This week, Charger Nosetackle Joe Phillips will observe the first anniversary of the most terrible night of his life by marketing T-shirts that have his likeness and the slogan COMEBACK POWER on the front. The proceeds will benefit the San Diego Crime Victims Fund. Early in the morning of Sept. 26, 1990, outside a Mission Beach, Calif., restaurant, the 6'5", 326-pound Phillips was nearly killed by a flurry of punches and kicks from three men, who fled the scene and left him for dead.
Phillips and the girlfriend of a teammate were intoxicated when they stepped outside the restaurant, and an exchange of words with the three men, who happened to be driving past the restaurant at the time, precipitated the assault. The orbit around Phillips's left eye was shattered almost beyond repair, and his nose and cheekbone were broken. A surgeon needed nearly six hours to reconstruct the bone and eye socket, using titanium and teflon plates. Phillips still suffers from facial paralysis on the left side and peripheral double vision.
Phillips should be named NFL Comeback Player of the Year just for returning to the Chargers and winning back his starting job in training camp. That he has made 11 tackles and one sack in four games is gravy. "The tough thing the first time I practiced was to develop confidence that my eye wouldn't fall out," he says.
The three men who assaulted Phillips pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon in a plea bargain and are serving one-year terms in work-furlough programs. Phillips won't discuss any details of the case because he has a civil suit pending against the men and the restaurant. He will say, though, "I'm shocked at the lack of remorse they showed in court. It's incredible that people can do this to another human being and have no feelings of guilt."
Phillips doesn't remember much of the physical pain because he blacked out after the first few kicks to the head. But the mental anguish is still there—daily. Despite playing 11 pounds lighter, at 315, he is performing nearly as well as he did before the assault. "He's strong as a bull, and he seems as good to me now as when I played him in previous years," says Steeler center Dermontti Dawson, who lined up opposite Phillips in the two teams' season opener. Says another Pittsburgh lineman, who prefers anonymity, "He's playing as well. He's just not playing as angry."
Even Phillips says he'll never be the same macho guy he was before the attack. "I feel like there's a part of me that isn't here, anymore," he says. "It's pretty horrific, really. I don't have the same personal security I once had. I have this feeling that it's a stark reality that 1 could get beaten again."