One spring afternoon last April, Phil Youngblood mulled around the front lawn at his home in Trussville, Alabama, doing yard work. His neighbor Rodney Bates was doing the same and decided to drop what he was doing and walk over to him.
Two weeks earlier, Phil’s son, John, a senior defensive end at Ole Miss, had become the 26th recipient of the Chucky Mullins Award and would be wearing the number 38 for the duration of the 2016 season.
“He just went over there and said ‘I saw that John won the Chucky Mullins award. I wanted to let you know that I know a lot about the award and his incident and what not, and just wanted to let you know that I’m proud of him and I know you are. That’s a big honor,’” John recalled.
Phil stopped in his tracks, removed his sunglasses to find that tears began to roll down his face. In his lifetime, John never saw his father cry, and it wasn’t until two months later, in a far more fragile setting, that John would learn of this encounter.
At 2 a.m. on Memorial Day morning, John woke up at his house in Oxford to his phone buzzing. It was his sister Amy. He didn’t think much of it and set the phone back down. But given the obscure hour, he picked up seconds later after he thought better of it.
It was the last thing he’d ever imagined.
“I could hear the panic in her voice, and she told me that an ambulance came to the house and took our dad away and that he was unresponsive at that point,” John said.
Phil Youngblood suffered a major heart attack in his sleep and was unresponsive. His wife Renee performed CPR until the ambulance arrived. Phil died minutes after. He was 61 years old.
“I was absolutely speechless. I was crying my eyes out and pulled myself together about 10 minutes later and called my sister back, packed a bag really quick,” John said. “I told my girlfriend what happened and we got to Birmingham as soon as possible.”
John didn’t understand. A week earlier he and his father went hiking on family vacation. He was in great shape. How could this be?
“I completely broke down, and I just didn’t understand what was going on at the moment,” John said. “I couldn’t imagine life without my father and the possibility that now that might be real.”
Minutes after receiving the call, he found himself making the three-hour drive from Oxford to Birmingham in the middle of the night. He insisted on driving, hoping it would keep his mind away from the painful reality that was unfolding in the blink of an eye. He had to pull over several times to collect himself.
“It was the worst car ride of my life. It’s usually a good car ride home knowing that you’re going to see friends and family when you get there, but that car ride was just the worst. It was in the middle of the night and I just got told I no longer have a father here.”
He arrived at the hospital where he would lay eyes on his dad for one final time.
“It was just so weird. Sitting there seeing the guy who I look up to and want to be like most as a man when I grow up, and just know that he isn’t there and that I can’t talk to him about the things I used to could talk to him about, like the love of sports or how life is going and the next step in my life,” Youngblood said. “That’s what I was thinking about the most, the conversations I’m going to miss having and the moments I am going to miss spending with him.”
Later that day, Bates came over to give his condolences. He told John of the encounter in the yard a couple months earlier.
“It kind of made me smile. It comforted me that I did make him proud. I know a lot of kids try to please their parents and do right with them,” John said. “That was more closure than anything, to know that I did make him proud.”
Renee remembers the moment he won the award, too. She received a phone call at home and had to sit down because she was so overcome with emotion. John called minutes after. Tears were shed. There have been a lot of tears lately.
A husband, father and friend was lost.
“If you listened to them talk, you would think that they were more so close friends than father son,” Renee said. “John would call him up any time of the day or night.”
He got his love for football from his father. From the early mornings of Phil driving his son to peewee games an hour away in Tuscaloosa. From watching the Packers play growing up. From calling his dad after games in college to talk both football and life.
“I know that I am going to miss my husband greatly when there are major decisions to help my son make,” Renee said. “He would always call him with big decisions. He wanted to bounce them off of him.”
John couldn’t call his father after he scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery against Alabama. Instead, it was a point to the sky followed by one to his mother, sister, aunts and uncles in Section A of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. His mother didn’t see the gesture until she saw a replay as she was mobbed with embraces when it happened.
“When I saw that happen I immediately just started yelling ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ and just the way he ran into the end zone, I was just screaming at that point. We were just in ecstasy at that point, screaming and hugging and crying. Everyone around me went crazy, too,” Renee said.
More tears were shed. Phil has been gone for months, and John knows his mother and sister need him now more than ever. He calls his mom every day, fully aware of how empty their home in Trussville is now. He feels the pain and loneliness and can only imagine his mother’s is magnified.
“I have to be more of a man than a young man now,” John said. “I have to be a lot more responsible. My mom and my sister are counting on me to be there for anything around the house or just to talk to them.”
He knows life is hard sometimes, but then again, so is football. John grew up wanting to play in the SEC, but the opportunity didn’t blossom initially. Ole Miss offered him two nights before signing day after a slot opened. John had been admitted to UCF a week prior. He was sure he was going to be a Black Knight in Orlando until that phone call came.
“We knew he was a hard worker, but we also knew he was considered a level-two recruit. In the SEC we knew that maybe he was going to see the field some but possibly not as much,” Renee said. “He had this drive that he wanted to prove that he could play and was meant to be there, and he obviously made it. That’s what really touched home to both me and my husband.”
He often felt overlooked and grew frustrated during the recruiting process. But the opportunity finally came, and after three years of work, he is now starting at defensive end for the Rebels.
“It’s thrilling, really thrilling to see him out there. It’s him living his dream,” Renee said.
That thrill has helped her. Football has helped her.
“It helps a lot. It gives me something to do and to look forward to other than looking inside myself,” she said. “It gives me purpose to be there for him and gives me entertainment to watch him. It is helping.”
The sights, sounds and joy that come with college football, and seeing her son run onto the field boasting a number of so much significance, have temporarily helped fill the void of loneliness and pain.
It’s still hard though. John’s eyes are wet in pre-game warm ups. It’s bittersweet, but he knows his father is watching.
“There’s always joy at the end of it. It’s always more joy than pain,” Youngblood said.
He isn’t alone. In Section A, his mother’s eyes are flooded with tears, as well.
“It’s very emotional. I always have tears in my eyes. It is very humbling. I thank God that he was able to live his dream. But I am also wishing that Phil could be there to experience it with me, too,” Renee said. “It is tough in that manner, because he is not there to see it, too, and enjoy it. Although I know he is watching, I would rather him be there and us feel it together.”
John’s team needs him too. He’s a captain. His mother describes him as a silent leader as people gravitate toward him based off action rather than words.
“He’s one of our captains, and you don’t get that by not modeling toughness, discipline and accountability,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said. “He did it through hard work, determination and handling the tough times and adversity well.”
Eventually, the stadium will empty. The lights will go out and the season will end. There won’t be that escape for the family.
“I’ve just got to now find my life again and see what the future holds,” Renee said.
But she won’t do that alone. The family won’t do it alone.
“This whole thing has brought us closer together. We have a lot more meaningful conversation,” John said.
Closure won’t come easily and the pain will linger. John knows he made Phil proud. That day in the yard said it all. He wants to continue to do so throughout his final season, knowing that there will come a time where he takes the number 38 off for good.
“I hope they look at me as a guy who never cheated a rep or go the easy way out of anything,” John said. “I hope they look at me as a guy that cared not just about football. I hope people see more than just a football player, but a great person, too.”