The 6’3”, 262-pound mound of muscle sitting before me was born to be a professional athlete. He knows it. His friends know it. Anyone who has ever crossed paths with him knows that Shaun Phillips was built to move people. Since he excelled at everything from tennis to hoops, the only question was what path the young San Diego Chargers linebacker would take to athletic stardom.
Shaun’s monstrous football career at Purdue, which propelled him to the NFL, answered that. And three years into his professional career, when he finally got his chance to start, the superstitious LB did not disappoint. He thrilled Chargers fans with 65 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 14 games. Now, as one of the top tacklers in the league, Shaun is about to blow up. Big time. We know because he told us so.
STACK: When did you come into your own as an athlete?
Phillips: I think I came out of the womb ready to play basketball, tennis and football; my family is bred to play sports. When you grow up in a city like Philadelphia, everyone knows that you only have a few ways out. You can get out through sports, music or being exceptional in school. I always believed my way out was being a great athlete.
STACK: You mentioned a lot of sports. What all did you play?
Phillips: I actually started out playing tennis; it was my first sport. It taught me how to be agile and how to shift my body weight back and forth, [which] really helped me once I started playing football. A lot of people don’t know this, but I didn’t start playing football until 10th grade. Growing up in Philadelphia, we’d wake up and play basketball until we fell asleep. [When] I moved to Jersey, I started playing football.
STACK: Did you continue playing tennis?
Phillips: I stopped playing tennis when I was 14, because it interfered with football, basketball and track—my three main sports. If they would’ve let me play tennis and run track at the same time, I would’ve. Football is my number-one sport, but basketball is up there, too. I still follow all the basketball teams and play as much as possible.
STACK: Did you feel like you were behind everyone else when you finally picked up football?
Phillips: Being behind in knowledge of the game was all right, because I was ahead of most people athletically. And the fact that I started later allowed me to learn good habits off the bat. Most people start earlier, so their coaches teach them how to play at that level. A six-year-old gets taught how to play like a six-year-old. When you learn the right fundamentals and technique when you’re 15, from coaches who played and coached in college or the NFL, then you’re taught the right way to do things. When I was in high school, I learned how to play like a college player; and when I went to college, I learned how to play like an NFL player. That’s why I made my little brother wait until he was a freshman in high school to play football. Also, if you start too early and get pushed into it, you might lose your love for the game.
STACK: You were a tight end in high school. When did you switch to defense?
Phillips: The second I stepped onto Purdue’s campus. I walked up to my locker and saw the number 53 jersey hanging up. I thought, “I can’t wear 53 and play offense.” I went to the equipment people and told them I thought they messed it up. They told me that the coaches wanted them to give me a defensive number. I was frustrated because defense was never fun for me. Then my coach and a couple other players asked me, “Why would you want to be hit when you can do the hitting?” It made sense, and the rest is history.
STACK: How did it feel to get into games as a freshman at Purdue?
Phillips: It was nerve-wracking, but I always believed I could do it. I have this [competitive] nature about me. I always felt like we were going to win, and I was going to be better than the guys across from me. I got a sack in my first game, which is impressive for a little freshman in the Big Ten.
STACK: When did you realize you had a shot in the NFL?
Phillips: Honestly, people started telling me my freshman year. I had a really good year—six or seven sacks—and I made a lot of high-effort, high-energy plays not a lot of people can make. But I didn’t truly start believing it until going into my junior year. Once I learned how to play the game, watch people play and study, that’s when I knew I could go to the NFL. And [not just go], I knew I could be a special player in the NFL. I have been dreaming about this from day one.
STACK: Being competitive, how did you handle not being drafted until the fourth round?
Phillips: I didn’t think I was the best defensive end in the Draft. I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the strongest. I didn’t weigh the most. I really thought I should’ve went on the first day, but going on the second day was a blessing in disguise. Thirty-one other teams missed out on [me]; I could’ve been a good player for them. I just told myself that once I got into the league, I will make all those other teams pay for not picking me.
STACK: Tell us a bit about your pre-game routine.
Phillips: I do the same thing, in the same order, every game-day. I wake up, go to the bathroom and yell “It’s game-time!” at myself in the mirror. Then I brush my teeth and get in the shower. I dress in the same order, and take the same bus over to the stadium at the same time. As soon as I get to the locker room, I get the media guide and check out how the cheerleaders look [laughs]. No seriously, I look at who I’m going against, put an X through their faces, then throw the media guide away. Then I pull out my socks and lay them out; take out my gloves and lay them out; lay my jersey out and line it up with my pants; then line my cleats up. I lay it out in the order I’m going to put it on. That’s my routine, and I love it.
STACK: What’s your warm-up like once you get on the field?
Phillips: The first thing I do is run two 100- yard dashes to loosen up. Then I go through my plyometrics—like high knees, butt kicks, carioca and toe touches. Then I go into my stretching routine—hammies, calves, quads, lower back and arms. Then I practice my pass rush moves, 100 yards down and 100 yards back. I finish with two 50-yard dashes, then go into the locker room.
Interview by Chad Zimmerman