Shortly after University of Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips underwent his third ACL surgery on his right knee last season, assistant strength coach Brian Bott went to visit him in the hospital.
The two had already been through so much together. Bott works with the offensive linemen, tight ends and quarterbacks and helped Phillips through two ACL tears.
“Working with Curt, his mentality is similar to theirs,” Bott said of the linemen. “He’s just 100 pounds lighter.”
It was one of many emotional moments shared between player and coach over the past three years.
“When I was sitting there in the hospital room, I said, ‘What are your thoughts?’ ” Bott said. “He goes, ‘I’m going to play. I’m going to be back. We’re going to do it.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”
Phillips not only made it back, he made his first career start in last week’s 62-14 win at Indiana and will lead the Badgers in today’s game against sixth-ranked Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium.
In many ways, Phillips has become the symbol for a resilient UW team that still has a chance at a third straight Big Ten Conference title: He might not run as fast or look as good as he once did, and questions linger about whether he can throw effectively enough to beat a quality opponent like the undefeated Buckeyes (10-0), but there is little doubt his teammates believe in him.
“He’s probably the most patient person I’ve ever seen, going through three ACL tears and still being like, ‘Listen, I can do this,’ ” said defensive end Brendan Kelly, who is one of Phillips roommates. “That’s not a regular thing to do. But people who are great in life, they’re not regular people.”
Only a few people are close enough to know what Phillips has truly endured and Bott is one of them.
“I love coach Bott,” Phillips said. “I can’t thank him enough for how much he’s helped me. He’s put in a ridiculous amount of time, working with me. I can honestly say there’s no way I’d be playing if he wasn’t here.”
But as much as Bott has done for Phillips, the coach might have gained even more from the player.
“Watching him work inspires you as a coach,” Bott said softly, with tears forming in his eyes. “If he wants to go, you want to do your best to give him a chance. I give him an unlimited amount of credit.”
It’s an incredible story, yet one that’s also far from finished. That’s one of the first things Phillips and Bott talked about after last week’s game.
“He would say, more so than anything, the story is great if he keeps playing and we get better,” Bott said. “I think the story, he would say, is not finished yet.”
Bott, 38, has worked at UW for 13 years. He is from Onalaska and was the leading scorer on the school’s Division 2 state basketball championship team in 1992. He played baseball at UW-Oshkosh, playing every inning of every game in his four years and was a member of the team that won the 1994 Division III national title.
Head strength coach Ben Herbert gives Bott plenty of freedom and responsibility in his job.
“As an assistant strength coach, I probably have the best job in the country,” Bott said. “Herbs lets me do my thing. We have a great amount of respect for each other. I think we make a pretty good team.”
Phillips challenged Bott in ways he had never been challenged before. Part of being a strength coach is learning through trial and error, because bodies respond to injuries in different ways. Bott learned things with Phillips that will benefit players for years, especially in the area of injury prevention.
“That’s our main job, try to keep guys on the field and keep them as healthy and physically strong as they can be,” Bott said.
Bott talked to as many people in his profession as he could, trying to devise ways to aid Phillips in his comeback.
“It’s unlimited the things we came up with for him, very unique stuff,” Bott said.
The drills involved single leg work, side-to-side cutting, jumping and landing, as well as starting and stopping. Phillips would stride and Bott would follow behind him, yelling suddenly to stop.
“I wanted to put him in situations where he had to react on his own and teach his body to respond,” Bott said. “It was good to go through it with him because then I used a lot of it with the rest of the quarterbacks. I figure if it’s going to prevent injuries for one guy, hopefully we can prevent injuries for everybody.”
Getting Phillips’ right knee strong again was only part of the battle.
Senior linebacker Mike Taylor is another of Phillips’ roommates and suffered a torn ACL as a redshirt freshman in 2009. Taylor’s knee didn’t respond well initially and the injury ate away at his confidence.
Could Taylor imagine going through that three times?
“It takes a lot to want to keep playing after that,” he said. “If I tore my ACL three times, I’d triple-guess whether I’d want to keep playing football. It’s almost unbelievable the way he’s come back this far and put himself in this position.”
Phillips tore his ACL for the first time during a spring practice in March 2010. He returned to practice only 41⁄2 months later and tore it again in November 2010.
“I remember the second one vividly,” Bott said. “He was running the scout team. I was in (the training room) with some injured kids. I walked out and he was sitting on a (table) with ice on his knee and tears in his eyes. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. He was shaken.”
But it only took Phillips a few days to gather himself and press on. His twin mottos through everything have been to play until somebody told him otherwise and to have no regrets.
“He could have crawled into a shell and been, ‘Woe is me,’ ” Bott said. “It’s probably natural for people to feel that way. He never showed it. I think that’s why people are drawn to him. mentally, physically, he’s a tough kid.”
The third reconstruction in 13 months came in April 2011 and was the result of an infection, not a tear.
That’s when Bott noticed a shift in Phillips’ attitude.
“The third one, I knew he was going to be back,” Bott said. “I knew he was going to fight. It was almost like, ‘To heck with you. You think you can beat me? I’m going to beat you.’ The third one was more of a competition for him, ‘People say I can’t do it, I’m going to do it.’ ”
It was during summer drills with all of the quarterbacks that Bott realized Phillips would make good on his word. Phillips was able to cut and change directions with no problems.
“You can never write a kid off or give up on a kid,” he said. “Especially a kid who has a work ethic like Curt’s.”