Utah football: Andy Phillips kicking his way into celebrity status
By Lya Wodraska
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 04 2013 12:16PM
Utah kicker Andy Phillips is sporting a hefty, bright yellow protective sleeve on his kicking leg this week, the result of a knee crashing into his shin during the Utes’ win over the Utah State Aggies.
But don’t worry, Utah fans. The team’s latest sensation isn’t in jeopardy of being sidelined by a few broken blood vessels and a bit of muscle damage. The guy, after all, made a past career of skiing off cliffs and barreling down mountains at speeds that would make even the top black diamond masters quiver.
He has broken fingers, he has broken arms, he has two steel plates and 16 screws in his left hand and he relishes telling the story of the time he flew off a 25-foot cliff at Snowbird during a powder day, landed on a hidden rock and broke his left femur.
"Snapped it completely in half," he said with a grin that makes one wonder about his sanity. "Now that was painful. My mom always said I had a high pain tolerance and luckily I am big enough to take a hit. That little bruise isn’t going throw me off."
Nope, if anything, it seems Phillips, the former U.S. ski team member, is right on his game with the Utes.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has cautioned that one game doesn’t make a career, but Phillips’ debut was one heck of a start.
The returned LDS Church missionary, who joined the Utes two years ago to fulfill a New Year’s resolution to himself, couldn’t have had a better indoctrination into live action than the one he got against Utah State.
He made field goals from 45, 19 and 38 yards and performed an onside kick perfectly to help the Utes come from behind to beat the Aggies.
A week ago Phillips was wondering how he might perform under pressure in various situations. It took only one game for everyone, including Phillips, to see he would be just fine.
"The biggest thing for me was the last kick," he said. "That put the nail in the coffin, and until that point I hadn’t realized how much of an impact on the game I was having."
Whittingham often referred to Phillips as a "warrior," during fall camp and called his season-opening performance outstanding.
"For a kid who has never played football, he showed a lot of poise and mental toughness," Whitttingham said.
Now Phillips seems like he is on a chairlift ride to stardom. The Utes haven’t seen this from a kicker since "King" Louie Sakoda reigned over campus.
Sakoda, who set numerous school records during his career from 2005-08, became a star not only because of his solid kicking but because of his overall demeanor. At 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, he was built like a football player — not the typical slight-bodied form of most kickers.
Sakoda also had a hefty mental attitude to go with it, and relished working out with linemen in the weight room. That habit earned him not only perhaps the biggest calves in the program, but also the respect of his teammates.
Phillips, with his stocky 5-11, 210-pound frame, seems like a bigger version of Sakoda. As for respect, well, entertaining teammates with tales of his adventures on some of the steepest mountains in the world gave him a certain amount of instant credibility.
"Andy, he’s just courageous," Utah running back James Poole said. "We’d always ask him what he’d do when the kick is up and the Pac-12 is on the line and he’d say it didn’t matter how far it is or anything, that is what he wanted. That is what I like about him: He isn’t scared of anything.
"As for the mountains, I’ll leave them to Andy," Poole added.
When he joined the Utes, Phillips wondered just how his past forays in soccer would translate to kicking a football. It took two years for him to change his mechanics, getting the action of using a consistent, stiff kick as opposed to the various angles used in soccer.
Working with previous Utah kicker Joe Phillips helped as well as attending a camp with respected kicking coach Gary Zauner in Arizona.
"After two days with him, my kicking was a lot more consistent, and I won a kicking contest in camp that gave me a lot of confidence coming into this year," he said.
Phillips was solid in camp too, but everyone wanted to see what he’d do under pressure, particularly since some of Utah’s previous kickers had succumbed in past situations. But Phillips had that part down, nailing his kicks through the uprights as cleanly as he ripped down a slalom course.
"That second [kick] was tricky," he said. "People think because the distance is short they are easy but it plays into your head. I let my muscle memory take over and just killed it."
The only difference in the mental aspect was performing in front of more than 45,000 people. Back in his skiing days, Phillips said the ski team was lucky if 100 people turned out to watch them race. The crowd reaction he experienced on Thursday was nothing like he’d ever imagined.
"I hate to say it, but as good as it feels to win a ski race, having my hard work pay off and being appreciated like that was better," he said.
"Kicking is an individual sport in a way too because it’s your own head playing with you out there, but you have the support on the sidelines and the fans and the teammates running out to block for you," Phillips said.