A little more than three years ago Joe Phillips had everything going for him. The 6'5", 326-pounder, then in his fifth year in the NFL, was starting at defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers. A graduate of SMU, he was taking classes at night at the University of San Diego's law school. He even had a small recurring role as a macho football player on the HBO series 1st and Ten.
But then one night in September 1990, Phillips was attacked by three men outside a Mission Beach, Calif., restaurant. The men ganged up on Phillips, punching and kicking him repeatedly. He was left bleeding on the pavement. During the six-hour operation that followed, a surgeon had to use titanium and Teflon plates to reconstruct Phillips's shattered left eye socket. Phillips also got a broken nose and cheekbone.
The injuries were serious enough to sideline him for an entire season. Chief among the medical concerns was how his eye socket would hold up during the violent contact of a pro football game. Phillips, who had always seemed to have a firm grasp on his life, also suffered from some psychological scars. He feared being attacked again. By the start of the 1991 season, he was back playing football, but he understandably lacked some of his old fire. One opposing player suggested he had become a little hesitant. "He's playing as well," the player said, "he's just not playing as angry." Phillips now admits that he had trouble getting refocused on football.
The Chargers released him in September '92, and Kansas City signed him nine days later. Shortly thereafter the Chiefs switched their defensive alignment to a 4-3. Since then Phillips and fellow tackle Dan Saleaumua have become one of the best run-stopping tandems in the NFL for the Chiefs, who this season won their first division title in 22 years. A new city and a new team away from the scene of the crime seem to have helped Phillips rededicate himself to football. "I finally feel like everything is taken care of," he says. "Everything is easier."
"Joe's a quiet guy who demands respect," says Kansas City defensive line coach Tom Pratt. "He is the first one here every day, and often he's one of the last to go. The other players look up to him because he works hard and he plays hard."
Phillips and his wife, Cynthia, have two children, Ashley, 7, and Joe IV, who was born in November. Both husband and wife passed the California bar exam in the spring of '92 and the Missouri exam last spring. Phillips spent the most recent off-season as an attorney for U.S. Sprint, and he is considering returning to the company later this year.
While his future may be in corporate law, what happened to Phillips in San Diego has motivated him to attempt to make an impact on another side of the legal system. His attackers plea-bargained, and Phillips has since become an outspoken advocate for victims' rights, marketing shirts for the San Diego Crime Victims Fund, giving speeches to victim-rights groups and talking about the need for changes in the criminal-justice system. "Crime victims reach the point," Phillips says, "where they say, 'Please just let me forget what happened.' It's the victim who is put on trial, not the criminals. I don't think that the people who drafted the Constitution ever envisioned the country being so violent."