Downhill, then uphill, climb for the Bears’ 28-year-old rookie kicker
Andy Phillips’ road to becoming the Bears’ 28-year-old rookie kicker started not long after he took his first steps.
He learned to ski at 2 and entered his first race at 5. By the time he graduated from Winter Sports High School — which is exactly what it sounds like — in Park City, Utah, he had been the No. 2-ranked under-18 downhill skier in the world.
A member of the U.S. Ski Team, Phillips decided at 19 to leave for a Mormon mission in Oslo, Norway. He was based in the skiing capital of the world, but church elders told him not to ski.
‘‘I tried to convince the mission president to let me ski,’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘Look, man, someone has to sit on the lift with me. I can preach the gospel and talk to them.’ ’’
He returned home two years later, fluent in Norwegian and having obeyed orders.
Phillips rejoined the ski team but, dismayed by the impact the global economic downturn had on his chances to reach the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, quit in 2011. He was married and had a family to think about.
Back home in Utah, Phillips was playing in his family’s annual Thanksgiving football game when he had a notion: Despite never playing football in high school — he logged only one year of freshman soccer — he should try to kick field goals.
He wasn’t a big football fan and admits he wasn’t particularly fond of football players, either. But it scratched a competitive itch.
‘‘It was kind of random, to be honest,” Phillips said.
On New Year’s Day, it became his resolution. The former downhill skier didn’t see an uphill climb, though.
‘‘I figured if I practiced enough, I could do that as well as anybody,’’ he said.
Phillips began sending videos to Utah special-teams coach Jay Hill, who eventually responded with coaching points and told him to send another video. He shoveled a patch of the local high school field and hit the record button.
Phillips began his college career as a redshirt walk-on in the fall of 2012, then was the Utes’ starter for the next four seasons. He was an All-Pac-12 kicker each season, making 84 of 100 field-goal attempts.
Phillips became a team captain. A father of two with a master’s degree in business solutions, he answered his teammates’ questions about girls and money.
He railed against the NCAA’s amateur rule, compared to the financial support he received as a skier.
‘‘It’s hard because you’re training I’d almost say at a higher level than what I had experienced in a professional sport,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘So here I am at a Division I school, and I’m like, ‘We’re being treated like professionals in every aspect except for that.’ It was tough, but I obviously understand why certain rules are in place.’’
Phillips reached the pro ranks this month, when the Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent a week before he turned 28.
Whether he’s a ‘‘camp leg’’ or a real threat to Connor Barth is a different question, but it’s noteworthy the Bears brought in someone to push their presumptive starter.
‘‘His profile is pretty unique,’’ special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said. ‘‘There’s a lot of guys that we looked at, and we felt that he was the best guy that we could sign.’’
Kicking, Phillips said, isn’t that different from skiing.
‘‘Of course, it’s a team sport,’’ he said. ‘‘But kicker is super-individual. Ski racing, it’s all mental. . . . If you can control your mind, you can kick for a really long time.’’
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