Q&A: Former Stampeders and Redblacks DL/LB Justin Phillips

Stittsville born and raised, Justin Phillips played local football for the Bell Warriors and Myers Riders while going to Sacred Heart high school. After a university career that included a 2005 Vanier Cup win with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, Phillips was drafted 5th overall in 2007 by the Calgary Stampeders. Following seven productive years (that featured two Grey Cup appearances), the Ottawa native was traded home on the eve of the Redblacks inaugural season.

Were you a Rough Rider fan growing up and did you get a chance to see a lot of games at Lansdowne?

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much of the Rough Riders organization. As a kid, I initially took a liking to football during the Jim Kelly era in Buffalo but later on got into the CFL. I recall being incredibly excited to have football back in Ottawa with the Renegades as I no longer had to get to upstate New York to watch a live game. I went to many games during that era and one that stands out was a game when the Argos were in town to take on Kerry Joseph and the Renegades. Damon Allen was still quarterbacking Toronto at the time and after the gam,e I had an opportunity to meet him. Oddly enough, I wound up playing against both Allen and Joseph in my career.

In the first trade in Redblacks’ history, GM Marcel Desjardins brought you from the Stampeders to the Ottawa. Did you have an idea he was targeting you?

Given that Rick Campbell was my defensive coordinator in Calgary and considering the fact that I was an Ottawa native, I figured there was a good chance I’d be taken in the supplemental draft. As it turns out I was on Calgary’s protected list so was never even eligible to be drafted. A bit later on, I was contacted by Ottawa and asked if I would be open to signing with the Redblacks if the opportunity presented itself. Obviously I was thrilled about the prospect of playing in my hometown and being closer to my family. I’ll be forever grateful that Coach Hufnagel took my wishes into consideration and made a deal happen. I have tremendous respect for him and the entire Stampeder organization for they way they treated me during my time in Calgary.

As an Ottawa native, what did it mean for you to have the opportunity to be a part of establishing the new franchise?

It was something I really wanted to be a part of. The entire community was buzzing about football being back and being from here made it that much more exciting for me. I saw an opportunity to grow the passion of the game at both the professional and youth levels and think and the past few years have truly shown just how much of a football town our nation’s capital is.

In the pre-season, on the first play in franchise history, you sack Saskatchewan QB Tino Sunseri. What was going through your mind?

Although it was just pre season and even if it came against backup QB at the time, it was still a big moment. I remember thinking to myself “That’s not a bad way to start this thing off!”

The 2014 season was full of close games, but the highlight for R-Nation was that first home win. Describe the energy at TD Place during that home opener vs the Argos.

Honestly, in my nine years and 150+ games in the CFL, I can truthfully say the atmosphere at TD Place is the best in the league. That home opener in front of a sold out, hyped up crowd on an absolutely perfect summer night captured everything that is special about Ottawa football. I mean, what more can you ask for? Getting that first win under our belt was a memorable moment for the franchise and the entire city; a statement game showcasing that football in Ottawa was back for good! On a personal note, dumping the Gatorade shower on Coach Campbell with Jason Pottinger was pretty fun too.

Unfortunately, your season was ended with a broken fibula in Week Four that required stabilizing screws. What motivated you throughout your rehab process?

The fibula was the least of my worries – yes it was broken but more concerning was the fact that I tore literally everything in my ankle. Even after two surgeries, it’s never healed back to 100%. I still get severe swelling and bruising in it after running and have to wear orthotics to support my arch and keep my ankle from rolling in. What motivated me to come back was the thought of having my last football game ending in an injury and needing to be carried off the field, something no athlete ever wants. Besides, after a two win season there was still work to be done.

How nervous were you about getting back on the field after almost a year on the sidelines?

I was also a bundle of nerves. During training camp my ankle kept swelling up after intense on field workouts. I notified the training staff and we were going to monitor it and try to stay ahead of swelling and rest as needed. A couple weeks into camp it swelled up and bruised to the point we had to back off completely. When it finally got to the point that I was healthy enough to play, my son was unexpectedly born two months premature. I had so much on my mind, it was an emotional time in my personal life and football career. On the opening kickoff of my first game back (in Toronto), I ran down the field and made the tackle. After that it was just like old times and my mind was at ease. Following the game I flew right home and spent the night at the Ottawa Civic NICU with my son.

In your mind, what was the biggest reason for the team going from 2-14 in 2014 to winning the division and earning a Grey Cup berth the next?

Everyone has their own theories but I don’t think you can nail down one thing as the main reason. Even though 2014 didn’t go as we wanted, we grew as a team and kept building our culture. That kind of thing doesn’t happen over night and it takes time for everyone to buy in. There’s also the process of adding in players that fit (and removing those that don’t).  Ultimately management, our coaches and our players were able to put all the pieces together in a relatively short amount of time. We knew we were much better than our 2-14 record, we just had to prove it to everyone else.

Talk me through 2nd and 25 from your perspective on the sideline.

The play speaks for itself but if I had to sum it up I’d call it a wave of excitement. As soon as Greg scored I sprinted onto the field in celebration, luckily as I was on the field goal team it was allowed!

After dislocating your shoulder in the East Final, how difficult was it to play in the Grey Cup?

It was the same shoulder that had given me issues throughout my career. I had it operated on after my first season in university at Wilfrid Laurier, and had to have another surgery at the end of my rookie season in Calgary. In the East Final I was blocked square in the back (obviously no flag was thrown on the play, shocking that the refs would miss something like that eh?) while covering a punt and dislocated it when I landed. It was incredibly painful. I couldn’t even raise it over my head all week but there was no chance in hell I was going to miss that Grey Cup. I always prided myself on playing through pain and injuries and I can’t even count the amount of times I was “shot up” to play. I’ve even taken painkilling shots a few times on the sidelines just to stay in the game. Looking back I can’t say if it was a pride thing or if I just didn’t want to let my teammates down, but football is the ultimate team sport and it takes sacrifices from everyone to be successful. Sacrifices we feel long after our playing days.

