CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith says most junior college players who reach a school like Illinois generally get there having traveled a journey filled with twists and turns.
Del’Shawn Phillips knows that journey well.
“When you go the JC route, there’s a story there,” Smith said Monday. “It’s a hard way. Once you’ve had to scratch and fight for everything you’ve got, they can handle a little adversity.”
Illinois’ new starting linebacker, who led the team with 16 tackles in Saturday’s 24-21 victory over Ball State, has had to confront plenty of adversity including some that was self-inflicted.
“When I was in high school, I was immature,” Phillips said. “I made bad decisions — skipping school and all that.”
He signed with Western Michigan out of high school but did not qualify academically and had to sit out an entire year before enrolling at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
“When I didn’t qualify, it hurt me,” he admitted.
No excuses, but Highland Park is not the ideal environment for any kid trying to grow up and find success.
Highland Park is a city of more than 11,000 located within the Metro Detroit area. In 2011, more than two-thirds of the street lights in Highland Park were removed by the city because of its inability to pay a $60,000-per-month electric bill. City residents were advised to keep their porch lights on to deter crime.
Good luck with that.
“Where I’m from, the neighborhood is not too pretty,” Phillips said Monday. “I used it as my motivation.”
But not without first enduring a year removed from football, something he hadn’t known since he was six years old. Following graduation from high school, he spent a year taking online courses through Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. While that took some of his time, dealing with the absence of football and the presence of trouble everywhere in the neighborhood took the rest of it.
“To not have football was definitely a dark period,” he said. “My family would always tell me, ‘You’ll be all right,’ but I didn’t know what to do without football. I was sort of lost.
“Even when I wasn’t looking for trouble, trouble could find me, especially in my area. You go outside and trouble is right in front of you. It’s hard to dodge trouble actually.”
Somehow, Phillips made sure he did, booking some college credits and jumping on an offer to attend Garden City, where he would eventually become the leading tackler who would lead the school to the national junior college title in 2016.
Arizona looked to be the leader to take Phillips to the next level. But Illinois got involved late, fighting off Syracuse and Central Florida as well as Arizona.
For Phillips, the decision came down to which coaching staff could give him the best shot at making it to the NFL, and which coaching staff could give him the stability and sense of direction he never had in Highland Park.
“For me it was more about the people who were there,” he said. “It was never about things like facilities or what kind of city it was.”
Phillips said failing to qualify academically out of high school, “flipped a switch” that made him focus on erasing that mistake. “Every time I see my surroundings — the abandoned buildings, the homeless people out there — I just think I have to do better so I can come back and fix things up or give back to these people.
“From that point on I’ve tried to take advantage of my opportunities — school, football, whatever it is, just do my best at everything.”
Making Saturday’s 16-tackle performance even sweeter is that fact that his parents and other family members were in Memorial Stadium.
“They saw me play for the first time in about three years,” he said. “It was great to play in front of them. I don’t think they’ve seen me smile so much in a long time. We’re a tight family anyway. We went out to eat, Buffalo Wild Wings, and it was all hugs and smiles. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that.”
Early in training camp Phillips twisted his ankle and slipped on the depth chart. But that was just one more challenge for a player who’s faced bigger ones.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson appreciated Phillips’ Illini debut.
“He flew around and made some really nice plays out there,” he said. “Very active around the football. When a guy is making 16 tackles, he’s doing pretty good.”
Phillips said he should have had 20 tackles and gave himself low marks for his pass coverage.
“As a defense we agree we had a bad game,” he said. “We came out with a W and that makes everything easier. But we know on third down, we have to do better.”
This week’s opponent, Western Kentucky, won 11 games last season and will come to Memorial Stadium Saturday night as an eight-point favorite.
Phillips said he made just one goal this season and it won’t be measured by statistics.
“My only goal was to give my all on every play,” he said.
He figures it’s a goal that has turned his life in a better direction.
Giving his all got him out of Highland Park and got his new Illini football career off to a flying start.