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MOY Harrison - Main Photo Crop
Harrison Phillips Makes Days Great for ‘Playmakers’ & Others
By Lindsey Young Dec 05, 2023
Photographs By Minnesota Vikings

Hundreds of young people throughout the Twin Cities don't think of Harrison Phillips as a Vikings defensive tackle.

He's just their friend Harrison.

Take 19-year-old Jenna Perkins, for instance. Jenna, who has an intellectual disability, first met Harrison soon after he signed with the Vikings in March 2022. The two were introduced at a Best Buddies event, where it quickly became clear that though Harrison and Jenna may process the world a bit differently, they share a zeal for life – and for making others' lives better.

MOY Harrison - Jenna Collage-2

"He's funny, and he's talented," Jenna said of Harrison in a recent interview. "He's just awesome."

It's why she wasn't surprised to hear Harrison has been named the Vikings nominee for the 2023 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. Considered the league's most prestigious honor, the award acknowledges NFL players who excel on the field and demonstrate a passion for creating a lasting positive impact beyond the game in their communities.

"I'm super excited," Jenna said, sitting up a little taller in her seat. "I love you, Harrison. You're the man."

And hopefully come Feb. 8, 2024, when the winner will be announced during NFL Honors, the Man of the Year.

MOY Harrison - Playmakers

"It feels absolutely incredible," Harrison said of being voted the Vikings nominee by teammates. "I always have that battle between pride and humility at the same time, because I'm so excited to be nominated for this award in a locker room that has so many guys doing so many things for great causes.

"It's because I know what this award means, and I know what it can do for my Harrison’s Playmakers foundation – and the light I can now use to turn back on the individuals I work with," he added. "I'm super thankful that the NFL makes this such a big deal, and I'm completely humbled and honored that my teammates selected me."

Paying it forward

It didn't take Jenna long to sign up for Harrison's Playmakers, his nonprofit that supports children and young adults with developmental differences and special needs, and she shines at each event she attends, from holiday festivities to football camps.

"Jenna represents so much of what we are," Harrison said.

She's just one of 1,300 Playmakers across the country, thanks to chapters Harrison has started in his hometown of Omaha, his previous NFL city of Buffalo and now in Minnesota.

MOY Harrison - Playmakers Camp

The impact of Harrison's Playmakers is undeniably huge. But the 27-year-old's efforts and commitment to the community reach far and beyond his foundation.

View photos of Vikings DL Harrison Phillips participating in community events. Phillips has been nominated as the Vikings 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year.

Since arriving in Minnesota, Harrison has teamed up with nearly 20 Twin Cities nonprofits and charities, helping to tackle issues that range from social justice and food insecurity to pediatric illnesses, education gaps and pet shelters.

His work has a ripple effect, as well.

MOY Harrison - Holiday Shopping

Harrison often challenges his Playmakers to follow his lead on giving back, explaining they can make a difference in someone's life the way he has in theirs. During holiday shopping events, Playmakers receive $150 to shop for anything they want – but they also receive a wish list from a local nonprofit.

"It's so cool, times I've seen them [go through the checkout line] with $20 spent on themselves and $130 spent on their wish list items," Harrison said.

View photos of Harrison's Playmakers surprising Vikings DL Harrison Phillips with a Walter Payton Man of the Year event.

Foundation events are always free to attend, but Playmakers are encouraged to bring an item to donate to a designated charity – often a food shelf or animal rescue facility. Over the years, nearly $25,000 worth of blankets, food, leashes, toys and more has been donated by Playmakers for local pet shelters.

Harrison Phillips MOY - Puppies

Just last month, Harrison and several of his Playmakers gathered at the Minneapolis V.A. to hand out Thanksgiving meals to U.S. military veterans and their families.

"The main thing isn't to create cool events for them – that's kind of a byproduct of it," Harrison said. "What we're doing is creating these little nuggets and little pebbles of information to help motivate and teach the importance of giving back and paying it forward."

Individual impacts

Though Harrison does focus extensively on youth with developmental and intellectual challenges, he has a heart for young people in general – and a passion for encouraging them to never be limited by whatever challenges they may face.

This past summer, Harrison learned of Ellie Blaine, a tenacious fourth grader who hasn't allowed Spina Bifida to hold her back. Ellie sent along photos of her new leg braces, one of which was Minnesota Timberwolves themed and the other Vikings, complete with a purple-and-gold Norseman logo.

Harrison sent Ellie an autographed mini helmet but, perhaps much more meaningful, also included a personal note to the youngster who has undergone four different surgeries – including the first one in-utero at just 25 weeks' gestation, before being born prematurely at 34 weeks.

MOY Harrison - Ellie at Home

"I feel incredibly blessed to have opportunities for Ellie to shine and feel included, and Harrison's note was so kind and personable, even telling her that he wears a brace when playing football – and saying hers are cooler than his," smiled Ellie's mother, Kallie.

Harrison's note included an invitation to meet sometime, which the two had an opportunity to do a few months later at Vikings Training Camp.

