This week, ESPN unveiled its list of the greatest single-season college football performances in the history of the SEC and the sport.
Cam Newton was appropriately ranked No. 1 in the SEC, and foolishly ranked No. 4 overall.
However, the greatest athlete of all time was an Auburn player, but his name was not Cam Newton.
He never threw a pass in Jordan-Hare Stadium, never jumped over the top to beat Bama, never hauled in a pass to beat LSU and never kicked a field goal to win the BCS National Championship.
His sport: rugby.
His name: Allen Wayne Phillips Jr.
Allen was born Jan. 25, 1977, the son of a coal miner and a stay-at-home mom. His father, Wayne, fought in Vietnam while his mother, Yvette, attended Auburn until a car accident left her with a broken back and a broken dream of graduating from the university she loved.
As many couples did in those days, Allen’s parents married a few years after Wayne returned from Vietnam and started a family. Their first child, a girl named Amber, graduated from Auburn in 1995, the first of 11 grandchildren on Wayne’s side of the family. Allen appropriately moved to AU the day after Amber’s graduation, and a stellar career began.
During his time at Auburn, Allen was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, where he met Jonathan “Shamrock” Murray, a member of the AU rugby team. At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Allen’s tall and lanky figure was not the prototypical rugby frame. However, Allen’s cat-like speed was something Murray noticed would be an asset to the rugby team. He figured he would give it a try.
At Hueytown High School Allen lettered in basketball and baseball, even finishing in the Top 5 in the state in stolen bases his senior year. But rugby was a different game.
Allen struggled to learn the ins-and-outs of the game, but he quickly learned his speed on the edge was something that could help the Tigers.
He scored his first try in a match in Gainesville, Fla., against conference foe Florida. As customary, Allen was initiated as a rugby Zulu Warrior for scoring his first try and the initiation took place in the middle of an intersection in front of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium prior to the Tigers and Gators annual showdown on the football field. I will leave out the details of that initiation ritual, as it’s probably not appropriate to tell here, or anywhere else.
Throughout the next few years, Allen scored many other tries and helped lead the Tigers to the 1999 SEC Championship, the last time an AU rugby team has captured the conference title.
Allen graduated from Auburn on June 10, 2000, finishing with a bachelor’s in mass communications. Tragically, on June 3, 2001, Allen was involved in a car accident that took his life four days later.
Allen was laid to rest in Oneonta next to his maternal grandparents on June 10, 2001, exactly one year to the day when he walked across the stage in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum to receive his diploma.
The legacy he left behind is one that is larger than any statue that could be erected.
During the last 11 years, The Allen Phillips Memorial Scholarship Fund at Hueytown High School has given away more than $12,000 to 14 student-athletes, several of which have gone on to graduate from AU. I know this because Allen was my brother.
Every year, the week of June 3-10 is an especially difficult one on my family. This year has been no different.
Although Allen’s memory and legacy live on through the Hueytown student-athletes, the members of the AU rugby team and all the friends and family who loved him the most, he is still missed more than I could ever explain.
While statues of Auburn’s greatest athletes stand in front of Jordan-Hare, perhaps a statue of the greatest AU athlete of them all is missing.
Of course, I may be a tad biased.
Although I know I won’t see him in a statue of bronze, I know I will see him once again.
Allen, I love you, miss you and can’t wait until that glorious day when I will see you again.
Austin Phillips is an adjunct journalism professor at Auburn University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Rare video of Shug saying football got him through D-Day
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* Elvis says “War Eagle”
* Alabama in Auburn gear
* Diagram of a 1983 Auburn student
* That OTHER time they burned the Glom