Ask anyone at Real Salt Lake’s preseason training and the story holds true. The Demar Phillips jockeying up and down the left sideline is different than the player that has adorned his No. 17 jersey in any of his previous three seasons with the club.
He’s spirited and jovial. He’s aggressive and pursuant. He’s talking and animated. In a word, he’s engaged.
Phillips – the 34-year-old Jamaican left back who is entering his 14th season as a professional – will readily admit that he is a different person than the one that came to RSL from Aalesunds FK in Norway before the 2015 season too. The difference is simple, but the reason is much more complicated.
Back in May, Phillips welcomed a baby boy – Demarco – with his girlfriend. The elation he felt in that moment – and in every day since – is magnified exponentially by the loss they felt a year earlier when the couple lost a child to a miscarriage. Devastated beyond words, he turned to the game for solace. Now ecstatic beyond thought, he is finding more joy in the game than he can remember.
“Life is precious. We have to appreciate it. It was sad for me at that point in time for me. But it’s nothing you have control of,” he said. “These things make you stronger. As a man – you have that low, but you have to be stronger. When my son was born … I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.”
Demarco Phillips was born on April 30, 2017. One night earlier, Real Salt Lake was in the midst of a 3-0 defeat against Sporting Kansas City and Phillips was getting his chin stitched up after a collision in the match when he got the news that he would have an early flight back to Utah where he was welcomed by his newborn baby boy.
Surrounded by the same teammates who helped him stay afloat during his lowest of times one year earlier, his enthusiasm was contagious. Even after the loss, players were noticeably excited for their brother in arms.
“They were excited for me,” he smiled. “I bounced back. My teammates were around me and that made me stronger. They’ve always been there through tough times.”
Now in his fourth season with Real Salt Lake, he is poised to have his best year yet.
The difference has been palpable.
Once viewed as quiet and reserved, he has come out of his shell much more readily and willingly. During preseason, it has translated onto the field, too.
“I didn’t know if he had the drive in him. I didn’t know if he had the bite and the hunger in him. But coming into this season, you could tell how hard he’s worked in the offseason,” RSL Head Coach Mike Petke said. “You can tell that he really wants a place in the starting lineup. And he’s come in and been one of the players that I can point to that has really taken advantage of the situation.”
In his three seasons in MLS, he has 60 appearances and contributed seven assists. While embroiled in competitions for playing time each year, he has also been dogged by injuries along the way. Now with a fresh outlook and different approach, he feels like he has put any ailments behind him and is ready for another strong competition with Danny Acosta for the starting left back position. The 20-year-old defender stepped into the starting role late last season during RSL’s strongest stretch, but Petke has made it clear that every position is up for grabs and Phillips has taken to the challenge.
“I love that. I like competition. I like when somebody’s there to make you step your game up. That’s how you get the best out of me,” Phillips said. “I don’t feel 34 at all. I think the spirit is pretty good within myself. I feel healthier. I feel pretty good. I’m happier – my son is bringing out a little bit of happiness as well.”