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Leatherheads: South grad lands role in Clooney film

By Katie Scarvey

Salisbury Post

As an active duty Marine, Jay Phillips was used to being called a jarhead and a leatherneck.

Now, Phillips can also answer to “leatherhead.”

The 22-year-old China Grove resident recently learned that he’s been cast as a football player in “Leatherheads,” a Universal Pictures romantic comedy set in the 1920s, the formative years of professional football.

Phillips left for rehearsals in South Carolina earlier this week.

The film is being directed by George Clooney, who will also star in it with Renee Zellweger. The Oscar-winning Clooney caused a stir locally in October when he visited the Salisbury Depot and ate at the Wrenn House as he was scouting locations for “Leatherheads,” which is being filmed in the Carolinas.

An open casting call was held Jan. 6 for former high school or college athletes to play football players in the movie. Those auditioning had to be between the ages of 20 and 35, between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet 1 inch tall, and between 160 and 230 pounds.

Both Phillips and his mother, Susan Johnson, had read about the casting call in the Salisbury Post.

Phillips considered going but wasn’t convinced it would be worth his time.

“I insisted,” Johnson says. “He fit the criteria perfectly, and I thought it would be fun, a good experience.”

She also thought her son had the kind of personality that would get him noticed.

“He’s gregarious,” she said. “He’s alive with life. He’s a leader.”

Phillips’ military experience would seem to bear that out –he won the “leatherneck” award for his platoon in boot camp.

Plus, he’s kept in good shape, lifting weights regularly and keeping active in his job as a supervisor with UPS.

He decided to listen to his mother and go to the casting call.

After he got off work Jan.5, Phillips drove to Greenville, S.C., with his girlfriend, Jessica Morris. Even though he hadn’t worn it since he graduated from high school, he tossed his South Rowan letter jacket in with his stuff. He thought it might lend a note of authenticity.

He and Morris slept in the parking lot and assumed they’d be first in line for the next day’s auditions.

They woke up late, however, and wound up being about 50th in line, Phillips says. That was still pretty good, considering that by some estimates, up to 2,000 people showed up that day — making it “hard to stand out,” he said.

He must have had the right look, however, because he was one of about 250 picked to come to another round of tryouts Jan. 20-21 at Furman University in South Carolina.

The tryout involved doing various football drills, and Phillips was again worried about standing out because he had only five or six chances to perform a drill, he says.

“Everybody out there was pretty athletic. When you had a chance (to show what you could do), there was a lot of pressure not to mess up.

“The first day they cut like 175 people,” he says, and selected 25.

They asked 55 or 60 to return the next day, Sunday, including Phillips.

A turning point, he says, might have been when the was told to run run down a pass hurled “high and hard” down the field.

Phillips made a dramatic one-handed catch, eliciting a “good catch, Phillips,” from one of the guys from NFL Films.

Like the others trying out, Phillips was wearing a white T-shirt marked with his last name and a number — his was 144.

A guy began calling off numbers. Players whose numbers were called were told to go wait by the goal post.

Was Phillips still wanting to hear his number?

“Heck yeah,” he says.

A football-playing role won’t be a stretch for Phillips.

Although he never acted in any high school plays, he was the captain of the South Rowan Raiders varsity football team and was twice designated an all-county player and made the all-conference team in 2001. Although he mostly played outside linebacker, he got 42 chances to run the football his senior year. That worked out pretty well — he scored eight touchdowns in six games.

The team won two conference championships while Phillips was there. He was also a pole vaulter on the track team, placing seventh in the state his junior year.

Phillips hoped to continue his football career at Lenoir-Rhyne College the next year, but he was redshirted and only stayed for one year.

He then joined the Marine Corps and was an honor graduate in his platoon. He was on active duty for two years, serving in Iraq for about 61/2 months.

It was a dangerous time.

As a member of the Military Police, Phillips’ responsibility was to clear Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) off the roads.

“There were IEDs everywhere,” he says.

Like many others in his platoon, Phillips has a dogtag tattoo — not on his arm but on his torso, right below his heart, a telling statement about the high rate of limbs lost to the roadside bombs.

Ironically, after escaping serious injury in Iraq, he came home and broke his neck this summer in a kite tubing accident two days before his 22nd birthday.

The accident, which fractured his C-7 vertebra, could have been disastrous. Another eighth of an inch, and he might have been paralyzed, doctors told him.

As it was, he had to undergo six months of painful recovery.

The injury took him out of active duty and into the reserves; his commitment ends in June.

“I’m just glad to be walking,” he said. He’s finally gotten to the point where he can move around and not hurt every day, he says.

His neck has pretty much healed, he says, although he still has some pain.

He wasn’t sure if the injury would be an issue to the film production team — he didn’t worry about that much before he was cast because he figured getting selected would be a long shot.

At the Furman auditions, he did disclose that he’d sustained a broken neck, but he also explained that his neck had healed and that his doctors had left it up to him to do whatever he was comfortable doing.

Film football, he says, won’t be as physically demanding for the actors as real football would be.

Phillips is embracing this opportunity to do something dramatically different from anything he’s ever done. The only downside so far is that by the time he knew he’d been cast, it was too late for him to get back any of the tuition that he’d paid to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College for this semester’s classes.

If he gets a chance, Phillips says that he’ll tell director George Clooney that he should make a movie out of his life.

“If you wrote a story about my life, it would make a damn good movie,” he says. “I’ve gotten into some crazy stuff.”

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Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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