IOWA CITY — As an unheralded but talented running back for one of the best Iowa teams few people remember, Eddie Phillips made a difference 30 years ago.
Phillips, now age 52, continues to make an impact today off the football field. He ended his Iowa career as the school’s all-time leading rusher, then returned to school and received his master’s degree in counseling. He now mentors students and families of all ages and ethnicities.
Phillips serves as dean of students at Wacker Elementary in inner-city Chicago. Phillips has his own agency, Outreach Youth and Family Services, which provides counseling and mentoring to at-risk children and their families. He also has plans to open an all-male charter middle school in Chicago.
“We’re looking to open up that school to help out the community, not just in high school,” he said.
Phillips served as Iowa’s honorary captain last week and he spoke to the team about focus and togetherness. It resonated with the players, including senior linebacker Christian Kirksey.
“He always said he’s trying to give back to the community,” Kirksey said. “He talked about how Chicago youth is kind of dealing with the violence thing and how he’s helping people escape from things like that.”
Before Saturday, Phillips’ last trip to Kinnick Stadium was in 1995. He marveled at the larger press box, the FieldTurf playing surface and Iowa City itself.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I forgot how I got around town,’” he said.
But nobody has forgotten about Phillips the football player. Certainly not Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz.
As a running back in 1983, Phillips buried the Minnesota Gophers in a 61-10 rout. He rushed for 172 yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns, including a memorable 80-yard scamper on the game’s first offensive play.
From a double-wing formation that Iowa never had shown, Phillips took a pitch to the right, then cut to the middle. He outran Minnesota’s defenders en route to the end zone.
“I hadn’t had an 80-yard run since high school,” Phillips said. “It was my senior year. We just came out, and I was running down the field. All I kept thinking was, ‘I can’t let anybody catch me from behind.’ Because I never would hear the end of it.”
“I thought he was an excellent player on one of the best teams that I’ve ever been associated with as a coach here,” said Ferentz, then Iowa’s offensive line coach. “It was great to get him back, and he’s a great guy.”
Phillips was among three Iowa running backs (Norm Granger, Ronnie Harmon) to gain more than 100 yards against the Gophers in the season finale. Iowa totaled a school-record 517 yards on the ground, and Phillips received the game ball after breaking the career rushing record early in the fourth quarter.
The Hawkeyes finished the regular season with a 9-2 record. They were ranked No. 10 and played in the Gator Bowl, which they lost 14-6 to Florida. Phillips, who now sits ninth on Iowa’s rushing list, paced a transcendent class that propelled Iowa from a 20-year bowl drought to perennial Big Ten contender.
“We all came in as freshmen saying what can we do to help this team, this school gain national prominence,” Phillips said. “I think that year, our senior year, we accomplished that. We did what we set out to do because we made sure we stayed humble, that we also graduated and got our degree and not just be an athlete. The most important thing was to be a student-athlete. That’s what we tried to exemplify, and we never wanted to be in a situation where we embarrassed Coach (Hayden) Fry. I never wanted anybody to be like, ‘Eddie Phillips is downtown fighting,’ or anything like that.”
Phillips’ best game was in 1982 — also against the Gophers. He rushed for 198 yards, including 114 in the second half, on 36 carries to pace Iowa to a 21-16 win. He landed in a pair of NFL training camps and was a late cut with the 1985 Chicago Bears. He suited up as a Bears’ replacement player in 1987 but hung up his cleats for good a year later.
Although the 1983 squad won more games than Iowa’s 1981 Rose Bowl team (8-4), it doesn’t burn with the same historical glow as the school’s Big Ten championship edition. That’s a shame, Ferentz said.
“That was just a very, very talented and very strong team,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes I’m not sure they get all the credit they deserve. It was a really outstanding football team.”Phillips proves it had some outstanding people, too.