As Thanksgiving approached, Vikings nose tackle Harrison Phillips was one busy guy. He had a game plan to study and a bunch of text messages to send out.
The Vikings face the New England Patriots on Thursday night at U.S. Bank Stadium in the first NFL Thanksgiving game ever in Minnesota. Before the game, Phillips still might be banging away on his phone.
“When it comes to these holidays, I might send out 100 text messages to people that I’m thankful for,” Phillips said. “I’m thinking of people who helped me along the way.”
Many would suggest, though, it is Phillips who should be bombarded with text messages on Thanksgiving. After all, there are few more giving players in the NFL than the 6-foot-3, 307-pound lineman.
Phillips, in his fifth pro season after playing his first four with Buffalo, was the Bills’ nominee the past two years for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. He has been named Person of the Year by Aspire, a non-profit organization in Western New York.
When he was in Buffalo, Phillips founded Harrison’s Playmakers, a non-profit foundation dedicated to mentoring kids with social, physical and economic challenges. The foundation continues to be going strong in Buffalo, in Phillips’ hometown of Omaha, Neb., and he is now getting it started in Minnesota.
When he was in Buffalo, Phillips was so well regarded for his community work that Patty Champion, a 65-year-old grandmother, tweeted out about 20,000 times “#WPMOYChallenge Harrison Phillips” in December 2021 and January 2022 in a competition related to the Man of the Year Award in which the three nominees with the most tweets would get money for a charitable donation. Phillips finished third and received $5,000.
Earlier this month, before the Vikings played the Bills on the road, Patrick Smeraldo, who teaches elementary school kids with disabilities, walked 64 miles from his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., to Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., to raise money for Phillips’ foundation. He ended up donating $10,000.
Since he signed as a free agent with the Vikings in March, Phillips has been known to help people out on the spur of the moment. He surprised a Vietnam veteran by paying for his groceries. He saw a teenage boy working late one night at a movie theater, and gave him a $100 bill.
While with the Vikings, Phillips has attended about 20 community events in Minnesota. The Vikings give each player on the team a special T-shirt to wear to events. Phillips asked for two, so he could keep one in his car in order to be ready at any time to help out.
“I joked (with) our community guys,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said, “I said, ‘You guys need to April Fools Harrison, and say like, ‘Hey, we need you in Owatonna at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night before a game,’ and like, he would be there. That’s just the way he is. … He’s a major asset to this organization (and) also to our community as a whole.”
For Phillips, helping others has been a way of life since he was growing up in Omaha. When Phillips was young, his mother ran a daycare center out their home. Some of the kids had developmental differences, and she was impressed with how her son dealt with them.
“He treated them like they were his brothers and sisters,” Tammie Phillips said. “He would share his toys with them.”
When Phillips was in the sixth grade, he worked with younger kids at a Bible school at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. And when he was a sophomore at Millard West High School, he went on a two-week church mission trip to El Salvador to help build a playground for kids.
“(Helping others) was definitely instilled in me very early on due to my faith and my family and seeing that my parents always wanted to give back and serve others,” Phillips said of his mother and father Paul being involved in community work. “That was a big motivator. And then I remember watching athletes, too, and seeing the cool things that they did and wishing one day I’d be in the position to do that, too.”
Phillips developed into a top-notch football player and earned scholarship to Stanford. It was there that, in addition to starring for the Cardinal football team, he expanded his community work.
As a freshman in 2014, Phillips became friendly with senior safety Jordan Richards, who would play in the NFL from 2015-21. Richards, who is from the Sacramento area, worked with a non-profit organization there called Playmakers that helped at-risk kids. Richards asked Phillips if he wanted to help out, and the answer was a resounding yes.
“He would ride the train up (from Stanford) as often as he could,” Greg Roeszler, the founder and executive director of Playmakers, said of Phillips making the 120-mile trip to Sacramento throughout his college years. “He would show up and mentor kids and read to them. … He has such a tremendous heart, and he makes himself so accessible.”
Roeszler was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota from 1975-76, although he didn’t get into any games, before he transferred to San Diego State. He played a role in helping Phillips establish Harrison’s Playmakers in Buffalo after he was drafted by the Bills in the third round in 2018.
“When I got to Buffalo, individuals with special needs were always a group of people that I loved working with,” Phillips said. “When I got to Buffalo, I started doing some work with the inner-city public schools, but I realized a lot of other players were doing things there, too. So I said this is a great time to find another place that I can give back, and that’s when I shifted Harrison’s Playmakers to what it is today.”
Phillips built up a foundation in Buffalo that now has about 575 individuals with special needs who are called Playmakers. The great bulk of them are kids, but Debbie Cavers, the vice president and regional director of the foundation in Buffalo, said there are some in their 20s and a few in their 30s.
“Harrison doesn’t like to cut out anybody,” Cavers said. “A lot of programs when someone will hit 18 or 21, they stop. But we never turn down anybody.”
Harrison’s Playmakers relies on donations and sponsorships, but any time there is a money shortage, Phillips makes up the difference. He estimates he contributes tens of thousands of dollars annually.
