Virginia football player Colter Phillips helps his family cope with recent tragedy

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 11:32 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- With three sons playing major college football at different schools, Janet Phillips is used to being away from her husband during Saturday afternoons in the fall. When watching games often thousands of miles apart, text messages are often the best way to stay in close touch.

So when Colter Phillips, a sophomore tight end at Virginia, appeared to score a touchdown in last Saturday's season opener in Charlottesville, Janet reached for her cellphone to text Bill, who typically watched their oldest son Andrew's games with Stanford.

That's when Janet was again confronted with the fact that no one would be on the receiving end of her message. William D. "Bill" Phillips, a lawyer, lobbyist and former Senate staffer who lived in Germantown, died in an Aug. 9 plane crash in Alaska that also killed former senator Ted Stevens.

"That was a very emotional time for me just to have to close my phone back up," Janet Phillips said. "But I do take some comfort in the fact that Bill probably saw the play from a much better place than I did. Bill knows if it was a touchdown or not."

On Saturday night, Colter and the Cavaliers will take the field against Southern California at Los Angeles Coliseum. At the same time about 17 miles away, his brother will join his Stanford teammates at the Rose Bowl to play UCLA. Janet and her youngest son, 13-year-old Willy, who survived the plane crash, will race from one venue to the other at halftime in order to see parts of both games.

This is how the Phillips clan has learned to cope: by continuing to embrace the activities they love.

"I feel like I'm 10 years older than I was when my dad died," Colter Phillips said. "But it's what you've got to do, and you've just got to keep moving forward and staying positive. Now, every day when I wake up I just try to live it like it's going to be the best day of my life because you never know when it's going to end, and I learned that really personally. I'm going to carry that with me the rest of my life."

Playing is a tribute

Following their father's funeral, the three college football players (Paul, the second youngest, is a freshman at Indiana) contemplated sitting out the season to be with their mother and little brother. But Janet insisted they return to their respective campuses and teams.

"At first, it was really frustrating because, first of all, I was out of shape," Colter said. "I hadn't worked out in two weeks. I was behind on my assignments. I didn't know what I was doing out there. And I was just really angry. I was not mentally doing very well. It really was great to have football as a way for me to get away from everything."

Now Colter, whom family members believe will follow in his father's footsteps and become involved in the domestic commercial fishing industry, writes his father's initials on his wrist before each practice and game. When he saw his mother in the stands before the Richmond game, he pointed to her and then pointed to the sky.

On that fourth-quarter play when he caught the ball, went airborne and came up just shy of the goal line, Colter said everything happened so quickly he didn't know where he was when he landed. When he stood up and saw he was in the end zone, he "just assumed the best." The play was reviewed, and the call was upheld: no touchdown.

"I was hoping that it was, indeed, a touchdown," Virginia Coach Mike London said. "But the thing is, when he got up and you look at him - and this is the type of player that he is - he looked to celebrate with his teammates. . . . Colter will get his chance to get in the end zone. We'll make sure that happens for him."

A plan, altered

When the 2010 football schedules for Virginia and Stanford were released and Bill and Janet Phillips learned their two oldest sons would be playing in the Los Angeles area on the same day, they designed a plan. Forty-five family friends planned to travel to Los Angeles on Sept. 11 and split up between the two games.

Bill would guide the group attending the Virginia-USC game, while Janet would go with the rest of the group to see Stanford-UCLA. Dana Tindall and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey, were supposed to be at one of those two games. But they were onboard the same plane as Bill when it crashed into a remote Alaskan hillside.

"Some people are just not able to make it," Janet said, "and we will really, really miss them."

Janet and Willy, who remains in a wheelchair while he recovers from his third surgery since the crash, will take a commercial flight to Los Angeles and stay at the Stanford team hotel in Glendale, Calif. On Saturday, they will cheer on Colter during the first half of the Virginia contest.

At halftime, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden has arranged to transport Janet and Willy from the Coliseum to the Rose Bowl so that they can take in the second half of the Stanford game.

As she watches her sons play, Janet might be inclined to reach for her cellphone and pull up her husband's number. She might even start typing out a text. It's what she's always done.

"He really was a very special person in my life and in my whole family's life," Colter said. "It's been a very shocking experience, but at the same time I've also learned that there are a lot of people in my life that love and support me, especially my team and my family and all my friends here at U-Va. It's been such a great experience to have all of them support me and be behind me through this whole thing."

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