Ty Phillips knew it would be tough to get noticed at tiny Missouri Valley College, an NAIA college located in Marshall, Mo.
But once the former East St. Louis and Belleville East defensive end went to work, Phillips attracted plenty of attention as one of only two two-time All-Americans in school history and signed as a free-agent with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns this week.
Former East St. Louis star running back Tony Pierson, whose speed dazzled with the Kansas Jayhawks, signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears.
“With me coming from a small school I was honored to get that opportunity to get to a pro mini-camp,” said Phillips, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive end who had a strong pro day at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and got a phone call from the Browns not long after.
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The Browns called him again right after the draft to invite him to their mini-camp, which opens Friday in Cleveland.
“It’s something I’ve been working toward all my life to have an opportunity to have an NFL team call me,” Phillips said. “ I had a pretty good pro day and they ended up calling me late last week letting me know they had a lot of interest in me. I worked hard to get to to it and now it’s here.”
Phillips had 19 1/2 sacks in 2012, his first season at Missouri Valley and finished with 42 1/2 sacks for his college career. He also had an incredible 77 1/2 tackles for loss along with two interceptions, seven forced fumbles and 231 total tackles.
His 9 1/2 sacks this season ranked ninth in the nation.
Phillips and Pierson will join other former metro-east standouts Travis Manning (Belleville West, Northwest Missouri State), Warren Herring (Belleville East, Wisconsin) and Jimmie Hunt (Cahokia, Missouri) in NFL rookie mini-camps this weekend.
Williams is with the Kansas City Chiefs, Herring signed with the Atlanta Falcons and Hunt signed with the Green Bay Packers.
Phillips originally signed with Missouri following his senior year at East St. Louis. He also attended Georgetown (Ky.) before finally finding a home at Missouri Valley, where he was a two-time AFCA All-American and two-time Heart of America Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
He also was a three-time first-team all-conference selection and got more votes than any other NAIA player nationally for the Cliff Harris Award, which goes to the nation’s top small-college defensive player.
“We are very excited about the opportunity for Ty to represent himself and Missouri Valley football at the professional level,” Missouri Valley head coach Paul Troth said. “Ty has proven to be a dominant player in college and it is nice to see his skills noticed by those at the highest level of football.”
During his first season at Missouri Valley in 2012, Phillips helped lead the team to the NAIA Final Four and a 10-0 regular-season mark.
“I’m most proud of helping take my team to the final four my first year,” Phillips said. “It had been a hump for them making it out of the first round of the playoffs and we were inches away from making it to the big game.”
Phillips said all he could ask for at this point was an opportunity to show his skills to an NFL team.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I want to show how hard work pays off. It would be great for me to make it being from East St. Louis and the ’618’ area, being able to represent that area. I want to show we’ve got really good football talent.”
Pierson (5-10, 173) turned in a 4.41-second 40-yard dash during his pro day at Kansas. Playing both running back and receiver last season, he carried the ball 72 times for 323 yards as a senior, also catching 22 passes for 203 yards and scoring three TDs.
“He definitely has blazing speed,” Phillips said. “He was one of the fastest guys I’ve seen in high school running the ball.”
Pierson’s career college totals with the Jayhawks include 1,684 yards rushing with nine TDs on 284 carries, including one 200-plus yards rushing game and another 100-plus yards day. He also caught 75 passes for 871 yards and another four TDs.
He finished his time as a Jayhawk with 1,684 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 284 carries. He also hauled in 75 receptions for 871 yards and four scores. Pierson has a 200-yard rushing game and a 100-yard receiving game to his credit.
Pierson was an honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference pick as a sophomore in 2012. He started nine games that season and ran for 760 yards and four TDs on 117 carries, adding 21 receptions for 291 yards and two TDs.
Pierson had 5,661 yards rushing and 76 touchdowns in high school, spending his first three seasons at Gateway Tech in St. Louis before closing out his career with the East St. Louis Flyers.