“He would’ve given him all he could handle,” Battles said.
Now, there’s no chance Battles, who described Phillips as the best all-around athlete he’s coached in a 42-year career, will ever see him play again.
Phillips, who’d recently left Auburn University, where he signed a football scholarship in 2010, died late Saturday night, following a shooting at party at an off-campus apartment complex in Auburn.
Ed Christian, also a former Auburn football player, and another man, Demario Pitts, were also killed. Three others, one of whom was Eric Mack, a current Auburn offensive lineman, were injured.
Investigators were searching Sunday for a Desmonte Leonard, who faces three counts of capital murder.
Police emphasized that the shootings didn’t appear to have anything to do with some of the victims being former or current players on the university’s football team, which won the national championship in 2010.
“The only connection that the Auburn football team has to this is they are victims of a brutal shooting. Sometimes the young men get a bad rap, I feel like, but they are the victims today,” Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said.
Police urged the suspect to turn himself in. Authorities are also searching for two other persons of interest. Dawson said he did not know what sparked the fight.
Turquorius Vines, 23, said he was at the pool party Saturday evening at the University Heights apartments with one of his friends, Pitts. He said he and his friend were approached by two other men who started arguing with them over a woman.
Vines said he punched one of the men while Pitts hit both of the men over the head with a bottle. Either one or both of the two men then started shooting, he said. He said Pitts was shot and killed while two others also were hit by gunfire.
Vines said he had never met the men he was arguing with.
Phillips, who said in April he planned to transfer to Jacksonville State, was visiting in Auburn on Saturday from his home in his native Roanoke.
After sitting out his first year at Auburn, where he signed in 2010, Phillips, a 6-foot, 291-pound Mack truck of a fullback and former all-state selection didn’t see much playing time as sophomore.
For those who were fortunate enough to see him play in high school, the 20-year-old leaves behind a legacy of gridiron glory that won’t easily be rivaled.
Just ask his former coaches, teammates and opponents.
“He was something that don’t come along in a small town very often,” Battles said. “He was the absolute total package — power, speed, could to it all.
“I’ve coached a lot of good football players, but I’ve never coached one that had everything. We’ve had faster. We’ve had bigger. We’ve had stronger. We never had one that was just a force, I mean, a real force on the football field in everything he did.”
A four-year starter, Phillips rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his final three seasons at Handley. He was chosen to the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 4A All-State as a defensive lineman during his last season at Handley, when he racked up 59 tackles, including 13 for loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles.
He was also a state champion in the shot put and could do a standing backflip.
“I’d like to see another 290 do it,” Battles said.
Former teammate Nick Whaley recalled a playoff game during Phillips’ junior year when he peeled back and laid out one of their opponent’s star players.
“The guy didn’t really want to play hard anymore after that,” said Whaley, who played fullback and outside linebacker. “By the fourth quarter, they didn’t want to tackle ‘Day-Day’. They were just moving out of the way.”
Vince Bonner called it, “the stiff-arm from hell”.
It was a third or fourth down with about four yards to go late in the game in a playoff matchup against powerhouse UMS-Wright on the road in Mobile.
“He just dogged the guy,” Bonner said. “He body slammed him. It was like trying to tackle a van.”
After seeing several different spellings, a reporter once asked Phillips for the correct spelling of his name after a dominating performance during his sophomore season. His response?
“It really don’t matter how you spell it,” he said. “They know that’s me.”
Explained Battles, “He never had to talk about himself. Other people would do it for him. He didn’t have to say how great he was. All you had to do was watch him in action.”
Game planning for Phillips was also a nightmare. Saks fell to Handley twice in 2009, largely due to Phillips’ play.
“Most people will remember him for how well he ran the ball,” then-Saks coach Clint Smith said. “But he was just as much of an impact on the game on defense. He played defensive tackle, and he was almost unblockable.”
Phillips’ inking it up with Auburn on national signing day in 2010 was one of the biggest stories in all of recruiting that year, with Auburn offering a him a scholarship hours only hours before he signed.
Battles said he thought Phillips was destined for greatness. It seemed as if the potential everyone had recognized early on was on its way to being maximized.
“Ladarious, when he left here, we all had high expectations,” Battles said. “I thought he might even play at the next level, that he might make a career out of it. He was that kind of athlete.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.
Associated Press writers Bob Johnson, Johnny Clark and John Zenor contributed to this report.