When it comes to receiving handoffs, Fairmont Heights running back Clifton Phillips is extremely efficient. But when it comes to taking high fives, he has his problems.
At a recent practice, it took Phillips some time to learn the newest form of the hand slap, which is a fake high five that turns into a low five, the only variation is that it's behind the back. But like his football skills, success will come in time.
After playing behind two other backs last year, the 170-pound Phillips has shown that the wait was worth it with 1,083 yards on 137 carries (a 7.8 average), a 201-yard game and eight touchdowns. His numbers help explain why the Hornets are 7-2, and although they can not win the Prince George's AB League title, they may still qualify for the state Class A playoffs.
Phillips' running style resembles that of the man he idolizes, Marcus Allen of the Los Angeles Raiders, because he is elusive while not being exceptionally fast. Phillips also can run long (he has had two 80-plus-yard touchdowns), although Coach Ralph Paden says his best efforts have been short-yardage gains.
"(Phillips) has a tremendous will to succeed," he said. "He gives everything he's got behind the line. Some of his best runs have been four-yarders."
Phillips probably didn't envision having such success this season, especially since he was used to sharing carries last year with Ron Stroud and Johnny Fox, both of whom now play for Virginia Union. But Phillips wasn't surprised, either, because he knew his time would come.
"I was very optimistic, being that we were successful," said Phillips, who gained 485 yards in 1984 in limited action. "I (just) had to wait my turn."
That didn't set well with him initially. Phillips didn't carry the ball much last year because Stroud was the primary back in the Hornets' wishbone, leading to some strained feelings between the two. But it soon improved into a mentor-protege relationship as Stroud helped him with the finer points of his game. "Being that we were together a lot, we grew on each other," Phillips said.
Since the Hornets have just one player over 200 pounds, they have to rely on finesse to win, which suits the smallish Phillips fine. He is most effective cutting outside from the wing-T, or up the middle in the wishbone.
Although a summer at the All-American football camp helped refine his running technique and blocking, he knows he needs to gain weight to get a second look from college recruiters. "I still have more growing to do," he said.
Some scouts have already taken notice. Paden has received inquiries from Virginia Military Institute, where Phillips' brother is a cornerback, and from Virginia Union.
Paden was not really concerned about Phillips' size when he arrived three years ago, because he knew the youngster was fast. "What he needed was a little confidence," he said, and chose to bring him along slowly by starting him out on junior varsity.
Phillips' time in the 40 (4.6 seconds) is not great, either, but Paden said that's not important. "All he needs is a seam," he said, describing Phillips as a "hard" runner. "He'd have 1,000 yards (sooner) if he was quicker."
Because his mother Shirley was hesitant to let Phillips play football when he was young, he took up soccer instead, playing for seven years at Landover Hills Boys Club, until the sixth grade. By then his mother had softened her stance somewhat, but mostly it was because of his older brother's success. "She figured if he could do it, I could do it," Phillips said.
Playing soccer for so long didn't hurt him. If anything, he credits the sport with improving his foot movement and enabling him to see the field better, which helps when in the open field.
"He's a good finisher," Paden said about the end of Phillips' long runs. "It's a knack of making a move at the right time. He has good vision, good anticipation. He can see the play before it happens."
The only question was when he would break a long one. That was answered in the third game against Chesapeake, when he ran for touchdowns of 80 and 40 yards to finish with 201 yards, and that was through 2 1/2 quarters. He followed that up with a 195-yard effort against Forestville, including an 83-yard game-winner on the last play.
At Fairmont Heights, playing well is not a novelty. In the last two years, the Hornets have been a state finalist and county champion.
Even if the Hornets don't qualify for the playoffs this season, Phillips won't complain. "Everything's been like a dream season," he said. "Everyone's beginning to realize that we're a bunch that likes to play football."