The most memorable football game in the 76-year rivalry between Springdale (Ark.) High and neighboring Fayetteville High occurred on a chilly Ozark Mountain evening in November 1986. Yet few people who witnessed the game can recall the final score. What is burned into the minds of the 7,500 spectators and the local TV audience was the game's final play. It happened late in the third quarter.
On that play, Springdale's All-America defensive tackle MacKenzie Phillips chased Fayetteville quarterback Brad Jenkins 15 yards downfield before Phillips slipped to the turf. As he tried to stand up, Phillips got to his knees before collapsing into unconsciousness.
Paramedics on the scene determined that Phillips had suffered cardiac arrest. They administered CPR and electroshock for 25 minutes without response, then took Phillips to Springdale Memorial Hospital. "I was dead," says Phillips today. "Clinically dead."
Doctors worked on him for 30 minutes more before they were able to force a pulse. He breathed with the help of a respirator until the following morning and was in the hospital for almost two weeks. Five years later, Phillips is again a senior lineman chasing quarterbacks, but now he is at the University of Arkansas. He is a young man under scrutiny for both his strength and his weakness.
Phillips's cardiac arrest was diagnosed as a reaction caused by exercise-induced severe asthma, combined with allergies. Though nobody was aware of it, Phillips had only 25% of normal lung capacity. After his ailments were identified, he was given an antihistamine and medicine to keep his bronchial tubes functioning properly. In theory, this treatment should have increased his breathing capacity to 90% of normal. But Phillips admits that he was slack about taking his medicine. "Being the egotistical young man that I am, I didn't think I needed to take that stuff," Phillips says.
Consequently, after a redshirt freshman year, he struggled through two disappointing seasons, playing sparingly and making just 23 tackles. Then, a week before spring practice in April 1990, Phillips was examined at National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver. Dr. Robert Bogin outlined what the risks were if he continued to play football. Phillips listened and sat out the 1990 season. He also began taking his four medicines religiously, four times a day. On top of that, he discovered that he was a lousy spectator. Phillips decided to work out in spring practice and, breathing easily, he was dazzling, both on the field and in the training room, where he set a school record on the treadmill.
That left the question of whether he should be allowed to play football this season. Phillips had passed a battery of tests at Arkansas and more cardiac and asthma tests at Denver before being pronounced fit to play. Like all Razorback players, he has signed a medical release and is covered under the school's group insurance policy.
"The decision of whether to play football has always been MacKenzie's," says his father, Loyd, a two-time All-America and Outland Trophy winner at Arkansas in the mid-'60s. "Nobody can tell him what to do." Phillips's mother, Betsy, adds, "I don't think God saved him that night to take him down again. We have to be optimistic."
For MacKenzie the choice was simple: "I want to look back when I'm 60 and say that I went through some hills and valleys, but that one time I finally did the best that I possibly could. I don't care if anybody else thinks I'm crazy or suicidal. I believe I'm the toughest son of a gun out there, and that's what keeps me going."
So Phillips, who is 6'5", 270 pounds, will start at defensive tackle for the Razorbacks. "He is easily the most dominating player on the field," says Arkansas coach Jack Crowe. "What he has gone through just served to intensify his desire to play. His engine has always run a little faster than others', and the rest of our guys feed off him. He thinks he can play every down and make every tackle. So I'll have to keep a careful watch on him, and I'll probably get booed whenever I take him out."
Despite his ordeal, Phillips's attitude is that of most other 22-year-olds. On his list of daily concerns, mortality is right up there with dirty laundry.
"I guess there's some reason why I'm still here, but to think about that kind of scares me," he says. "I'm not ready to save the world yet. Mostly, I worry about school, football and when the fish are going to start biting next spring."
The choice of whether to continue playing was left to Phillips.