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September 11, 2009

Padro Phillips, The Wind-Up Man

By: Jimmy Robertson

Former defensive tackle Padro Phillips got the crowd involved during his playing days at Tech and has gone on to make a career out of helping others.

Padro Phillips
For all the high school teachers out there who often wonder whether they make a difference in the lives of those in their classrooms, they need only to consider the life story of Padro Phillips.

Best known for winding his arm in a circle to get the crowd and his teammates revved up before a big play, the former Tech defensive tackle has devoted his life to helping others thanks largely to the impact of one of his teachers at Hampton High School in his hometown of Hampton, Va.

“She was the best I’ve met,” Phillips said. “She was such a good role model. She always liked working with people and working with children. She liked giving back. That had such an impact on me.”

Phillips has followed a similar path since he graduated from Tech with his degree in sociology back in 1982. He tried the NFL route, inking a free-agent deal with the Seattle Seahawks in the spring of that year, but an issue with his physical led to him never seeing the playing field. Members of the Kansas City Chiefs organization called him, but he ultimately decided to give up football and pursue another love.

In the 27 years since then, he has worked in a variety of roles and positions, but all of them have dealt with helping people. He has worked with mentally challenged people and at-risk youth. He worked in a juvenile detention center for a time. He took on a position at a group hall for mentally ill adults for a spell. And he also worked in a psychiatric hospital at one time.

These days, he works two positions. He works as a campus coordinator at The Barry Robinson Center in Virginia Beach, Va. The center services the needs of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children and adolescents ages 6-18 through an array of programs at a 72-bed facility.

His second position, one he started in April, is as a mental health counselor at the Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center. This hospital offers psychiatric and abuse services for children, adolescents and adults.

“I’ve always liked working with people and giving back,” he said.

During his days in Blacksburg, Phillips enjoyed a fine career. Coming out of Hampton High – a powerhouse of a program even back then – he visited N.C. State and really wanted to go to Kentucky. But a conversation with a prospect who would go on to become a Tech Hall of Famer swayed him to come to Blacksburg.

“Cyrus Lawrence and I took our first trip to N.C. State,” Phillips said. “We enjoyed it, but then he got to talking and told me that we really needed to stay in the state of Virginia. I was considering Kentucky at the time. But we took our trip to Blacksburg and fell in love with the place.

“I had been there before. I used to be on the track team and we’d always stop at Virginia Tech on our way to Tennessee for the relays [now the Sea Ray Relays], and I liked the campus.

“I wanted to get away. I wanted to grow as a person and I needed to be in a different place. I loved the hills there. The people there are the best. They always treated me special and not because I played football. It was my home away from home.”

Phillips’ career as a player took off quickly, as he played as a true freshman during the 1979 season. His first game came against then-No. 1 Alabama down in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The first two defensive tackles got injured during that game, and Tech’s coaching staff inserted Phillips.

Interestingly, Phillips found himself matched up against another Hampton High graduate – Dwight Stephenson.

Padro Phillips was a big reason why the Hokies were among the top five defenses nationally during his career at Tech in the early 1980s.
“That was one of my most memorable moments,” Phillips said, assessing his days at Tech. “He and my brother were best friends at Hampton, and he was talking to me all throughout the game, telling me that this was just like the old Hampton-Bethel [High] games. I remember on the very first play, I was able to get a sack and I went on to become the defensive player of the game. I’ll never forget that game.”

Tech lost the game 31-7 to Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide, who went on to win the national championship that season for the second straight year. But Phillips finished with 12 tackles, most of them coming at Stephenson’s expense. For the record, Stephenson played for seven years with the Miami Dolphins and went to five Pro Bowls. He is considered one of the best centers in NFL history, and Bryant called him the best player he had ever coached.

Phillips’ most memorable moment, though, came following the 1980 regular season. The Hokies finished that year with an 8-3 mark following a victory over VMI in the regular-season finale. Not long after that, they received an invitation to play in the Peach Bowl at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.

“I’d have to say being selected for the Peach Bowl was my most memorable moment,” Phillips said. “That was what we were all wanting.”

Tech fell to the Jim Kelly-led Miami Hurricanes in that Peach Bowl, and that game turned out to be the only bowl game for Phillips. The Hokies finished 7-4 in each of his final two seasons, but failed to receive a bowl bid.

Still, he enjoyed a fine career at Tech. He finished second on the team in tackles as a sophomore with 90, including 13 for a loss, and that helped the defense to a No. 4 national ranking. His junior season, he finished third on the team with 74 tackles, including two for a loss, and in his final campaign, he finished fourth on the team with 53 tackles and also had five sacks.

Of course, a lot of those big plays came after he would wind his arm in a circle, imploring his teammates and rallying the fans.

“That was something I started in high school,” he said, chuckling. “I did that to get myself pumped up, and then when I got to college, it got the team and the crowd pumped up. People would go crazy, and they’d start chanting, ‘Pa-dro, Pa-dro.’

“That didn’t last long, though. They went to ‘Bruuuuuuuce.’”

A year after Phillips landed in Blacksburg, a gentleman named Bruce Smith arrived. Together, the two anchored Tech’s defensive front for three years, and Smith’s early-August induction into the NFL Hall of Fame reminded Phillips of the old days.

“Bruce was a good guy and a very good player,” Phillips said. “He made me a better player. I wasn’t going to let a young guy show me up.”

Phillips said he hasn’t talked with Smith in years, but he does keep up with some of his old former teammates. He usually sees Lawrence, Tech’s all-time leading rusher, once a year and often talks with Cornell Urquhart and Robert Brown.

He also said he hasn’t been back to Blacksburg in more than 10 years. Helping others and taking care of his own two kids – he has a 20-year-old son at Thomas Nelson Community College who is planning on going to Shaw University and a 19-year-old daughter at Virginia Union – keep him hopping.

“My schedule is a little crazy, but I’m hoping to get back soon,” Phillips said. “I’ll be 50 in December, but it seems like yesterday when I was there [playing]. I still feel like I could play. In my mind, I could do it, but I know my body would say ‘No.’”

For sure. After all, it’s been 27 years since he played for the Hokies.

But in looking at his life since then, what he’s accomplished off the field far exceeds what he accomplished on it.