Ball State cornerback Antonio Phillips was long and lean. His little brother Jason Eberhart Jr., four years his junior, was thick and stout.
Despite the different builds and last names, they were thick as thieves. They bounded throughout childhood, most often playing football or talking about their favorite sport.
Most of all, they shared the dream of one day making the NFL. Their cousin, Arizona Cardinals pass rusher Markus Golden, was their role model. They badly wanted to taste the success Golden had early in his NFL career.
Phillips was going to lead the way into the league for the two brothers, followed by Eberhart.
That all changed on the morning of Aug. 18, 2019. Phillips was preparing for the start of his junior season with the Cardinals, coming off a year in which he led the team in interceptions and pass breakups despite missing two games to injury.
Eberhart was supposed to be a rising star for Soldan High, a budding linebacker at his new school on the northside of St. Louis. He would never take the field for the Tigers.
Police found Eberhart’s body in a parking lot in the Carr Square neighborhood that morning. The 16-year-old had been shot multiple times and was pronounced dead on the scene. He was the 12th teen gunned down in the city that year. The shooting death remains unsolved.
Half asleep, a confused Phillips woke up to a slew of texts and social media messages. He’d soon learn that his little brother was gone.
“It was tragic,” Phillips told Yahoo Sports. “It was a devastating feeling in that moment. I got weak inside.”
Responding to tragedy
Phillips wasn’t sure how to cope. He didn’t want to go home at first. So he stuck around Muncie, Indiana, a bit lost in his thoughts. Phillips realized he wanted to be back on the football field as soon as possible. The opener against Indiana was less than two weeks away. His Ball State family wanted to support their teammate any way they could.
“My teammates never blinked, man,” Phillips said. “When they heard about it, they were there for me from the jump. It wasn’t any big show or anything. They were just there for me, being supportive.”
And wouldn’t you know it, on the first series of the second quarter, Phillips intercepted Michael Penix’s pass, dropping to one knee to make a play. It was, Phillips said, his way of honoring his brother.
“I just hope I made him proud that day,” he said, “and every day since.”
Ball State defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton, a rising star in the coaching ranks, watched the play unfold and was overcome by the moment.
“Man, that was awesome,” Stockton told Yahoo Sports. “It was unbelievable. You were just so excited for him. A lot of players couldn’t have even gone out there so soon after hearing that news. But Antonio’s mental toughness is just something else.
“It was a special moment for him and for the team.”
Stockton had arrived from Western Illinois only months earlier. He watched Phillips grow as a young man and as a player.
“That kind of thing just doesn’t happen to a person every day. What you saw with him at that time was, it put a whole new perspective on life for him. I think he realized at that moment, everything can be taken away from you in a blink of an eye.
“And after that, he just took his game to a whole new level. He matured so much. His attention to detail and care for the game after that, it was off the charts. I think it was all about wanting to make his brother proud.”
Phillips is rehabbing ... but yes, he can run
Phillips finished the 2019 season as a first-team all-MAC selection, grabbing four interceptions and breaking up seven more passes. He carried that through the 2020 season, adding two more picks to bring his career total to eight.
The two picks last season were huge. Phillips picked off Buffalo's Kyle Vantrease early in the fourth quarter of the MAC championship game to help preserve a 38-28 upset and the Cardinals’ first conference title in 24 years. In the bowl game a few weeks later, Phillips kicked off the scoring with a 53-yard pick six two minutes into the game in what ended up a 34-13 rout over No. 23 San Jose State. Ball State cracked the Top 25 for the first time since 2008 with the win.
And yet, Phillips’ most impressive — and maybe most important — play of last season happened the week prior to the Buffalo game. Western Michigan wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge was one of the fastest players in college football. (He ended up being drafted in Round 2 by the Seattle Seahawks.)
Eskridge took a short bubble screen and looked to be off to the races, with nothing but turf in front of him. Off the screen came Phillips, racing in and just clipping Eskridge’s ankle to prevent a touchdown. The Cardinals fought back from 17 down in the game to earn their first trip to the MAC title game in 12 years.
“I guess you could say that was one of my signature plays,” Phillips said.
That play carried added significance. Phillips had played the season with sciatic pain as a result of a bulging disc. Surgery was recommended, so Phillips underwent a microdisectomy – the same procedure 2021 Tennessee Titans first-round draft pick Caleb Farley did — prior to Ball State’s pro day. He wasn’t able to work out for scouts and help bolster his draft stock, and he went undrafted.
Following the draft, sources told Yahoo Sports that Phillips has signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals for a $25,000 signing bonus.
In Phillips’ mind, if he can chase down Eskridge — who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day — then he's fast enough to compete at the next level.
“I think not having my pro day, if [scouts questioned] my speed, they can look at that play to see if I can run or not,” Phillips said prior to draft weekend. “It was a momentum-changer. If I don’t catch him there, he scores.”
For Stockton, it was a sign of the kind of player Phillips has become.
“He’s just come such a long way in the few years I’ve had him,” Stockton said. “We had him play safety when we needed it. We had him play nickel. He can play outside — off or press coverage. His length and athleticism are impressive. But what really stands out for me is just his intelligence.
“The longer you’re around him, the smarter you realize he is. He took the exact right angle to tackle [Eskridge]. He jumped that route in the bowl game, all just recognition, instincts and intelligence. He was huge for us.”
Injuries have held him back at various points throughout his career, but he’s at the end of his rehab from back surgery and said he feels great.
“No pain,” Phillips said. “Back to my old self.”
There will always be something missing without Jason there, especially now as Phillips is on the precipice of the NFL.
“It still lingers on to this day,” he said. “That’s my brother. There are times when I just catch myself thinking about him and what happened. He’s with me all the time.
“I just hope I can keep pushing and keep making him proud, no matter where I end up. That’s all I am thinking about. …
“I have a few emotions going on inside me. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter is.”
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