Curt Phillips took long route to Rose start

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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Wisconsin is making its third straight appearance in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, but it feels like the first time for starting quarterback Curt Phillips.

The fifth-year senior will finally play in Pasadena after battling back from three knee surgeries that derailed his career. What does it mean to Phillips to start this game? His father, Jim, summed it up in one word: "Everything."

"It's extremely gratifying," Curt told ESPN.com. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated along the way. But it just makes it that much more special when you do have some adversity and it's not just given to you."

Very little has been given to Phillips during his Wisconsin career. He was once seen as a future star with the Badgers. In 2008, he was named the scout team's offensive player of the year, the same year J.J. Watt won the honor for defensive scout team. But Phillips did not make his first collegiate start until the 10th game of this season, at Indiana, and missed two full years because of knee problems.

"He's overcome more than any player I've ever known," said Wisconsin linebacker and former Phillips roommate Chris Borland, who missed a year himself with an injury.

There is some symmetry at play with the Rose Bowl quarterbacks. Both the Badgers and Stanford reached this game the year after the greatest quarterback in their history left campus -- Andrew Luck for the Cardinal, Russell Wilson after his one glorious year in Madison. And neither Phillips nor Stanford's Kevin Hogan started a game before November.

But whereas Hogan is a freshman, Phillips is hoping he won't be playing his final college game on New Year's Day. He has submitted paperwork to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. His situation seems like the textbook example of why that waiver should be issued.

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/David StlukaCurt Phillips has overcome multiple major knee injuries to become Wisconsin's starting QB in the Rose Bowl.
Phillips tore the ACL in his right knee during the first spring scrimmage of his redshirt sophomore year. Before that, his father said, the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder -- who'd been recruited out of Kingsport, Tenn., for his ability to run and throw -- was in the best shape of his life.

"I worked out with him a week before, and he was a horse," Jim Phillips said. "He was so quick and fast."

Plenty of players have come back from torn ACLs, and Phillips was still early in his career, so he didn't fret too much. But then he tore the same ACL less than a year later in a November practice. The second surgery took place at Dr. James Andrews' famed clinic in Birmingham, Ala. It did not go smoothly.

Phillips didn't know it at the time, but his body was in the process of rejecting the graft when he made the trip with his team to the 2011 Rose Bowl. An infection caused him to lose so much weight that teammates and coaches in California did double takes upon seeing him.

That setback cost him several months. He underwent a third surgery in August 2011 and missed his second straight season. You couldn't blame him for not being too mentally engaged in last year's Rose Bowl as he endured yet another rehab.

"The whole process has been very frustrating," he said.

Phillips took things slowly this past spring, not wanting to risk another injury. He would throw in practice but without moving his lower body, causing a change in his mechanics and less zip on his passes. He was the third-string quarterback when the season began. But Danny O'Brien quickly proved that not every ACC graduate transfer is Russell Wilson, and redshirt freshman Joel Stave broke his collarbone in the Michigan State loss.

Phillips got the call the next week at Indiana with a Big Ten championship game berth potentially on the line. He hadn't thrown a pass in a game since 2009. He admits he felt some jitters before that start in Bloomington.

He completed 4 of 7 passes that game as the running backs did the rest in a 62-14 blowout. After the game, Jim Phillips sought out Brian Bott -- the Wisconsin strength and conditioning coach who'd spent countless hours working with Curt on his rehab -- for a group photo. Not yet, Bott told him. Not until we win the Big Ten title game.

The Badgers lost the next two games in overtime, though Phillips led the team on game-tying touchdown drives at the end of regulation in each one. Then in the Big Ten title game, he threw only eight passes as the Badgers steamrolled Nebraska 70-31. The Phillips family took that picture with Bott. And Curt, who was healthy enough to catch a pass in the game, had finally earned his way to Pasadena.

Though Stave is getting healthy, Barry Alvarez has already said Phillips is his starter.

"I'm gaining more confidence as I'm going," Phillips said. "The biggest thing is, I've been trying to prepare like I've been the starter all along. I knew that if I ever did get in there, I didn't want to hand it back over."

Against Stanford and the nation's No. 3 run defense, Phillips could be asked to do a lot more than just hand off and toss the occasional keep-them-honest pass. If so, he says he's ready.

"One thing that's an advantage for us is that we have a lot of passes in our game plan, but we haven't had to use them," he said. "So there's not that much on film. But throwing the ball is something that we're very comfortable with and we practice it all the time."

Phillips hopes this is just the beginning, that he'll get that sixth year and come back in 2013 with renewed mustard on his throws. But just in case, he's savoring this Rose Bowl trip as if it's his final college moment. Even if it feels like the first time around.

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