous, hard to make money," she says, drily, "so of course he found that irresistible."
In 1981 Bill went to work for Stevens and moved to Washington, running his growing fishing business from a distance. Weary of paying so much money in lawyer fees, Phillips enrolled at Georgetown's law school, taking classes at night. On Jan. 21, 1985, the day of Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, Phillips attended a party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. There, he was thunderstruck by a stunning, statuesque woman in a skintight, one-shoulder dress. A Senate staffer who did some modeling on the side, Janet Kelly had come to the party from a fashion show. "I am going to marry that woman," Bill told a friend.
"Marry her? I'll bet you a thousand bucks you can't get her phone number," came the reply. Twenty-three months later, that friend made a great show of counting out 10 $100 bills during his toast at their wedding.
Much was made, in the wake of his passing, of Senator Stevens's contributions to the state of Alaska. But Bill Phillips left an impressive legacy of his own, in his professional sphere, yes, but also on the current landscape of college football. Andrew, a three-year starter on one of the nation's best and nastiest offensive lines, is one of three Phillips brothers playing in Division I-A. Colter, who turned down a scholarship from Stanford to attend Virginia, is a third-year sophomore tight end whose 18 catches this season included three for touchdowns. Paul, also a tight end, is a freshman at Indiana who redshirted this season.
This explains the highly unorthodox back page on the program from Bill's memorial service, which drew some 1,400 friends and family on Aug. 20 at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Potomac, Md. It is a table with three columns—one for each of the 2010 football schedules of Stanford, Virginia and Indiana.
"Bill had made travel plans for the entire season," says the accompanying text, "and loved it when he could get friends to join him. As Bill would say, 'Pick out a game and come with us!' The offer still stands...—Janet."
Andrew Phillips had missed nearly 2½ weeks of fall camp when he returned to the Cardinal in late August. It was near the end of a practice, with the players arrayed in two long stretch lines. Ever the offensive lineman, he hoped to slip back in with minimal fanfare. "I didn't want this big, Rudy-type moment," he recalls.
Too bad. As soon as they saw him, his teammates mobbed him. For Andrew it was a clarifying moment. Poleaxed by their loss, he, Colter and Paul had debated taking the season off, spending the fall at home to take care of their mother and Willy. In the end, with a firm nudge from Janet, they agreed that their father would've wanted them to get back to camp, strap it on and keep going.
"I knew the right thing to do was to carry on, to continue with my life and keep things as normal as possible," says Andrew, "but it wasn't clear to me how that was going to happen. But seeing everyone my first day back, getting all those hugs—that's when it made sense."
For all three brothers the grief has been shared, the path to healing illuminated, by a sublime collection of teammates, coaches and random well-wishers. Andrew received so many texts and calls in the days after his father died that the buzzer in his phone—"the thing that makes it vibrate"—gave up the ghost, forcing him to replace his cell.
Paul was "basically adopted," says Janet, by the family of his close friend Jake Zupancic, a freshman safety at Indiana whose father, Tom, is the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Indianapolis Colts. "When something like this happens," says Paul, "you realize your teammates aren't just your friends. They're your brothers. Even the seniors were coming up to me, saying stuff like, 'If you need anything, I got your back.'"
All three head coaches, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, Virginia's Mike London and Indiana's Bill Lynch (since fired), attended the memorial. For good measure, London brought most of the Cavaliers' team. Andrew, Colter and Paul each spoke, and all later agreed that they'd learned a lot about their father, just from talking to his old friends. "He'd probably be a little angry," Colter observed with a grin, "hearing some of the stories from his buddies from when he was single and working on the Hill."
Colter ended his tribute with a rousing "Go 'Hoos!"—short for "Wahoos." (Harbaugh would later ask, "What does that mean?") Paul got big laughs during his remembrance as he recounted one of his father's distinctive habits:
"He always said, 'I love you' at the end of every text [message], almost like it was pasted in, part of his signature.
"Hey, what's going on? Love you, Dad.
"Good game! Love you, Dad.
"Where the HELL are you? I've called you 10 times! Love you, Dad."
Deeply impressed by the memorial, Harbaugh made a decision on the flight back to the Bay Area. The 2010 Cardinal would dedicate the upcoming season to their families. Before every practice and home game of Stanford's finest season ever, the team filed past a board in the locker room festooned with family pictures of the 107 players and 28 coaches and other staff members.
Harbaugh returned to campus with an assignment for each player. "Each guy wrote a letter to their mom and dad, telling them how much they appreciate them." The idea, he says, "is to include them in the season as much as possible."
This is a big day!" announced Janet on Nov. 17. As of that Wednesday, Willy was out of his wheelchair, hobbling around the house in a rigid plastic boot. He's putting in half days at school; the ankle still hurts too much to stay a full day, and he must undergo physical therapy. Sitting in his Washington Redskins pajamas on the living room sofa, he's not ready to talk about the moment when he came to inside the plane and realized that his father was gone.
He was thrown from the second row of seats into the cockpit. No one else could move. Climbing out through the smashed windshield, he exited the plane and reentered through the rear of the aircraft to clear debris and assist the survivors.
"He was the only one of the four of us who could actually walk," Sean O'Keefe told NBC's Dateline.
