North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
North Carolina’s Hall of Fame basketball coach Roy Williams might be the most recognizable sports personality produced by the town of Spruce Pine, but when it comes to achievements on the playing field, the most accomplished athlete from Mitchell County is an offensive lineman who starred at ACC rival Clemson.
John Phillips was recruited as a linebacker, a position at which he earned all-state recognition as a two-way senior at Mitchell High School on a team that went 6-4 in 1982. He was a Shrine Bowl selection that year, and after redshirting as a true freshman played in every game the following season at linebacker. But when he realized that his place on the depth chart didn’t lend itself to a major role anytime soon, he was convinced to switch sides of the ball, back to the other position he played in high school.
“We had Henry Walls, Keith Williams, and Eldridge Milton at linebacker,” Phillips told ClemsonTigers.com. “I didn’t think that I was going to get as much playing time as I wanted. And I wasn’t a Clemson type linebacker. I was a little too big.”
It turned out to be the right decision.
Phillips went on to become a two-time All-American guard for the Tigers under coach Danny Ford from 1984-87. He played in 47 games, including 32 starts, and was a member of two ACC championship teams while winning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy for the state of South Carolina in each of his final two collegiate seasons.
Phillips set a single-season school record as a senior with 103 knockdown blocks. He also had 100 knockdowns as a junior in 1986, making him the only Clemson player with more than one season in triple-digits. He finished his career with 245 knockdowns over 2,330 offensive snaps.
Described by Sports Illustrated in its college football preview edition in August 1987 as “a 6-foot-5, 260-pounder with the agility of a linebacker and the dependability of a Maytag,” Phillips served as the Tigers’ co-captain that season along with Michael Dean Perry. The team went 10-2 and beat Penn State in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
He was named to Clemson’s centennial team in 1996 and the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.