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Return of Phillips More Than a Game : After a Brutal Beating, He Can See Things From a Different Perspective

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He sat at the lunch table and stared off toward another season. Interesting, Joe Phillips thought, how one’s perspective can change in a year.

The Chargers open another season Sunday in Pittsburgh and Phillips, a victim last September of a severe beating outside a Mission Beach restaurant, again will be the Chargers’ starting nose guard.

It will be the most special opener in the career of Phillips, 28.

Since 1987, Phillips’ first season in the organization, he has been considered the Chargers’ strongest player and one of the most intimidating players.

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“When he used to come into meetings, he always seemed mad at everyone,” Charger center Courtney Hall said. “People thought it was just Joe. Now, he walks around and he doesn’t look as angry. He’s a little more friendly.”

Times change. People change.

Phillips, 6-feet-5 and 300 pounds, can’t look straight and see up high anymore, so when he drops into his stance at the line, he has to adjust his head up. And he still has double vision when he looks to either side.

When he first started practicing this summer, he noticed the vision problems often. Lately, he hasn’t. He has learned to tilt and move, twist and turn. Once he maneuvers himself into position, it’s OK.

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He has learned. A few adjustments on the field are not too difficult, not after having spent 11 months changing his life.

Interesting, isn’t it, how perspective can change in a year.

“I’m not going to take (football) for granted,” Phillips said. “If it stays together today, I’ll say I made it through another day.”

If what stays together today?

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Phillips was talking about his head.

It was Sept. 26, three games into what was shaping up as his finest season, when his life and football career met the devil.

There was an altercation outside Saska’s restaurant, and Phillips was badly beaten by three men. One wore steel-toed boots. Once they got Phillips down, the man with the boots allegedly kicked him in the head more than 30 times. Phillips’ head cracked like an egg.

“There’s still a plate in there,” Phillips said, “and a piece of Teflon holding the eye in there that shouldn’t be there.”

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Those were needed because he sustained a fractured nose, fractures to the eye orbit, a concussion and multiple bruises and scrapes. He nearly died.

“I think of it a lot,” Phillips said. “It’s not really a resentment any more. It’s like a wonderment.

“When you consider what was done . . . the mental state somebody had to be in for that two- or three-minute period. There has got to be some sort of sickness. There’s a real sick element there.

“I was in awe. When I started coming to, I said, ‘What the hell did these guys do to me?’ ”

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The left side of his face still is held together with screws. His left eye sits on a floor made of Teflon. Above his eyebrow, there is a titanium plate.

Phillips underwent two surgeries. The first was on his eye, the second to clear out his sinuses. His doctor has told him to expect chronic problems with his sinuses and that he probably will need more surgery.

He gets a severe headache if he reads for much more than an hour. That’s tough when he is only five units short of earning a degree from the University of San Diego law school and a stack of case books is waiting at home.

His helmet is fitted extra tight. His padding is filled with extra air.

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A nerve is dead, and Phillips cannot feel the left side of his helmet resting against his head. A few teeth are numb.

Part of Phillips is numb.

“Something inside me just kind of died,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever recover. You just lose something. A sense of personal security or whatever, it’s gone.”

When he was attacked, Phillips was with a woman named Kim Judson. At the time, she was the girlfriend of former Charger Les Miller. Judson and Miller were having problems, Phillips said, and he was attempting to mediate.

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They went to dinner. They dropped off Miller. Phillips and Judson stopped at Saska’s to talk some more. As they left, the three men were in a parking lot. Words were exchanged.

Then came the ambulance and the hospital bed.

Cynthia Phillips, Joe’s wife, received the call early the next morning. Her husband was in the hospital, said a voice on the other end. Critical condition. Better get over here.

When she walked into the hospital room, she immediately rushed into the bathroom and vomited.

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“I couldn’t believe the mess he was in,” she said. “Joe’s face was mush. His nose was all over his face. His eyes were swollen shut. Blood was in his mouth. Fluids were running out of his eye.”

He was blind in his right eye for two days. His left eye was shut for two weeks. His entire head was swollen. There was no escaping the pain in his head.

The eye doctor told her it was the worst case he had ever seen.

Joe Phillips Sr. flew to San Diego from his Oregon home later that day.

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“When I got there, there were two police officers, the doctor and Joe’s wife,” Phillips Sr. said. “I was scared to death I was going to lose my son after I saw him. It was a real vicious attack. Like wild animals. I’ve never run into that type of person.

“When I look back at it, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Linebackers Gary Plummer and Billy Ray Smith also visited Phillips in the hospital and brought him a Nintendo Game Boy. They started into the room and then had to go back in the hallway to compose themselves.

“It was probably one of the most hideous sights I’ve ever seen in my life,” Plummer said. “Here’s a guy who you relied on to protect you for the last three years against giants, and he’s lying helpless on a bed with his eye socket crushed.

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“You can’t even describe it and get a vivid picture. It’s phenomenal he’s still alive.”