"I didn't really walk," says Willy. "It was more sliding around on my knees and hands."
Two of the first people in the air, once the search began, were husband and wife Ron Duncan and Dr. Dani Bowman. Based in Anchorage, they were old friends of the Phillipses'. Bowman is a pediatric critical care physician; Duncan is the founder and president of the Alaskan cable company GCI, which owns that lodge on Lake Nerka. He's also a pilot. Flying west over the Muklung Hills, they spotted the wreckage. "There was Willy, outside the aircraft in a white sweatshirt, waving his arms," recalls Bowman. "That's how we knew there were survivors."
Duncan dropped her at a nearby dirt airstrip, where she boarded a helicopter that deposited her—at considerable peril, for conditions had continued to deteriorate—roughly 1,000 feet above the crash site, where she was joined by another rescuer. After a rain-soaked bushwhack over giant boulders and through dense stands of alder in gathering darkness, they reached the plane.
Looking out from the remains of the left rear door was Willy. Behind him, in an attitude that Bowman describes as "almost peaceful," was his deceased father.
Bowman spoke to the boy, whose nose, she noticed, was badly broken, pushed off to one side. He gave her updates on the condition of the survivors. He didn't mention the pain in his own shattered ankle. They had this exchange:
"Willy, you know your dad is dead."
"Yes, I know that."
"Can you still help me?"
"Yes, I can."
Bowman had a limited supply of Demerol and Valium, which she intended to divide up among the survivors.
"No," said Willy. "Please give my share to somebody else." While his dad's body remained in the fuselage, he spent the night under the wing, huddling for warmth with Bowman.
Some 17 hours after the crash Willy was airlifted to the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. And what did he remember of that flight? "Not too much," says Willy. "I had to pee really bad when I got there. It'd been about 12 hours... ."
A few days later Andrew handed him the phone. Harbaugh wanted to talk to Willy. "He's a hero," says Harbaugh, recalling that conversation. "I wanted to talk to a hero."
They chatted for a while, and then the coach offered the 13-year-old tight end a scholarship to play for Stanford one day. "I'll think about it," said Willy.
There is a six-inch step down from the kitchen to the living room in the Phillipses' spacious house in Darnestown, Md. It was Janet's habit to embrace her husband while standing atop that step, with him below. "That way," she explains, "I could wrap my arms around his shoulders, and we'd be eye-to-eye."
Thus entwined, a fortnight before he died, they spoke of how their lives were changing. With three of the four boys out of high school, they no longer had to wait up for them on weekend nights. "They'd all picked schools perfect for them," says Janet. "They were flourishing." So the couple stood, embracing and allowing themselves a glimpse of the future. "We are going to have so much fun," she remembers saying.
Janet is vibrant, engaging and attractive. She is also, depending on the day, a self-described "blithering mess." She apologizes for the stacks of items dotting the dining and living rooms. Books, clothes, shoes. The family has lived in the house for 23 years, but Janet has decided to sell it. "Bill filled it up," she says, "but it's too big without him."
Sealed in Ziploc bags on the dining room table are some of his personal effects, recovered from the crash site. In one bag are his Tag Heuer watch and his wedding ring, both of which flew off on impact. In another are his wallet and billfold. Do these items, these reminders, make her sad? On the contrary, she replies.
On a table in the living room is a four-page, handwritten letter from Harbaugh that Janet has reread countless times. You also must find comfort in knowing that the amazing qualities we all see in Andrew have come from you and Bill... .
He plainly gave his most tender care and deepest love to his family. He also received his most profound joy from the same. Bill Phillips' legacy will live on through his four sons because they were his foremost priority, and have the imprint of a man who led from the front with a true heart.
A minute before the opening kickoff of the 113th Big Game between Cal and Stanford on Nov. 20, Andrew Phillips veered from a scrum of teammates. Seeking out a secluded spot behind the bench, he took a knee. It had long been his pregame ritual to send up a quick prayer. As of this season, he finishes the prayer with a direct address to Bill: All right, Pop, let's do this! Then he points to the sky.
A week earlier Cal's ballyhooed defensive line had given top-ranked Oregon fits in a 15--13 near-upset. But the Bears simply had no answers to Harbaugh's power attack. Stanford scored on touchdown drives of 95, 86, 90 and 61 yards... . in the first half.
Sitting in Section P at Cal's Memorial Stadium, a blonde woman in Stanford colors was breathing more easily. "O.K.," said Lily Stevens Becker, her team up 31-nil, "it's getting to the point where I'm not incredibly nervous."
A daughter of Ted Stevens, she is a Stanford alumna and an old friend of the Phillips family. To support Andrew and celebrate the lives of their fathers, both of whom perished in the same crash, Lily, with her husband, Preston, made it to nearly all of Stanford's games this season—an especially deep commitment on the part of Preston, a Cal alum.
"Coming to these games, supporting Andrew, is healing for us," said Lily.
Preston is all for healing. But this is the Big Game, and he cannot bring himself to sit in the Stanford section. Lily understands. She's seated with a chipper 68-year-old named Bob White, Andrew's godfather, who can't get over the ass-whupping unfolding before him.
"They're just dominating the line of scrimmage," he effused. "Andrew in particular. Have you been watching him? I swear, the kid's getting better every week!"