Amid tears of loved ones, Ladarious Phillips’ smile comes into focus
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Jun 16, 2012 | 9793 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn and Handley High School football players were among the pallbearers Friday at the funeral of Ladarious Phillips in Roanoke. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Auburn and Handley High School football players were among the pallbearers Friday at the funeral of Ladarious Phillips in Roanoke. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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ROANOKE — It’s not hard to imagine Ladarious Phillips’ expression, had he seen the packed bleachers and seats covering the playing floor in Handley High School’s gymnasium Friday.

One could just see his expression, had he seen the Handley football players in their home-red jerseys, his former Auburn coaches and teammates like Clint Moseley, Onterio McCalebb and Philip Lutzenkirchen.

And then there were all of those white T-shirts bearing his picture and the slogan, “In Loving Memory, Ladarious ‘DaDa’ Phillips.”

No, it’s not hard to imagine the expression the 20-year-old Phillips would have flashed. Then again, never needed much provocation.

“He seemed to do nothing but smile,” the Rev. Harvey Lee Jones, pastor of Rehope Baptist Church, told the crowd from behind Phillips’ casket.

Everyone tried to remember Phillips’ smile, like the wide one he flashed while holding up his rings from Auburn’s 2010 national championship season. That was the picture printed on all of those white T-shirts and the picture printed on the program for Friday’s memorial service.

It’s the picture that contrasted with the emotional pitch of Friday’s service and the week that has followed Phillips’ shooting death.

Phillips, one of three men killed last Saturday night at a pool party in an Auburn apartment complex, was laid to rest Friday in the Rehope Baptist Church cemetery. This after a two-hour visitation and hour-long memorial service.

The visitation and service were held in the gym of the school where he starred as a fullback and defensive lineman in football, played basketball and won a state championship in track in the shot put.

The visitation line stretched outside the gym as family, friends, teammates and hundreds of others waited to pay their respects. They worked their way down the center aisle between the floor seats to the casket, which was flanked by flower arrangements splashed in Handley red and white and Auburn blue and orange.

One man placed a football in the crook of Phillips’ right arm then knelt and prayed by the casket.

Three women, including Phillips’ mother, Jemecia Phillips, wept openly and leaned on the arms of loved ones as they made their way to reserved seats.

Their contagious cries echoed throughout the gym.

Those gathered heard scriptures from the Revs. Calvin Trammell and L.B. Houston and an invocation from the Rev. Melvin Owens.

There were speeches by Handley football coach Mike Battles and Auburn assistants Phillip Lolley and Trooper Taylor.

Battles said he could think of no Handley Tiger greater than Phillips and no player in his 42 years in coaching that matched Phillips’ total package of strength and speed.

“He was a game changer,” Battles said. “… A highlight film on Ladarious would last for hours.”

True to Battles’ style, he cut straight to the point.

“I love Ladarious,” he said, “and I don’t know the words to tell his mother what I — I don’t know anything I could say to make the pain better.

“You know, the entire Handley Tiger family, we are all going to mourn his loss, not just you all. You all are not alone. There’s a bunch of us.”

Lolley, who spoke at Jemecia Phillips’ invitation, said he heard Battles speak of Phillips long before Auburn signed him in February of 2010. He spoke of seeing Phillips’ “wow factor.”

“Here’s 6-foot, 300-pound guy who could stand flat-footed and turn backflips like it was nothing,” Lolley said.

He also spoke of Phillips’ quiet nature and easy presence with his teammates.

“The other night, a lot of our players were calling me, and I was calling some of them, checking on them,” Lolley said. “One particular young man — he was very, very close — and I said, ‘What sticks out to you?’

“He said, ‘Coach, the thing that sticks out to me is the word peacekeeper.’ When guys began to argue and whatever — you know how guys are — he was the one that always stood up and said, ‘Hey, you guys cut it out now. Let’s just be friends here. Cut it out. We don’t need that.’

“That speaks real high.”

Taylor said Phillips and his family will always be part of the Auburn family.

“We love you, and we’ll always love ‘DaDa,’” he said. “You’ll always have a special place in our heart.”

After coaches spoke, the gathering heard Hasan Green sing a song that encouraged them to “let go and let God.” They also heard a young woman read a poem dedicated to Jemecia Phillips.

“A mother stands holding her baby with hope, dreams and faith in God for his future,” the poem said. “Now, she stands beside his final bed, thinking, ‘I gave birth to a phoenix, and he became a king.’”

The service culminated in Jones’ message encouraging young people to live on.

“Don’t stop here,” he said. “This is a no-parking zone.”

He also seemed to address negative emotions arising from the violent manner of Phillips’ death. Phillips was one of six people shot after a fight broke out, apparently over a woman.

“This fight is not against flesh and blood,” Jones said. “Let’s not fight one another. Satan is having a field day on us, having us to dislike each other because of color of skin and classification of what street you live on and what title you have.

“We need to learn how to make all of these things work together for good.”

Most poignantly, Jones also addressed Phillips’ most common facial expression, the one Phillips flashed in the picture that appeared on T-shirts and programs during his memorial service.

“Everybody should smile right now. Amen,” Jones said. “He seemed to do nothing but smile, and smile he could do. Thank God for the ability to smile.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.
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