The foundation has had about eight events a year in Western New York for the Playmakers, and some have had as many as 500 participants. Activities have included a petting zoo, bouncy houses, football drills, a tug of war and kickball.
“If there’s a kid in a wheelchair, Harrison will be pushing them around the bases,” Cavers said. “If they can’t kick the ball, he’ll be kicking it for them. … He just cares about these kids. You can tell by the passion in his voice how he cares about people.”
Goody bags and T-shirts are often handed out at the events. However, Phillips has what he calls a “pay-it-forward” model in which he requires the Playmakers to also help out in the community in whatever ways they can. He calls it a “big responsibility” to be a Playmaker.
Harrison’s Playmakers in Omaha is overseen by his parents. They have similar events about four times a year, and Phillips gets to the ones he can.
‘He’s very hands on,” said his mother. “From the beginning to the end, he’s out there helping set up things and taking them down and playing with the kids. … The kids love him. A gentle giant is a great way to describe him.”
When he was in Buffalo, Phillips perhaps got more attention for his community work than for his play even though he was a key Bills defender. Champion, a lifelong Bills fan who has a nephew with autism, had read about Phillips’ community work and became inspired.
“He was my favorite player,” Champion said. “So when he was up for Man of the Year and they had that contest, I just started tweeting. It would take me about 20 minutes to do about 100. I did about 500 a day for about six weeks.”
Phillips was flattered when he heard about Champion’s 20,000 tweets. He reached out to thank her, and said they now have a “cool relationship.”
So how does Champion feel about Phillips leaving the Bills for the Vikings?
“He’s still my favorite player,” she said.
After Phillips signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Vikings in March, he said there was some apprehension about what would happen with Harrison’s Playmakers in Buffalo. But everything has gone smoothly so far.
There have been five events in Western New York since Phillips left the Bills, and he was able to get to three of them before the season started. At the others, Bills players Reggie Gilliam, Quintin Morris and Tommy Doyle have filled in, and they plan to continue to do so.
Phillips, rated by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s No. 22 interior defensive lineman, wears No. 97 for the Vikings. When Phillips and the Vikings returned to Buffalo for their 33-30 overtime victory over the Bills on Nov. 13, he was overwhelmed by how many fans in the stands were wearing his old Bills No. 99 jersey.
A local radio station promoted a quest for donations to Harrison’s Playmakers of $9.97, a play on his jersey numbers with Minnesota and Buffalo. And Smeraldo arrived at Highmark Stadium with some degree of fanfare.
Smeraldo, 54, long has been inspired by Phillips’ work. He met him last summer, and wanted to do something unique for when he returned to face the Bills.
So Smeraldo left Jamestown on Nov. 11, walked 26 miles that day, 32 miles on Nov. 12, and then covered the final six miles to the stadium on the morning of the game. His wife Jill drove him home each night, and then back the next morning to where he had stopped. IN all, he walked 64 miles, and raised $10,000 for Harrison’s Playmakers
“We hear so many bad things about pro athletes all the time, and for this guy to give his time to these kids — and I’ve seen how they light up when they see him — it’s just incredible,” Smeraldo said of wanting to help out Phillips.
Phillips called the support he gets in Buffalo “huge,” and wants to mimic that in Minnesota. In getting Harrison’s Playmakers underway in the Twin Cities, he has been doing the legwork himself as he continues to look for someone to help run it. Cavers is providing some help in that quest, and she said about about 35 Playmakers have been earmarked through events that have been held.
In September, there was a foundation launch event in which 50 kids and adults with special needs were invited to dinner at Wildfire in Eden Prairie and given a shopping spree at Target, with each guest getting a $50 gift card.
Phillips has had two other events so far to raise awareness for the foundation. And he is partnering with Scheels to have a shopping spree in December at one of stores.
“It’s so nice to know that you’re blessing someone else’s day and that I’m in a position where I can make a great event for a kid,” Phillips said
Since this season started, Phillips has attended numerous community events, often on Tuesdays when players have the day off. He has visited local schools and hospitals, handed out food to the homeless, and has worked with the Special Olympics, foster children and military veterans.
“He does not allow one moment of his free time go without caring about others,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said.
Phillips’ help sometimes is spontaneous. He was standing in line at a grocery store when he noticed an elderly man behind him wearing garb identifying him a Vietnam War veteran. So he swiped his credit card to pay for his groceries.
“Any time I see somebody wearing something military, I ask them if they served for us, and I thank them for their service,” Phillips said.
Then at a movie theater, he saw a teenage employee.
“In today’s world, it’s hard to get help, and I noticed this teenage boy working late on a Friday night where he could have been out with his friends,” Phillips said. “So I just walked up and handed him a $100 bill. He was speechless at first. I think he thought it was fake, but then when I was like 30 to 40 yards away, he was like, ‘Oh, my god, thank you.’ ”
And after all of this, Phillips will be sending out Thanksgiving messages thanking other people.