THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- It was the first day of training camp when punter Johnny Hekker spotted Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips on his way to meetings and couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Wade just walks down the hallway with his Fornite shirt,” Hekker said, “And I just died laughing.”
Hekker pleaded for the 71-year-old Phillips to stop for a photo. Of course, Phillips obliged.
When asked how he got the shirt, @sonofbum told me "They send it to you when you're the champion"— Johnny Hekker (@JHekker) July 27, 2018
I seriously doubt the guy could even turn on an XBox though..with all due respect. pic.twitter.com/TVVrjyTOpJ
“If anybody didn’t know, coach Wade Phillips,” cornerback Marcus Peters said, “Fortnite legend.”
What exactly, you ask, is Fortnite?
“Somebody told me it’s a video game,” said 32-year-old coach Sean McVay. “But embarrassingly, I probably couldn’t explain what it is.”
Don’t worry, Wade knows.
Leave it to Phillips, who on Monday embarks on his 41st season as an NFL coach when the Rams open against the Oakland Raiders, to explain the latest craze popular among young people.
“My grandson was playing it and, of course, I was watching him,” Phillips said. “I don’t know if I could play ... but hey, don’t mess with me. I would have a pretty good squad, I think, if I played. I don’t know if I could save the world or not but I might win the battle royale.”
It's all part of Phillips’ personality. It’s his way. He gets people, relates to them. His players are half a century younger than him and he’s just old enough to be the grandfather of his head coach, but Phillips always has found a way to stay in touch with younger generations.
“He's hip for his age,” cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said. “Some guys' age change, but their soul don’t. And that’s like coach, his young soul never left him.”
On Twitter, he goes by @SonofBum.
Phillips has 169,003 followers and the content on his feed is all original. “I don't have an auto pilot or whatever you call that,” he said.
He tweets SpongeBob memes. He’s familiar with Bitmoji’s -- caricatures that resemble him with white hair and a round face -- and has a tendency to tweet them during the NBA Finals, clad in jerseys of the winning team.
He gives shout-outs and makes jokes.
“You asked what’s Cookin’ with the Rams – they say we are getting too many star players,” Phillips tweeted after a series of offseason acquisitions. “So Suh us!”
But, much of his social media presence is an ode to his father, Bum.
Bum coached with Bear Bryant and Hayden Fry as a college assistant and made several high school stops throughout Texas before becoming an NFL coordinator for the Chargers and a coach for the Saints and Oilers. Bum coached Wade’s high school teams, then Wade followed him into coaching. The younger Phillips did his stint coaching high school football in Texas before his father gave him his first NFL job.
The Best ! https://t.co/hIKA9UvEbB— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) May 2, 2018
“Triple OG,” said cornerback Marcus Peters, referring to Phillips’ history coaching high school, college and pros. “He comes from playing ball so he’s been around it his whole life so he knows how to bridge that gap.”
Bum taught Wade many lessons, among them that nice guys can finish first and that it doesn’t matter someone’s appearance all that matters is that they can do the job.
Phillips also believes that nice guys can finish first. And that it’s important to talk with your players before and after practice to develop relationships.
“He’s just able to relate to guys, to people, regardless of skin color, age, position, doesn’t matter,” said Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who was Super Bowl 50 MVP as part of Phillips’ defense with the Broncos. “He’s just a great social coach.”
He has coached 15 Hall of Famers and has had 87 players, including 32 on defense, selected to the Pro Bowl, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Phillips’ off-field persona has developed him a cult following (including his players) -- but it’s his on-field product that has organizations continuing to employ him and players pledging their loyalty.
“He's one of those people that when you're around Wade, you can't help but be in a good mood,” McVay said. “But then when you really see the way he is as a coach and the intricate knowledge based on all that experience ... he's got an innate feel for the game.”
Phillips has coached for 10 NFL teams, and has put together a remarkable streak. Since 1989, every team he has joined -- the Rams last season, the 2015 Denver Broncos, 2011 Houston Texans, 2007 Dallas Cowboys, 2004 San Diego Chargers, 2002 Atlanta Falcons, 1995 Buffalo Bills and 1989 Denver Broncos -- has made the playoffs in his first season there.
