Nov. 2, 2009
By SKIP MYSLENSKI, NUsports.com Special Contributor
They have, it seems, been together for a lifetime, as indelibly wedded as yin and yang, as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as Paris Hilton and yet-another lurid headline. The reality, of course, is different. Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, the 'Cat senior safeties, did not first unfurl their partnership until the fall of 2006. But their bond runs even deeper.
Phillips: "He's a year older. He hosted me on my official visit. That was the first time we met. Actually, his freshman year in college, when you tore your MCL, I tore mine like a week after he did. I was watching the game, I saw that he tore it, and like a week later I tore mine in high school."
Smith: "Wow. It started then. I didn't know that. Because every injury I've had or he's had, he's had or I've had. So you broke your thumb-"
Phillips: "Tore it-"
Smith: "I messed my thumb up this year. We both hurt our knees at the same time. Two shoulder surgeries for me-"
Phillips: "Possibly two."
Smith: "Just similar."
Phillips: "A symbiotic relationship."
They have, it seems, been together for a lifetime and as their relationship grew, as their relationship ripened, the mind of one came to not only understand the mind of the other. It also came to anticipate what it would do. This, of course, is a necessity in partnership so tightly entwined, a crucial necessity if that partnership is to flourish in the swirling maelstrom that is a football game.
Smith: "There's a bond we've built up on the field."
Phillips: "I'd say it carries over off the field too. When we're around the stadium, just watching film, talking about whatever, talking about life, having fun together."
Smith: "But when just one of us is on the field, it's different from when we're both out there at the same time. We usually don't have to communicate. We can not make the call, but still be on the same page and get away with it."
Phillips: "We've developed a trust where we know where we're going to be on every play. It flows from that. Obviously, it didn't come from nothing."
And how long did it take to develop that?
Phillips: "A few games into last year, it started rolling."
Smith: "It was good. It was noticeable then. But for me, going through camp last year--or was it the year before?"
Phillips: "Last year."
Smith: "Last year."
Phillips: "We've been here forever. We're confusing the years."
Smith: "Well, one year in camp we were rotating and it just wasn't the same. You'd have to do a little extra (if they weren't together). We're just on the same page. You don't really have to worry about that other person. It's not a trust thing (with other safeties). But you've just got to make sure we're on the same page where I don't even look over (at Phillips)."
Phillips: "I feel as we've gotten older, we've got that bond where it's, 'OK, now we're going to where we need to go.'"
Smith: "At the Alamo Bowl, it was-"
Phillips: "Yeah, yeah-"
Smith: "It was perfect. He got an interception and it was awesome. Pre-snap, we showed him (the Missouri quarterback) that I was rotating down and Brad was going to the post, but in reality we were going the other way. So he thought his open read was to the boundary and then, boom, Brad slid down there and picked it off. It was like a great feeling. We weren't like, 'Hey, let's do this.' We both moved at the same time and it worked out really well."
Phillips: "A lot of times we don't talk about how we're going to move. I know what he's thinking and try to help him out by going this way to try and mess up the quarterback. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
They have, it seems, been together for a lifetime and, in that span, earned their greatest hosannas for some game-altering interceptions. Those, of course, are not unimportant. But they are more than mere fly catchers. They are also, literally, the last line of defense, the final obstacle that must be overcome by that locomotive of a running back who so desires the end zone.
Phillips: "The way our defenses run, as safeties, we're expected to be run supporters."
Smith: "In our scheme, we're usually the unblocked guy who the ball is supposed to be spilled out to."
Phillips: "It's fun though. You're around the ball a lot more at safety. You get to make more plays, you have the opportunity to make more plays if they're there. I enjoy it and I know Smitty does too. Because when we're both out there making plays, we're both smiling and having fun."
Smith: "Yes, sir."
Do you actually laugh at each other?
Smith: "I do more often than not unless I mess up. Like going into the Miami game, we had a call that was called 'Rewind.' I'm going to say every time it was called in practice, I was like 'Be kind, rewind" because of the movie (of the same name). His response during practice was-"
Phillips: "Its DVDs. You don't rewind them anymore."
Smith: "I was like, It's going to happen during the game where I'm going to say, 'Be kind, rewind' and he did it too. During the game, he's like-"
Phillips: "It's DVDs."
Smith: "So that kind of looseness, I can tell you right now, if we were both freshmen, we wouldn't have the time to, 'Hey, be kind, rewind.'"
They have, it seems, been together for a lifetime and, together, delivered and received a cornucopia of blows. This, of course, is the essence of both their game and their positions, and the result is inevitable. "They all jar you no matter how well you set yourself for the shock," an old Eagle defensive back named Tom Brookshier once said.
Phillips: "You don't really prepare for hits."
