FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The best untold story on the New York Jets is that of a former five-star defensive lineman who had as many shoulder surgeries as sacks in his first three collegiate seasons; who experienced the shame of being labeled an underachiever before he was healthy enough to start achieving; and who approached the 2019 NFL draft with such low expectations that he passed up the chance to enjoy the festivities in his hometown, Nashville, Tennessee, which hosted the event. He decided to get out of town.
It took Kyle Phillips seven months to go from a draft dodger -- he wasn't picked, as it turned out -- to a significant role on the Jets' defensive line. He's second to the recently traded Leonard Williams in snaps played (375 to 338) and leads the unit in total tackles (33), emerging as a bright light in a dark season for the Jets (2-7). Against long odds, he's fulfilling his childhood ambition, with a big assist from someone who has made a life of conquering barriers.
Teresa Phillips, 61, was the first African American female athlete in Vanderbilt history, became the first woman to coach a Division I men's basketball game and was hired in 2002 as the athletic director at Tennessee State -- a position she still holds. In 2003, she was named one of the 101 most influential minorities in sports by Sports Illustrated. She crashed glass ceilings before many knew they existed. She has inspired so many, including Kyle.
"Her being an AD at a small school with not as many resources as a Power 5 school, you learn how to grind through everything," Phillips said. "I guess you can say we're in a similar position. I wasn't a top draft pick or anything, so I definitely had to grind, just knowing my margin for error is slim. Seeing her, that definitely helped me do the same thing because I had a great example of how to work and how to persevere."
Teresa was a 5-foot-9 power forward in the SEC, but she was outstanding on the boards because of serious hops and an uncanny nose for the ball. To this day, she can watch a basketball game and anticipate the rebound direction of a missed shot. Kyle, too, played in the SEC, arriving at Tennessee in 2015 as one of the top football recruits in the country. He got to campus with big hype and a torn labrum in his shoulder, which required surgery.
Two more surgeries followed, one on each shoulder, disrupting his first two seasons. By the end of his junior season, he still had only three sacks. It wasn't until last fall that he started to display his potential, finishing with four sacks and an interception for a touchdown (a crazy 27-yard return against Alabama in which he broke five tackles). Still, it was a tough four years.
"It was like pins and needles constantly with him as an athlete with those injuries," Teresa said. "I've worked in athletics all my life, but when it's your kid ... it's pretty tough and pretty painful."
Phillips wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine, but he caught the eye of the Jets' scouts and received a free-agent contract -- only $30,000 in guaranteed money. He and former North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb -- a pre-draft workout partner -- watched the draft together at the home of their Florida-based agent, Christina Phillips (no relation). They were surrounded by their families. Holcomb was drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins, whom the Jets face on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox). Kyle Phillips was disappointed by the draft snub, but not defeated.
"To me, that stuff doesn't matter," he said. "My whole focus after the college season was making an NFL 53 [-man roster]."
The family genes kicked in, which is to say his competitive fire was stoked. He got that from mom. They used to play epic pickup basketball games until that day when Kyle -- in middle school -- inadvertently dislocated his mother's pinky finger.
"He backed up that big butt on me and somehow I did something," she said, laughing. "Next thing I know, my pinky was at a 90-degree angle. He smashed it. I was like, 'That's the end of us playing pickup together.'"
In her days as an athlete, Teresa was known to be fearless and driven. She proved it at Vanderbilt in the late 1970s, landing an academic scholarship and playing on an all-white team. She downplayed the milestone and the social implications, saying, "You really don't think about those things. I was just 18, 19 years old. I just went out to play the game."
She became the head women's basketball coach at Division III Fisk University and, later, Tennessee State, reviving a downtrodden program with her no-nonsense coaching style. She went 150-151 from 1989-2000, receiving two NCAA tournament bids and winning national coach of the year in 1990. She moved into the AD role, but she wasn't done coaching, as it turned out.
In 2002, the Tennessee State men's team was in turmoil. Coach Nolan Richardson III was suspended for disciplinary reasons (he later resigned), and the interim received a one-game suspension after a fight-marred game in which 19 players were suspended. Phillips needed a one-game replacement coach, so she appointed the best available person for the job.
It was a huge story, and the game attracted news organizations from around the country. Phillips lost to Austin Peay, 71-56, but she received widespread praise for her coaching and leadership in a difficult situation.
"It all fell together," she said. "It's just one of those crazy things. When I look back, it's like, 'How did that happen?' It became historic, I guess."
After that, she went back to being the AD. And, of course, a mother, raising Kyle and his brother, Micah.
"I think some of my experiences may have poured into [Kyle] as far as his education, being focused on schoolwork and wanting to be good at whatever he did," said Teresa, who is divorced. "I think that has had some impact, but mostly I was just a mom who got up and fixed breakfast every day. We just made it. We had a lot of family, a lot of friends, a lot of support."
Because of her job and the Tennessee State football schedule, Teresa has attended only four Jets games, including the preseason. That will change next season because she's leaving her post in July after 31 years. Those who see Kyle play every day -- coaches and teammates -- are impressed. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called Phillips "a very intelligent, powerful, multi-dynamic player."
"He's a heck of an athlete that's going to be in this league a very, very long time," said Jets nose tackle Steve McLendon, who made the undrafted free-agent journey many years ago. "He's so young and playing at a high level. That's amazing."
At 6-foot-4, 277 pounds, Phillips can play inside, outside, even some linebacker. If he continues to develop, he could be the Jets' best undrafted discovery since wide receiver Robby Anderson. He remembers the day he made the team. Naturally, he phoned his mother with the news.
Teresa choked up as she recalled the conversation.
"Oh, man, I'm going to cry now," she said. "I promise you, I'm about to cry. He almost whispered [the news]. He was excited, but he was almost scared to say it out loud. It was awesome because I know everything he went through. It was pretty emotional. I tried not to cry because I wanted to be excited for him."
"But, boy, I definitely cried when I hung up."