And now he is preparing for Pittsburgh.

He already is beyond the first hurdle in coming back this season, that being an agreement he and Cynthia reached this summer. If he had a fear of losing his eye on the football field, that would be it. He would stop playing and turn his attention elsewhere.

He already was nearly finished with law school, wasn’t he? And he could always get a job acting. His wife is an actress and he had worked plenty on HBO’s series “First and Ten,” hadn’t he? And he does have a stockbroker’s license.

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Phillips could do without football. Right?

Yes.

And no.

“If anything, I think he wanted to prove to himself that he couldn’t be beaten,” Cynthia Phillips said.

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It took him a while to get motivated. At first, Phillips had difficulty concentrating on his workout schedule. Thoughts came at him like headlights on a lonely road in the middle of the night. Will things work out? Can I do it? What if I can’t? What about my vision?

The first steps were the toughest. He wanted to make sure he could still put up with the physical demands of the NFL so, he strapped on his helmet a few weeks before training camp, walked out into his garage, handed Cynthia a baseball bat and had her pound him over the head. He passed that test, and he made it through training camp.

He still doesn’t think he is at the point where he was 12 months ago. Physical tests disagree. In weightlifting workouts, the Chargers isolate each muscle group and then record the information. John Dunn, Charger strength coach, said Phillips is as strong right now as he was a year ago.

“Almost across the board, he is as strong or stronger,” Dunn said.

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Emotionally, though, it’s a different story.

Phillips talks about the mail he received during the past year, and remembers two particular letters.

One is from a man in Rochester, N.Y., who had been beaten up like Phillips. A couple of guys knocked him out and continuously kicked him in the head.

The other letter is from a lady whose son had a leg broken when two people held him down and a third stomped on it.

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Phillips shakes his head. Something inside of him has died. You read about society’s problems in newspapers and you watch footage on the news.

Then society jumps you, catches you off guard and suddenly you’re in a hospital room for a couple of weeks and your daughter is asking if daddy is dead.

Joe and Cynthia Phillips didn’t allow their daughter Ashley, 5, to visit her father in the hospital for two weeks. And when that time came, Cynthia had talked to the child psychologist. Ashley, Cynthia said, your daddy has a very scary mask on. Like at Halloween.

Ashley Phillips, probably the only little girl on her block who wears her father’s “Legion of Doom” T-shirt around the house, still worries when Joe leaves.

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“Whenever he came home for a day (during training camp) and then left, she’d say, ‘Where’s he going? When is he coming home?’ ” Cynthia said. “She’s very, very scared of this happening to him again.”

Lives change. Phillips, who always enjoyed a few drinks, had had a few too many the night of the attack. He enrolled in the Betty Ford Clinic last fall and vowed to cut out drinking. During training camp, Wednesday was pizza and beer night. Phillips would join the guys for the pizza. He passed on the beer.

He had a bitter contract disagreement with the Chargers last December when they said they would pay only half of his $315,000 salary because his injury was not football related. It was not the first disagreement he had had with Charger management.

During the off-season, Phillips’ agents worked out a one-year deal with the club. He says his relationship with the team is “definitely on an upswing.”

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Not long go, the three men who attacked him were sentenced to one year in a work furlough program and three years’ probation. Each received a fine of $250. Phillips and his attorneys now are in the process of suing them.

Changes? Joe Phillips sold his Porsche. Bought a Bronco instead.

“It’s so much fun,” Cynthia Phillips said. “In March we drove to Oregon. And we’ve taken weekend trips.

“I think it’s like a ‘You never know what you have until it’s gone’ type of thing.’ ”

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He could have understood a football injury. If someone had cut a knee out from underneath him, it would have been one thing. Or if his ankle snapped at the bottom of a pile-up he would have figured, that’s football.

You make your living in the NFL, these things happen.

But this?

“I was fairly convinced in the first three weeks that these three were sent to kill me,” Phillips said. “That someone had some sort of plan to render me incapacitated. There was no other reason in my mind.”

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No, he said, he has never looked forward more to another opening day. He is a bit apprehensive, concerned with getting his reads and his timing back, but maybe this will be his year.

“It’s funny,” teammate Burt Grossman said. “Joe thought he was playing better last year and he thought he was playing worse this year. But if you look at the films, it’s not even close. He’s so much better this year. He’s so much more focused.”

Maybe Joe Phillips has learned something. Maybe he isn’t playing football only for himself anymore. He’s also playing for his wife and daughter, for the doctor who put him back together and for those whose lives he touched when he almost lost his.

“When you’re laying there and three guys are basically beating you to death, you take on a different perspective,” Phillips said. “You look at it as a depraved world, and you try to do the best you can for you and your family.”

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He spoke slowly and he spoke quietly. A new attitude has arrived in time for a new season.

Interesting, isn’t it, how your perspective can change in a year.

“Everything is fleeting,” he said. “No matter how unbearable something seems, it’s not going to last.”


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