The No. 3 high school recruit in the Class of 2017 and a first-round pick by the Dolphins in 2021 has been in a high-profile position long enough to understand the responsibility that comes with it. He’s still human though, and public speaking doesn’t come easily.
But back in March, as Phillips walked into the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center, the anxious feeling that usually accompanies giving a speech wasn’t there.
A different feeling stuck with him this time — conviction.
Phillips worked with the VERB Kind, a community outreach program that serves teenagers in juvenile detention centers, to remind them their current situation does not have to define their lives, and there are people who care about and believe in them.
“When you spend time with them in there, you see how much potential these kids have. And see how much they want to do more, and how much they want to be better.”
Jaelan Phillips, Dolphins linebacker
He met founder Haley Hunt during the House of Athlete combine in 2021, when she first asked him to help by using her trademark catchphrase: “Come to jail with me.”
The timing wasn’t right for Phillips as he prepared for the draft and his rookie season. As for her pitch, well, it’s purposely off-putting.
“It’s literally to make people feel uncomfortable,” Hunt said. “I could be like, ‘Hey, come to this juvenile detention center with me,’ but I don’t. I say, ‘Hey, come to jail.’ Because it is jail, it’s not a program. … It’s more or less to push people out of their comfort zone.”
Once Phillips was able to take Hunt up on her offer, he immediately felt the value of what she was hoping to accomplish.
When he spoke to the teens at the detention center, Phillips wasn’t staring into the faces of kids struggling to shake the stigma of being incarcerated.
“They feel like, ‘Oh, once I’m incarcerated, my life is over,'” said Phillips, who had 8.5 sacks and a fumble recovery last season. “‘I can’t go to a four-year college, I can’t, you know, get these top-paying jobs, I can’t do that.’ And the reality is that’s just false. Like, there’s so many different avenues that these kids can go through. … There’s so many different jobs that they can work.
“I just don’t think there’s that education piece out there. I don’t think they’re aware of all these opportunities for them. That’s where we can try to come in with systems that already have things in place to help these kids, and educational pieces and mentorships — everything like that, so we can help connect them. Just give them some hope.”
Phillips didn’t make it off the grounds before planning his next visit. The following week he brought some teammates: defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, receiver Jaylen Waddle, safety Jevon Holland, cornerback Trill Williams and running back Gerrid Doaks.
Their visit lasted a few hours, and Phillips said he could tell it made the kids’ week. It’s those moments, Phillips said, that could change the trajectory of those kids’ lives once they’re released.
“It’s heartbreaking for me just to know that, when you spend time with them in there, you see how much potential these kids have,” he said. “And see how much they want to do more, and how much they want to be better, but they just don’t have the resources.
“… It’s all about just giving them love, and giving them some goals and giving them a plan to put into place so that they don’t feel so hopeless.”
Making an impact
Hunt’s work with incarcerated teens began in fall 2018, with a visit to the Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Orlando, Florida. Soon after, she was joined by members of her Bible study group on her visits, which were a near-instant hit at the facility.
Hunt says she was told the teens behaved better so they could participate in her visits, and in 2019 she says she was asked to “duplicate yourself” in each of the state’s 21 juvenile detention centers. She officially founded the VERB Kind — it stands for Victory Everyday Restoring Belief — in January 2020. She and her group of roughly 100 volunteers come up with a playbook for the week. Their visits focus on things like forgiveness, perseverance over perfection and dealing with trauma.
It’s the same mission she sold to Phillips when they met in 2021.
When Phillips made his first visit to the detention center on March 14, he felt that conviction as he was buzzed through each security door, passed through the mural-laden hallways and communal rooms, portable classrooms in the distance scattered around a basketball court and makeshift football field.
Hunt introduced him to a waiting group of teenagers in one of the communal rooms and spoke. Not from a script but from the heart: “Your mistakes don’t define you.”
“I felt a calling to do it,” Phillips said. “I try to relate to them in a way where they don’t feel like I’m just sitting up there preaching at them, and reprimanding them for their mistakes. I want to let them understand that we all go through struggles, and we can all relate in one way or the other.”
Phillips has dealt with adversity in his playing career. He medically retired during his second collegiate season at UCLA in 2018 after a series of concussions and an accident in which he was hit by a car while riding a moped.
“Obviously, I can’t relate to what a lot of these kids are going through,” he said. “But everybody goes through their individual struggles. And what defines you as a man, what defines your character is how you learn from those experiences.
“Your adversity doesn’t define you, how you react to it does.”
Phillips reached out to the Dolphins’ social impact committee, which seeks to effect “civic engagement, education, and economic empowerment in South Florida,” with the hopes of being able to support the detention center by improving some of the facilities within it.
Next up, he texted his teammates, and it didn’t take any convincing to get them to join him. The players donated footballs and basketballs, playing a little of each sport during their visit.
‘It just gives me hope’
It resonated exactly as Phillips had hoped. Despite the constant reminders of their environment, it was easy for the teens and the players to lose track of their surroundings.
“It just felt so natural. You kind of almost forget where you [are],” Wilkins said. “Obviously, we’re surrounded by barbed wire and everything around the jail and the conditions of the fields and the courts aren’t the best, but you kind of forget about all that when you’re just messing around playing basketball. It almost feels like you’re playing with your little cousin or your little brothers or something like that — giving them a little knowledge here and there, kind of just chopping up with them.
“I’m sure they were able to take it away, too, and feel just a changeup in their routine, and what they’re used to … throwing around the football, just talking to each other like we’d known each other, just normal conversation. That just really felt good, I’m sure, for all parties involved.”
Especially for Wilkins and Waddle, who have known people who went through the correctional system, the visit confirmed the importance of breaking the cycle. It’s how Wilkins knew the value of their visit before stepping into the detention center. Even when he “wasn’t anybody,” he said his friends or family members who were incarcerated appreciated him coming to see them.
Waddle said he noticed a difference in the people he saw go through the system growing up.
“They change,” he said. “I think they see from an early age, where they can be, at least from the people that I know, that were involved in [the correctional system]. It makes them grow up fast. And they see it’s real life and people do real time — and it can be a lifestyle if you happen to make the wrong decision.”
Phillips said he wants to work with Kaleb Thornhill, the Dolphins’ director of player engagement, to develop a plan for the organization to work closer with the detention center moving forward — specifically when it comes to guiding these teens once they’re released.
The relationships he was able to build, even in a short amount of time, have left him ready to commit.
“The pure joy that you see in these kids — to be able to see the happiness like that man, it just gives me hope,” he said. “And I hope that it gives them hope … we just got to find a way to keep them out of this cycle.
“I don’t want to just, you know, go in five, six times and then fizzle out and never go again. It’s about having a sustainable impact and about the longevity of this thing.”