Glance back: Phil Epps

The April sun was shining brightly on the track at Texas Christian University and Phillip Earl Epps was clearly in his element.

A world-class sprinter, Epps was chatting with one of the track coaches for the 1982 U.S. Olympic team.

"I had just been drafted (24 hours earlier by the Packers)," Epps recalls with a soft chuckle. "And he's like, ‘Man, you really should think about sticking close to track and going over to Europe with us. You aren't going to make it in football. You're so small!"

And when he said I wasn't going to make it — the conversation was going good until then — I thought to myself ‘Who's this guy to tell me what I can or can't do?" To me, I knew what I was going to do right then. I wasn't going to go to Europe. I was going to come to Green Bay and make that team." Track and field's loss became the Packers' gain at that moment.

True enough, at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Epps might have seemed a little small to make it as a wide receiver in the NFL. The word around the league was Epps wouldn't be able to take the pounding inflicted upon receivers, especially catching the ball in a crowd or over the middle. Besides that, Epps' track record was absolutely golden. He had a 6.07-second timing in the 60-yard dash at a meet in 1982, which, at the time, was the fifth fastest ever. He ran the 100 meters in 10.1 seconds and registered a second-place finish in the 200 meters at the 1982 NCAA outdoor meet with a time of 20.1 seconds.

Alas, the size of a man's heart and his will to succeed don't show up in the stat books. This was one 12th-round draft choice who knew he'd make the final cut.

What he didn't know was where Green Bay was located.

"To be perfectly honest, I didn't," says Epps. "I knew the team, of course, but I had no idea what state it was in, where it was located or anything like that. I didn't have a clue."

Once in Green Bay, Epps, who wore the green and gold from 1982-88, felt right at home. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Epps made just 10 catches but they were good for an average of 22.6 yards. Against the New York Jets, Epps had defensive backs seeing a blur as he caught two touchdown passes from Lynn Dickey, the first a 24-yarder that put the Packers in a 6-0 lead and then a 23-yard strike that put Green Bay on top 13-6. The fleet-footed Epps wound up being named the club's 1982 rookie of the year.

A married man, Epps wasn't much for the nightlife of Green Bay. But he laughs when he recalls a visit his brother James made to Titletown.

"He went out and wanted me to go with him. I said, ‘Look, I don't know where to go. I haven't been out in the four years I've been here.' So I got some friends on the team to take him out. He went out and my teammates told him, ‘Tonight, you're Phillip!' So he came back with all these stories. "The next day he went back home and, when I went back to practice, I could see all of these females on the sidelines, calling my name! I didn't even know these people. The guys who had taken my brother out were just busting up laughing."

Though it took Epps a few years to crack the starting lineup at receiver, he was able to show his wares as a kick returner. Combining his great speed with some dazzling footwork, Epps ran back 25 kickoffs for an average of 21.3 yards per return. In 1983, he returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown against Tampa Bay. Offensively, the Packers mainly used Epps on third down as the third wideout behind a couple of guys named James Lofton and John Jefferson.

"I felt like there wasn't a better pair of receivers in the league at that particular time," Epps recalls.

When Jefferson suffered a rib injury in 1984, Epps stepped in as the starter and made one of the more memorable game-winning catches in Packers history. With Green Bay trailing the hated Bears at Soldier Field and the clock running out, quarterback Rich Campbell heaved a 43-yard desperation pass that Epps somehow managed to get under and catch.

"I think I just ran a fly route. He (Campbell) was just scrambling around in the back and, by the time he got to throw it, a defensive end or somebody hit his arm. The ball was kind of underthrown so I did a complete turnaround and came back for it. It just fell into my arms and I managed to get in the end zone.

"It was a special feeling to beat the Bears because that was a time when they really had a strong defense. If you beat them then, that was really something."

A year later, Epps and his teammates would take part in one of the wierdest, most memorable contests in Lambeau Field lore, the Snow Bowl against Steve Young and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For his part, No. 85 snagged four passes for 64 yards.

"I enjoyed playing in the snow," Epps says matter-of-factly. "You knew where you were going, the quarterback knew where you were going and the defensive back had no clue. It was fun playing in snow."

In the end, though, his lack of size caught up with him. Epps hurt his knee, broke an ankle, and then hurt his other knee. Clearly, the aches and pains were taking their toll.

"I started to take a lot more hits and just couldn't do the things that I felt I could always do," Epps says. "As an athlete you know it but it's hard to walk away. I understand why some guys play the game so long, nowadays especially. Not only do you love the game, and I don't doubt anybody who says they care about the game, but financially, I mean, come on! Who's going to walk away from that kind of money?"

His biggest accomplishment? "Becoming a starter after so many people in so many areas, especially outside of Green Bay, felt like I would never be able to even make the team."

These days, Epps lives in Dallas along with his wife, Janice, and their four children: Shaunta (22), Rachel (16), Jordan (5) and Alexis (2). He serves as a juvenile probation officer, working with juvenile delinquents and their families in nearby Fort Worth. In this capacity, Epps helps these people by initiating basic services like Medicare and Medicaid that are often taken for granted.

"These people are so poor," Epps explains. "They've never been shown how to access all of these services that are readily available through the government."

And, in working with these troubled youngsters, Epps often uses his own never-say-die story. As he tells them, "You're the only one who can hold yourself back. Don't let anybody ever tell you there's something you can't do."

Those words are probably ringing in the ears of a certain former Olympic track coach.

Editor's note: This story was published in Packer Report in October of 2000.

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