THE LONG ROAD BACK
Seven months ago, Brandon Phillips was told he’d never play soccer again. Last weekend, he led his team onto the field at Starfire Sports for the Founders Cup semIfinals.
Perhaps no player at last weekend’s Chipotle Founders Cup semifinals and finals appreciated the moment as much as Brandon Phillips.
Eight months ago, Phillips stood near the sideline, waiting as his Pacific FC teammates discussed who would take the free kick their team had just been awarded on the edge of the center circle.
Phillips had been anticipating this game all week — one of the top scorers on his U-18 team, he had even skipped work for the chance to line up against coach Sunny Dulai’s vaunted Timbers ’94 team, a longtime rival of Phillips’ Pacific FC squad.
As the service was delivered, Phillips sprinted into the box and leapt to meet the ball at the arc of his jump, ready to flick it towards the net. Then everything went dark.
At the peak of his jump, Phillips’ head had connected not with the ball, but with the knee of the Timbers’ goalkeeper, literally crushing his skull. After a momentary blackout, he regained consciousness on the field — just long enough to give a thumbs-up to his teammates – before blacking out again in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
An x-ray revealed the extent of the damage: a section of Phillips’ skull had been crushed nearly an inch inward, putting pressure on his brain. After surgery to repair the broken section, Phillips’ brain swelled and hemorrhaged, leaving him unable to walk, talk or do much of anything besides lay in his bed and wonder what lay ahead. In the weeks prior to the accident, he had been accepted at Hawaii and Western Washington, his future full of all the possibilities open to a college-bound 18-year-old.
Now, as his high-school classmates accepted their diplomas, Phillips lay in his hospital bed, listening as his therapists told him he’d never play soccer again. His doctor warned against the possibility of permanent brain damage if another incident were to occur. There was nothing left to do, but cry.
“I cried quite a few times,” Phillips recalls. “That was really hard to hear, that I might never play again. That was hard to accept.”
So hard, in fact, that Phillips decided not to accept it. Through five months of intensive physical and mental conditioning with therapists and counselors, Phillips learned to walk again; then, slowly, to run. Mental tasks came back more gradually — math was a struggle, as was reading. Driving was out of the question until at least September.
But through it all, Phillips kept only one goal in mind — returning to the soccer field. His neurosurgeon, Dr. Ashkok Moda, had told him to avoid any soccer activity until Dec. 17 — exactly six months after his accident. Phillips was determined to be ready.
“I remember going to a practice at the end of July,” he recalls. “I still couldn’t move very well, but I tried to kick a ball, and it barely moved. It was really embarrassing. By October, though, I was able to run around a bit in practice – my coaches were careful to keep me away from contact and any balls in the air, but it felt good to be out there.”
When Dec. 17 arrived, Phillips purchased a rugby helmet, like the one worn by Chelsea’s Peter Cech, and began playing in indoor games. Then, on Jan. 13, in the early stages of the Founders Cup, he donned his Pacific FC jersey for the first time since the accident, and stepped onto the field for his first State Cup game. He was excited; his mother was nervous.
“She was definitely concerned, nervous,” Phillips recalls. “She knew I loved it, but she didn’t want me to get hurt again. She said if I had never played again, she’d have been fine.”
As it turns out, it’s Phillips’ opponents who should have been nervous — in that Jan. 13 game, his first back after seven months of intense rehabilitation, and after doctors had told him he’d never play again, Phillips not only scored a goal … he scored on a bicycle kick.
“It was pretty cool,” he says. “I think everyone was really excited to have me back on the field. It gave everyone a lift.”
In the following weeks, Phillips scored twice more, leading his Pacific FC squad to the semifinals of last weekend’s Founders Cup at Starfire. He says he avoids any headers in a crowd, and is much more cautious throwing his body at the ball — but otherwise, he hasn’t held anything back.
What has changed is Phillips’ perspective on life — and his plans for the future.
“Being in the hospital so long, too, has given me a new perspective on the medical field, and showed me what it would be like to have the chance to help other people,” says Phillips, who notes an interest in studying to become a physician’s assistant.
“I almost died,” he adds. “It’s definitely changed me, made me have more respect for the things that I have, and appreciate my friends and family.”