Smith: "If you're preparing for it-"
Phillips: "You're going to miss it."
Smith: "You're going to be timid and you're not going to give the hit."
Phillips: "You don't have time to think about it or prepare for it. Either you make it or you don't."
Smith: "The one's when you don't think about it, they feel better. When you try to brace yourself or something, it's going to hurt."
Have you, as they say, had your bells rung?
Smith: "Yeah. I remember one game, I know who it was too, I was just running too high. I was in the post, I was coming down, I think one of the toughest, hardest tackles is when you're coming straight down and he's coming straight at you. They have everything. They've broken out to you and you're the post player and you're supposed to be deep and now it's on you and, for some reason, I was a little too high and I got trucked. I got run over so bad by (former Wisconsin fullback) P.J. Hill, I just got up and I started laughing. I just watched it on the JumboTron. I'm like, 'Hey, hey, watch this. He just got me so good.' But I made the tackle, so at that point it didn't matter. I was also used to it after being a quarterback (in high school) and taking so many hits."
Phillips: "I have too many to talk about."
Smith: "He just lays people out. It doesn't happen to him."
Phillips: "But there are certain times when you shake it off and go, 'Oh, that was a good hit.'"
Smith: "You can give a good hit too and be like, 'Wait, wait second. OK. I'm good.'"
Phillips: "I like it when you get a blindside shot on a quarterback. I get to blitz a lot more than he does. I get to come off the edge, you get the back of the quarterback, that's when you know you're going to get a shot on him. That's when you know you're going to be able to make a play."
The old Packer defensive back Herb Adderley, they are told here, once said, "You have to impress on the receiver that it will sting him if he catches the ball."
Smith: "Good line. But for me, I want to be there before. I want the ball. If I can't get there, I want to do that. But I want the ball."
Phillips: "There's a progression. It's interception, PBU (pass break up), big hit."
Smith: "But that's the mindset you need to have so that he doesn't want to come across the middle the next time. The next time they're going to have short arms because they're worried about getting hit."
They have, it seems, been together for a lifetime, but now their stay in Evanston is rushing toward its conclusion. That recalls, for this ancient scribbler, the saga of Mike Reid, an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals who walked away from the NFL in 1974 to pursue a musical career. On the sidelines, as his last game wound down, he separated himself from his teammates, looked heavenward, and for long seconds stared at the stands and consciously absorbed the mad panorama surrounding him. "By then," he would later recall, "I knew it was my last game and I wanted to remember a scene I had never really looked at before, a scene I had always taken for granted."
Smith: "Michigan last year, when we won, especially after we won, they recruited me a lot. So after the game I stood in the middle of the field. Our team had run into the locker room and I'm still standing in the middle of the field, looking at the scoreboard. I just took it all in. It went from three years of being at their camp, trying to go there, that not working out, winning at that kind of place, you take in those kind of experiences. I never forget those."
Phillips: "The attitude I take is I try to enjoy everything. Whether it's out here in practice, I just caught myself looking at the colors changing. It could be the last time I see orange and red leaves out on that field. Or it's at Purdue and that field's crappy and I'm thinking, 'This is the last time I'm going to play on the worst field I ever played on.'"
Smith: "People talk about it, but I don't think about it. I just try to enjoy today and not look to the end. It's tough. When you actually think about it, it's sad. But in the moment you just go and have fun and we've got to pick it up and start winning."
Phillips: "I wouldn't say there's a greater sense of urgency. I'd say you know it's coming to an end. You know it could possibly be the last time we play football and it could be the last time we play football together. So for me, personally, I just try to enjoy it. I do the same thing I've done for the past three years, same exact schedule every week watching film, same things in practice. But I just try to enjoy it more, take it in."
What, they are finally asked, will they take away from their shared experience?
Phillips: "Perseverance is probably the biggest lesson I've learned. I'm sure Smitty's the same."
Smith: "Yeah, definitely."
Phillips: "We've both been through a lot. We both fought our way to where we are, had stuff try to stop us and drag us down, fought back up. I'd say that's the biggest lesson I learned. Keep going, keep swinging no matter what happens. Something good will happen in the end."
Smith: "Especially if you stay positive. There've been a lot of times throughout my career when I've been down and wanted to almost throw it in, wasn't happy. When you learn to stick it out, not stick it out. But nothing good in life is ever easy. You've got to work hard for what you want. . . I never missed a game in my life before I came here. Then I miss three games my freshman year, a whole season junior year and now I'm missing some games. Not playing, I don't know how you ever get used to that. It does put things into perspective."
Phillips: "Stole the words right out of my mouth."
Smith: "It's true though. If things are just given to you, you'll never know. Having to work for things definitely makes you a better person."
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