CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. -- Mike Dunfee saw the big, athletic boy making plays on the football field and immediately envisioned how what he was seeing could translate into the sport he coaches, baseball.
Here was a 6-foot-2, 190-pound running back and linebacker with obvious strength and better-than-average speed. And, the first-year Gordon Lee High School coach heard, the kid can pitch. He soon would learn that the athlete, junior Branton Phillips, was competing with a reconstructed hip.
"If I didn't know about his injury previously, I would never question that anything was wrong with him," Dunfee said of Phillips, who is the Trojans' top pitcher with five wins and is hitting .415. "He seems fully recovered, and we don't limit what he does.
"I knew they talked him into playing the previous year, and I knew he was a little timid when he first came out. But he far exceeded what was expected of him last year, and watching him on the football field this year I was eager to get a look at him on the baseball field."
Phillips injured his hip as a 9-year-old playing recreational league football. The next day and again four years later, he underwent tests to check the hip and each time was told there was nothing structurally wrong. The pain finally got to the point where he couldn't sleep, so he went back for another opinion.
"I knew it wasn't right," Phillips recalled. "Finally, there was a different MRI they did that finally showed up what was wrong. Playing sports all those years with the injury really messed it up."
The test revealed damage to a disk severe enough to require replacement of half of Phillips' right hip. The high school freshman was told before the surgery that he would be able to walk and maybe run a little following the procedure, but playing sports again was a long shot.
Turns out, that was the best thing anyone could have told him.
"I really wanted to come back because I love competition, and I guess I'm one of those people that if I have a chance to do something I want to be the best at it," said Phillips, who was in a wheelchair for two weeks and on crutches two months. "I took my sophomore year off. I would work out upper body, but I wasn't able to run at all. It was pretty intense."
He did come back to play a little baseball his sophomore season, and by the team summer came around he felt so good that he was ready to give football a try. After proving to coach Kevin McElhaney he was healthy, he hit the field and kept hitting it.
"At first it was going to be in a limited role, but once he got into it, he's such a good athlete and intense competitor, it was impossible to keep him off the field," McElhaney said. "He will do anything you ask of him on the football field. There was no hesitation in him, and he had a special season."
Phillips ended up starting at outside linebacker, where he was fifth on the team in tackles and led the defense in sacks, and later on at fullback, where he had a season-high 95 yards rushing against rival Trion.
"That was the one thing my doctor said, that I couldn't play football again," he said, smiling. "He said if I could run that he could see me playing baseball, but football was out of the question. You only live once, and I'm not going to sit back and be a spectator."
So when baseball season came around he quickly proved to his new coach that there was nothing holding him back. Over the next few weeks Phillips rediscovered his passion for the game and now hopes it will help get him into college.
"Basketball was my sport growing up. Then I decided to play baseball at the end of my sophomore year, and I love it now," he said. "I can't go a day without it now, and I hope to play it in college."
Who would dare doubt him now?
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...