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A Change of Tune: Patriots safety Phillips finding harmony in New England

Having come from a musical family, safety Adrian Phillips now finds himself a player of note in the Patriots' resurgent defense.

Safety Adrian Phillips celebrates a big play during Week 1 of the 2021 season.
Safety Adrian Phillips celebrates a big play during Week 1 of the 2021 season.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – An extraordinary number and variety of artworks, many of them large-scale, adorn both the interior and exterior of Colorado's Denver International Airport. Some were commissioned to be more than just decorative pieces, but also tributes to some of the state's most notable and influential figures. In one such work, a massive mural, you'll find a depiction of an early jazz musician named Melvin Phillips

Some of Phillips' descendants who still reside in Colorado have had the pleasure of seeing the mural and recognizing their relative in it. Others who now hail from elsewhere take pride in knowing that it exists, even if they've yet to lay eyes upon it. Melvin's great-grandson, Adrian Phillips, counts himself among the latter.

"I grew up in a musical family," the Patriots safety explains. "My dad was a percussionist in his high school marching band. My grandfather played the sax, and my great-grandfather played the trumpet. When I was young, I used to play percussion in middle school and took piano lessons in high school … I was pretty solid at it, but I forgot how to play. The love of it is still there. If there are people playing, I usually stop and listen because I love the sound."

Adrian marched to the beat of his own drum and eventually abandoned music so he could focus on his other passion: football. Even as a child in Garland, Texas, a suburb northeast of Dallas, he aspired to become what he is today, a professional player in the National Football League – although the now-29-year-old defender first hoped to be a quarterback.

"I played defense, too. Played both ways," he's quick to point out. "In middle school, I was a QB and linebacker. Then in high school, I started out as a quarterback, but transitioned to receiver and safety. I still thought I had a chance to play in the NFL, though, because I was highly recruited [by colleges]. I felt like the dream was still attainable."

Indeed, following a productive four-year college career with the high-profile University of Texas Longhorns from 2010-13, Phillips had every reason to believe he'd continue to play football on Sundays. Representatives from NFL clubs showed considerable interest in him, but as the 2014 NFL Draft unfolded, the former Longhorn captain learned his first painful lesson about the business of pro football.

"It happens to a lot of kids," Phillips observes. "They're told they're going to get drafted. Teams say, 'We're going to take you in this specific round. Have your phone ready.' Then they call you back and say, 'It's actually going to be this [later] round.' And they just keep playing this game with you. Eventually, they tell you they want you as a priority rookie free agent. And then you look up and you're sitting at home for a month."

In Phillips' case, he'd be forced to wait until mid-June before the Chargers, still based in San Diego at the time, finally invited him to sign with them. Over the next 18 months, the Chargers would release Phillips eight different times, subsequently re-signing him either to their practice squad or 53-man active roster. He played in only three games as a rookie, but tripled that number in 2015, with two starting nods among his nine appearances.

"That first year was … I kind of saw red the whole time," he can chuckle at the recollection today, "because I wanted to prove everybody wrong. Yeah, I was a good player, but they already had their guys. They said they wanted to keep me for the practice squad, which I was grateful for. I just kept working and working and – there were a lot of ups and downs – that's the business side of football.

"We had a lot of injuries, but also had a lot of DBs. I was 22 at the time and didn't understand it. I wanted them to realize, hey, if I'm a good player, if you say you want to keep me, then keep me. It was a whole other side of football I didn't understand."

Safety Adrian Phillips during his years with the Chargers organization.
Safety Adrian Phillips during his years with the Chargers organization.

By 2016, Phillips had established a foothold in the league, allowing him the opportunity to reexamine his conscience. Stability and maturity brought with them a change in Phillips' outlook, which ultimately manifested itself in a more productive player on the field.

"Around my third or fourth year in the league, my mindset really started to change. I really didn't want to prove people wrong anymore. It was more about proving myself right, challenging myself," he remarks. "That's really when I saw my game start to elevate – the mental and physical aspect of it. There wasn't hatred anymore. I didn't care what anybody else thought. I just wanted to be the best player that I knew I could be."

His new approach paid dividends in 2018 with Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. 

"That's when it finally hit me that this is the recipe. Worry about you, don't worry about anyone else, because everyone else is on a different timeline. Focus on yourself and things will start working out."

Despite an injury-curtailed 2019 campaign, Phillips entered the 2020 offseason as a free agent whom the Patriots coveted. Early in the signing period, he inked a two-year, $6 million deal with New England.

Phillips' career wasn't the only aspect of his life undergoing a seismic shift. So, too, did his family status. In 2017, he wed his longtime girlfriend, the former Camille Forbes, a medical student whom he met as a college freshman. The couple welcomed their first child, a boy they named Dylan, this past September, just as Adrian's second season with the Patriots had gotten underway.

"It's tough," he admits about simultaneously being a father and professional football player. "I mean, you're actually caring for a life 24/7. When you're in the office, all you're worried about is your son and your wife, because they're at home and you want to make sure they're okay. My wife puts in a lot of work, a lot of hours. It's a full-time job.

"Juggling that, realizing I have to do a better job of turning off football once I get home and being a dad. You hear people talking about that stuff, but it really doesn't click until you have a child of your own. You can't worry about if you had a bad day at the office, or if something made you mad. You have to turn that off and be the best dad you can be."

It helps ease Adrian's mind that Camille Phillips, MD is a pediatrician. This coming offseason, when Adrian's football season is over, the Phillips family will head back to Texas so Camille can complete the final year of her residency at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin.

At the same time, Adrian is scheduled to become a free agent once again. However, he's become an integral part of the Patriots defense over the past year-and-a-half and says he's open to continuing his NFL life here in Foxborough.

"New England is totally different than Texas or SoCal. First off, it's cold! But it's been fun to experience the East Coast. It's a whole different way of life. I'm sure, somewhere in California, they've got fall foliage, but I'd never seen true foliage before I got here. I'd never been in 18 inches of snow. This is just a different style of living, and I love it!"

In Week 8 of the 2021 season, Adrian Phillips races to the end zone with an interception against his former team, the Chargers.
In Week 8 of the 2021 season, Adrian Phillips races to the end zone with an interception against his former team, the Chargers.

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