Four years ago, right around the time of Wisconsin’s first scrimmage of the spring football season, quarterback Curt Phillips tore his ACL. Then a few months later, in October, Phillips tore the same right ACL. Then, in the summer of 2010, Phillips underwent surgery again on the ACL, which had become infected.
And after all of those injuries to the same knee, Phillips played in seven games this past season and started in five of them, including the Rose Bowl.
But for the tried-and-tested Phillips — who recently received approval from the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility — there is still one more battle left in his college career, and it is seemingly as insurmountable as his comeback from three ACL injuries.
The task: beat out four other top-contending quarterbacks for the starting position.
But if there’s one thing Phillips has shown in his comeback, it’s his commitment to the sport and his teammates. Assistant strength and conditioning coach Brian Bott — who worked with Phillips in his rehab through all three injuries — has witnessed this firsthand.
“It’s hard to even measure the kind of commitment he has … to just continually come in for two and a half years, battling the same situation and to just to keep at it,” Bott said. “And after the second and third [surgery], you saw more will from him that he wasn’t going to be denied.
“He just really stuck with the plan, came in and did a lot of extra work to make sure he was healthy and it paid for him at the end.”
Bott is not the only one who has seen Phillips’ commitment. Starting right tackle Rob Havenstein commented on how Phillips’ improbable comeback has shed light on who he is as a player and person.
“Coming back from three ACLs, I mean come on, that’s ridiculous,” Havenstein said. “Usually it’s one ACL and it takes you a long time to come back, and maybe you’re not 100 percent and maybe you are. And then two of them, you’re like ‘Oh, crap. What am I going to do?’ Three of them, it’s basically someone up above doesn’t like me.
“For Curt to come back and play the way he has and lead the way he has, it’s just speaks testaments to his character.”
After redshirting the 2008 season, Phillips played sparingly in four games during the 2009 season before tearing his ACL for the second time. He didn’t play again until this past fall on Oct. 6, 2012, against Illinois.
Then, a collarbone injury to starter Joel Stave thrust Phillips into the starting role. Phillips struggled at times with his accuracy and arm strength, but he served as an efficient game manager, orchestrating the offense and gaining a reputation for being clutch come crunch time, leading successful two-minute drills in seemingly every game he started.
Still, Phillips has only started five games in his career. Despite lacking starting experience, however, Phillips believes his hard work and his passion for the game are what set him apart from the other quarterbacks on the roster.
“Anytime something is taken away from you, it shows you how much it means to you,” Phillips said. “Before I kind of just went with the flow, just took things how they come. But now I know how much it means to me and I know how hard I’m willing to work to make sure I get to be out there.”
In the games Phillips has played, the statistics do not stand out as overly impressive. He has a 57 percent career completion percentage with five touchdowns and three interceptions, along with a 237 yards rushing on 41 career carries.
And although his statistics, compared to the other quarterbacks, may make him a long shot for the opening day job, new quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig knows no matter Phillips’ position on the depth chart, he will play a vital role on the team because of his wealth of knowledge and experiences.
“He’s been there and done that,” Ludwig said. “There’s a tremendous amount of respect for Curt in the meeting room and on the football team for what he’s been through and the leadership he provides for this offensive football team and the entire football team. His voice carries a lot of weight.”