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EIRA Player of the Week - Jesse Phillips

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EIRA Player of the Week - Jesse Phillips

Jesse Phillips makes a tackle on an adversary much bigger than himself. Photo by Dave Redden, Redden Photography

The procedure wasn’t expected to be a big deal - wrestlers and rugby players, and Jesse Phillips was both, get their noses bashed around a bit - but it ended up being a very, very big deal.

Phillips had just finished his sophomore year at Ravenwood HS in Tennessee, part of a team that had just lost in the state final. He played hooker, and wrestled, and in July of 2014 went to have surgery to straighten his septum - probably made crooked from a broken nose.

But during the procedure, shockingly, Jesse had a heart attack. The doctors restarted his heart, but saw then that his hear was enlarged, but very weak. He had cardiomyopathy, a condition that gradually reduces the heart’s ability to contract (which it needs to do to pump blood through the body). The heart attack was just waiting to happen. It could have happened while Jesse was on a run, miles from any help. Somewhat lucky for him, it happened on an operating table.

Alive, and with his terrified parents at his side, Jesse discovered two things - he needed a heart transplant, and he desperately wanted to play rugby again. He wanted to help Ravenwood win a state championship. He had some unfinished business.

“The idea of a transplant seemed so complex,” said Joshua Phillips, Jesse’s father. “We had jets waiting to go anywhere in the country to get the heart if it became available. In the end, it was local.”

West Point Camp

Patients in need of donated organs can wait months, or even years, for the right donor. Jesse waited only 24 days before a young man died of a brain aneurysm in the same county. He had signed his donor card, his age, and everything else fit, and Jesse had his heart. A tragedy for the donor’s family, to be sure, but a second chance for Jesse.

“We’ve been in contact with the donor’s mother,” said Joshua Phillips. “It’s a very private thing, but it’s good that we’ve been able to talk to her and she’s seen what it did for Jesse.”

The donor was a bodybuilder, too, and Jesse said that he’d had an influx of strength.

He needed it. During his time in the hospital, already lean, Jesse dropped from 165 pounds to 125. But he was determined.

“I’m going to play rugby again.”

Left to right, in the hospital, post-transplant; with the 2016 trophy, and with his coach, Richard Boone.
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No rugby for his junior year, of course, and instead he helped coach the Ravenwood Middle School team. His parents worried, and tried to find out if anyone had returned from a heart transplant to play rugby again. They found someone in England, and corresponded with him. The worries receded - a little.

And so came the fall of his senior year, and Jesse was ready. Of course the fates laughed and he fell of his bike and dislocated his elbow. No fall 7s for you, young man. But he came back from that, and finally got on the field, playing 7s for the Tennessee Tri-Stars at the Las Vegas Invitational.

“He was not a charity case - he deserved to be there,” said Joshua. “He was the starting hooker and won 100% of his scrums and 100% of his lineouts.” 

Joshua bought a defibrillator, and took it to games.

“I don’t know if it would do any good; but I felt better having it,” he said. 

Jesse learned to work with his new heart. Along with taking 30 pills every day at very specific times of the day, he knows now he has to warm up longer than most. Transplanted hearts don’t have the nerves the hear you’re born with do. So they don’t recognize that they need to pump faster when you start exercising. You have to work your way up to that. Jesse learned that.

Now to the 2016 15s season. Jesse earned the starting hooker position for Ravenwood, and played there for the entire season, ending with a state championship win over Harpeth.

Said his coach, Richard Boone:

“Jesse was an emotional leader for us,” said Boone. “He and Brady HuYoung kept the Raptors moving forward in possession and when facing penetrating runs by Harpeth played strong defense. Jesse is an amazing story.”

Jesse continued to be a huge part of the Ravenwood effort, as his open field play combined nicely with his set piece effectiveness.

It’s hard to know what is in store for Jesse Phillips now. He is expected to take a gap year before considering his post-high school options. But there are a few things we do know. He’s resilient. He’s a champion. Dare we say it, he has heart. 

And he’s our Eagle Impact Rugby Academy Player of the Week.