Part of the credit goes to Phillips’ signature 3-4 scheme, a defense that is simplified to three things: alignment, assignment and technique. The system enables players to play fast, puts pressure on quarterbacks and puts defensive backs in position to make plays. But, Phillips also has a knack for spotting talent and figuring out how to best exploit a player's strengths. In 2011, he urged the Houston Texans to select J.J. Watt from Wisconsin.
Watt, of course, is now a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
“I love Wade,” Watt said. “Early on, he instilled confidence in me somewhat before I had confidence in myself.”
Sean McVay and Phillips met in 2014, when McVay was a Washington Redskins assistant on a staff that included Phillips’ son, Wes. Before McVay interviewed with the Rams, he asked Phillips if he would join him as defensive coordinator.
Phillips initially laughed. There was no way a 30-something assistant was going to get a head coaching job. But then McVay did and Phillips followed him to Los Angeles.
Last season, his first with the Rams, Phillips installed the 3-4 as the Rams finished fifth in total takeaways with 28 -- including 18 interceptions -- and fourth in sacks, with 48, but had the 19th-ranked total defense. The Rams won the NFC West, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
This offseason, the Rams set out to find personnel better suited for Phillips’ scheme, so it could be on-par with the offense, which led the league in scoring. The Rams traded for All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and then signed All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency.
“We just want to try to keep going,” Phillips said. “We had a great year [last season] but that isn’t the maximum. We want to do better.”
When Talib caught wind that he could be a cap-space casualty with the Broncos, he knew he wanted to reunite with Phillips, whose defense he also starred in during a run to the 2015 Super Bowl.
Their bond during that time became special. Look no further than when Talib hung his gold chains around Phillips neck and told him he was “Drippin'.”
“Yeah, I’m drippin’ baby, I’m really drippin',” Phillips replied.
Talib smiled after his first practices in Los Angeles. “He’s the same old Wade,” Talib said. “We’re good together. Regular conversations. A lot of football talk, reminiscing.”
If there’s a concern for the Rams, it’s all the personalities. Phillips knows Talib is a strong personality. With the Broncos, Phillips said he was “a little irreverent at times” but “funny.” Phillips also said Talib was a great leader.
Suh has a reputation for overly aggressive play -- he’s collected nearly $300,000 in fines. Peters' last season was part of a scene when he threw a flag into the stands before leaving the field for the locker room. He’s also clashed with past coaches.
And whether they would admit it, for the Rams to reach the Super Bowl and capitalize on the offseason’s additions and eye-popping salaries, they’ll have to harness these personalities a little bit.
That again, could be Phillips’ department.
Phillips has “more swag than all of them,” McVay said.
And while Phillips acknowledges this is a group of characters, he also thinks they’re a unique bunch because of their devotion to the game.
“We have a group that really likes football,” Phillips said. “Some teams or players that I've been with, they play because they were good at it or whatever. This group, they like football, they like playing football and some of them even like practicing, which is, you know, a little different. But especially football. I enjoy that about them.”
And as for those personalities, well, Phillips said players with personality can make for a great defense.
“They’re independent enough to do things on their own and they’ve shown they’re independent enough to be great players, too,” Phillips said. “You don’t want a player that does everything you say. I mean, you want guys that have some initiative.”
Phillips also welcomes the challenge to try to improve players. He rarely, if ever, raises his voice and he doesn’t tell players to do something without providing an explanation for why.
“Sometimes it’s a chess game,” Phillips said. “And sometimes it’s just coaching.”
Watt is convinced Phillips’ longevity and his ability to get the most out of his players boils down to a single factor.
“He cares,” Watt said. “That’s the biggest thing. When somebody cares ... when they show that they care and when they show that they’re passionate and truly want you to better yourself, it’s easy to play for a guy like that. It’s easy to go out there and play for them.”
ESPN’s Jeff Legwold and Sarah Barshop contributed to this story.