The road back to the football field has been a long one for Sam Philippi. One could even say that it has been a pain.
Nearly a year removed from suffering season-ending hip and medial collateral ligament injuries in Penn football’s 2018 opener, the two-time second team All-Ivy defensive back has returned for his fifth year as a Quaker, and he’s as motivated as ever.
A lot of things go into that motivation, and among them is the fact that Philippi’s season-ending injury wasn’t a career-ending one. Although the fifth-year opportunity is one that he appreciates, Philippi is working not to weigh himself down with thoughts about his final set of games representing the Red and Blue.
“I’m not trying to put any extra pressure on myself,” Philippi said. “It’s football. It’s something that I’ve played for 15-plus years now, so I just try to take it one day at a time. … I’m just trying to take it like another season and just always keep the goal in mind of winning an Ivy League championship.”
That said, he’s ready to get going, and he isn’t alone in his excitement at being back on the field. Defensive coordinator Bob Benson raved about Philippi and all that he has brought to the program during his time on campus.
“Sam has started since he was a freshman, and, probably, I’ve been around him more than any other player in my career,” Benson said. “I mean, five years — I can honestly say that I’ve never coached someone that long, and I’ve never met anyone that has so much passion and desire to play. It’s great to have him back. [There’s] no better leader in the world.”
Head coach Ray Priore echoed Benson’s praise, harping on Philippi’s commitment to his team and the sport.
“He’s a great leader,” Priore said. “He leads by example. He was up and walking two days after [his injury]. It’s his willingness to sacrifice it all and put life on hold a little bit.”
Priore, of course, is referring to the role that Philippi undertook after going down with an injury that at the time seemed as if it marked the end of his time sporting a Penn football jersey.
Philippi immediately returned to practice, albeit to the sidelines, and he was in the film room watching tape with his team every day. It was this kind of dedication that had already become a hallmark of Philippi’s character during his four years as a Quaker, even if he was expressing his passion in an unfamiliar way.
“It’s a weird feeling when you haven’t played and you can’t help your team win, in a way,” Philippi said. “It was a different role I had to take on, so it was weird, but I missed playing.”
Senior defensive back Conor O’Brien saw the effects that the injury had on Philippi firsthand, but all that he took from the situation was greater admiration for his teammate.
“Being a leader from the sidelines is a lot tougher than being one from the field,” O'Brien said.
O’Brien is more familiar with that commitment than most. He, along with teammates Riley O’Brien — his younger brother — Jake Haggard, Grant Ristoff, and Nick Robinson, attended JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. with Philippi, and his relentless attitude on the field is nothing out of the ordinary.
“Every time he steps on the field, he’s giving 110 percent and shows no weakness,” Conor O’Brien said. “It really pushes the other guys.”
In the same way that everyone in the program feeds off Philippi’s work ethic, they feel it when he’s down. His injury at the beginning of what was then his final season was a major blow that left O'Brien, for one, in shock. Philippi's return for a fifth year, though, has re-energized the group.
“He’s one of the best of the best, ever,” Benson said. “Credit to him and his commitment to coming back. That’s impressive that he’s out here. I’m thrilled and just impressed. His work ethic and desire are just ridiculous. I think when you care that much and you’re all in to something, it can only rub off. It’s what we need.”
While players and coaches alike are equally thrilled to have him in the fold once more, it was far from simple for Philippi to get to where he is now.
At first, when he got hurt last November, it was clear that he would be out for the season. Surgery didn’t appear necessary, and Philippi was playing the waiting game. It wasn’t until six months later — six months during which he’d taken all the necessary steps with Penn and the Ivy League to get approval for a fifth year — that he learned that he would need to undergo a hip operation.
“I had surgery in May,” Philippi said. “The plan was to get me back by three months and be able to play, and today I’m out on the field, so it worked.”
Although it was effective, it made for a grueling summer and a slightly cloudy forecast for the fall.
“I pretty much did physical therapy three hours a day, every day, and then I’d just work out on my own too,” he said. “Pretty much my entire summer was dedicated to coming back and playing football, and I made it happen, so that was my summer.”
Despite the setback, Philippi was emphatic that the process has been worthwhile. He wanted to play another year of football, and he wanted to do so at Penn. While he said that he didn’t immediately settle on pursuing a fifth year when he got hurt, he was clear that it was not a last minute decision either.
In his time away from the game, Philippi was able to get some perspective, not only about his desire to continue playing the sport, but also about his reasons to do so. He realized that he might have taken the game too seriously before his injury, and that additional pressure made it challenging to have fun.
“I play football because it’s my comfort zone in a way,” Philippi said. “It’s some people’s nightmare, but it’s my comfort zone, because everything’s just focused on your team and trying to win a game, and you’re not thinking about anything else going on around you in your life or at school. It’s just complete peacefulness and bliss in my head for a little bit, so I missed that.”
That newfound clarity has helped him to reset his approach to the game in what will actually be his final year in the Red and Blue. He has still put in the work — he has probably done more than he would have if he weren’t coming back from injury and an unexpected surgery — but he has done it to be able to do what makes him happy instead of working to find relief from mounting pressure.
Don’t get him wrong, though. Being out there and having fun doesn’t mean he isn’t dead set on his ultimate goal: winning a third Ivy League title.
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