As a key special teams contributor in both Calgary and Ottawa, what was the hardest hit you ever made on someone?

First off, fans always need to keep in mind that playing on special teams requires a completely different mindset. On any given special teams play, you’ve got large, fast dudes sprinting 50 yards before smashing into each other. That’s why I remember the hits I took more than the ones I gave because those are the ones that hurt! Let me give you an example. In 2008, Winnipeg was in Calgary and early in the game on kickoff coverage I sprinted down field and got completely blindsided (it was a clean hit) by Joe Smith. My legs buckled and I was briefly knocked out. I don’t remember anything, apparently, I was slurring words and had no idea where I was or what I was doing. When I finally came to my wits I was in the trainer’s room wearing nothing but a towel and obviously extremely confused. Believe it or not, I was cleared to play the next week.

Speaking of special teams, did you prefer to be on the cover or return units?

Cover units, hands down. Punt cover was especially fun because I was usually the quarterback of the punt team, meaning I was responsible for calling the protection and getting guys lined up and organized. In Calgary I played with Burke Dales and Rob Maver; two great punters and good guys, although they were always paranoid. Dales for instance would actually ask me to delay the snap until the wind died down, as if that’s even possible in Saskatchewan or Winnipeg.

During my time in Ottawa, the Redblacks kept trying to put me in the wedge on kick return, something I never enjoyed. I preferred to line up vs the other teams top cover guy and try to move him. Kick off return is all about getting movement and taking people out of their lanes to create seams for the returner to hit. It’s something I was known for in Calgary but maybe the coaches in Ottawa felt I lost a step so they put me in the wedge. All I know is that it sucks having guys take a full field run at you when your job is literally to stand there and absorb it.

Who was the funniest guy you ever played with?

Two guys instantly come to mind and anyone who played with either of them would agree. The first is Pat MacDonald, a Canadian defensive lineman who came in as a rookie with back in 2007. He was nicknamed “The Pleasureman” and drove a 1980’s Camaro IROC. He often got into fights during practice because he never took a play off and nobody could match his intensity. But guys liked him because he was an absolute riot off the field. The second was Burke Dales, undoubtedly the most interesting man I have ever met. He’d come up with one liners and life stories that sounded like they were straight from the movies. He used to dye his hair jet black and I’m pretty sure he regularly spray tanned or at least used a serious bronzer. There’s no way to be around Burke and not be laughing.

Why #44?

I always liked the number. Forrest Gump and Brian Bosworth wore it and I figured I’d try to carry on their tremendous legacy. Plus my dog’s name was Boz so I thought it was fitting.

Where do you feel is the toughest stadium in the CFL to go in and get a win?

I never really enjoyed traveling multiple time zones, it just gets you out of your schedule. Most teams practice in the morning so whenever we’d play BC for an evening game, kickoff would be 9-10pm body time which was always difficult to adjust to. But from pure stadium perspective, the old Ivor Wynne Stadium was tough. It was always windy, had a rough crowd and was home to the most depressing locker room I’ve ever been in.

Your release from the Redblacks was mishandled, leading you to find out about it on Twitter. Did anyone from the team reach out afterwards to apologize?

Coach Campbell called me right away. Had he known it was going to be handled in the way it all went down I’m sure he would have reached out prior to my release. The two of us go back a long ways and I hold in him in high regard and respect him immensely as a coach and person. Marcel Desjardins called me a few days later as well. The unfortunate part of everything for me was that I was caught off guard. I would have liked the opportunity to consider all my options and I think after a near decade long career and all the sacrifices I made I earned that right, but I guess opinions vary.

Did you consider trying to continue your career with another team?

Upon my initial release I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I found out that I needed another surgery, this time on my other shoulder, to fix a partly torn labrum that I’d be playing with for awhile. The thought of going through rehab again wasn’t super appealing given where I was at in my life and career. Ultimately early in the spring I decided to focus on the next chapter of life and enjoy more time with my family.

Since then, what have you been doing for work?

In 2014 I started working at BrokerLink Insurance. Since then I’ve worked my way up to Commercial Account Executive managing the commercial operations from our Arnprior and Almonte branches. I think it’s safe to say I am one of the most competitive Insurance brokers in Ottawa, I guess us athletes and former athletes are just wired that way!

Looking back on your time in Ottawa, what are you most proud of?

I’m tempted to say the hat I designed with New Era Caps; it’s a fan favourite and I think the R with battle axes logo should be on an alternative jersey.

The Making of Justin Phillips' New Era Hat/Toque

Go behind-the-scenes of the design process to see how Justin Phillips came up with his New Era Cap design.

Posted by Ottawa REDBLACKS on Wednesday, September 23, 2015

But what I’m actually most proud of is just being a part of Ottawa’s return to the CFL. It was a dream come true to bring pro football back to my hometown and experiencing it first-hand was truly special. Being voted a captain by my peers in the Redblacks’ inaugural season is something I will cherish forever. Having the respect of the men you go to battle with and sacrifice with is quite the acknowledgment. Although it didn’t have a story book ending – losing the Grey Cup, battling injuries and being released without official notice – I still enjoyed every moment of the ride. It was a heck of a journey with a great group of teammates and coaches in front of the most amazing fans in the CFL. Plus, my son Weston even got to see his old man play a game!

Thanks for your time Justin, and best of luck in the future!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).