Ellie attended a Wednesday practice session at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center with her dad, Ian; uncle, Andre; and a cousin, Hannah. Temps sweltered into the low 90s, and a 60-percent dewpoint blanketed Eagan as Ellie rested against her walker and peeled her eyes for Harrison's purple No. 97 jersey.

MOY Harrison - Ellie 1

It would have been easy for Harrison to offer a high-five, a photo and escape to the air-conditioned locker room. But instead, he spent nearly 20 minutes engaging with Ellie and Hannah. He admired Ellie's leg brace in person and asked questions about her love for wheelchair basketball and adaptive dance.

Harrison didn't stop with the typical photo, either. He instead showed the girls how to get into a defensive lineman's stance, demonstrating to the cousins how to place one hand on the ground and look up at your opponent.

"It was refreshing to see how present he was with her. He wasn't just going through the motions or getting antsy to leave," Ian said. "He was sincerely interested, which surprised Ellie. She couldn't believe a big Viking was that kind and genuinely enjoyed talking to her."

Since meeting Harrison that day, Ellie's parents say she's moved from casually wearing Vikings apparel here and there to intently watching games each week and learning more about the sport.

"It's been really fun watching her interest grow and sharing the experience together like I did with my father growing up," Ian said. "We look forward to cheering on the Vikes together for years to come."

MOY Harrison - Ellie 2

The Blaine family enjoys watching Harrison make plays on game day – but they were even happier to hear he'd been named a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee.

"It's fun to watch professional sports, but even more for me and for our family, it's so cool to see these players that have so much give back," Kallie said. "His above-and-beyond letter, plus the interaction at training camp, will be a gift that keeps giving in Ellie's life.

"Experiences like that increase her confidence and give her a story to share with so many others," Kallie added. "We're so thankful to Harrison."

More than a football player

This year marks the first time Harrison has been nominated as a Viking but is his third time overall. In four seasons with Buffalo, he was nominated twice.

Since being drafted by the Bills in 2018, he's earned the respect of teammates, coaches, fans and media members for not only the way he's overcome injuries to find success on the field, but also the incredible number of hours he donates each week to making a difference off of it.

MOY Harrison - Shriners

Bills tight end Dawson Knox recalled during an earlier interview his first impressions of Harrison when the two met in 2019.

"He was a leader. There's no question that he was one of the guys that everyone kind of looked up to from the get-go, and he was only in his second year at the time," Knox continued. "It was just really impressive to see the way he could juggle everything with football but then all he did [in the community], too."

Harrison also left a lasting impression on longtime NFL broadcaster and sideline reporter Laura Okmin, who met him before he ever played a game at the pro level.

Of the thousands of rookies she's worked with at her annual GALvanize bootcamps, designed to develop young women in sports while also providing guidance for first-year players, Laura maintains to this day Harrison made the biggest impact.

The two have kept in touch since the 2018 event in which he impressed her with his professionalism, thoughtfulness and his curiosity - with a willingness to ask questions in a scenario where no rookies ever had.

She vividly remembers a 2021 pregame conversation, in which Harrison emphasized his desire to improve on-field performance – not for personal accolades but to earn a better chance at impacting younger teammates.

MOY Harrison - Laura Okmin

"In his fourth season, where he was really coming on, we had a cold conversation on a Buffalo bench pregame. I asked him if there was any different motivation in the offseason. Even though he was young, he was the oldest vet in his position room," Okmin said. "I'll never forget him telling me the importance of being the example in the room and the weight that comes with it. He emphasized as a leader, you can only say so much unless you've got some notches on your belt, and guys won't listen to you if you're sitting on the bench. So he told me he worked out even harder in the offseason because he wanted to make sure that he could lead in every single way. I loved that conversation and seeing how leadership is so connected to him – by words and action.

"Obviously a Super Bowl trophy is what everyone is in it for, but Harrison was one of the first ones early on to say, 'Walter Payton Award would mean something,' " Laura later added. "In the 30 years I've been covering athletes, I used to watch these young men hide what they're interested in or hide that they have other passions – because they didn't want anybody to think they weren't all about football. But suddenly this new generation came in and said, 'I want to be recognized not just as an outstanding player on the field, but I also want to be recognized as an outstanding man off of it.' "

Laura and others who know Harrison will describe his generosity and unselfish nature, which certainly are undeniable.

MOY Harrison - Fashion Show

But ask Harrison, and he'll also tell you how much meaning he gleans himself from those he works with.

"One of the best things my passion for others has done for my career, is it helped me [differentiate] my identity as a football player. So much in this business – our whole lives, we've been celebrated and rewarded for playing football ... and your jersey number," Harrison explained. "So when things don't go great, that's a huge hit on who you are as a person. You take that so personally.

"With some of the injuries I've had and the roller coaster of my career, the times I've done stuff in the community, I've realized, 'They don't really care if I won this football game, or if I got five tackles or no tackles.' They love Harrison Phillips [the person]," he continued. "It helps separate so that when things don't go the way I want them to, when we're not winning, or when there's an injury, I'm still something else to such a big group of people who love me unconditionally – aside from what jersey I'm wearing or what my stat line is. And that's helped me a lot."

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