Matt Phillips – a longtime football coach and official – has been on the sidelines with Earl Marriott’s team this season. Below

Matt Phillips – a longtime football coach and official – has been on the sidelines with Earl Marriott’s team this season. Below

A lifetime on the sidelines

South Surrey's Matt Phillips continues long football career at Earl Marriott Secondary.

One day, Earl Marriott Secondary football coach Michael Mackay-Dunn might finally let it go.

Let go of the call that saw his high-school football career end with a two-point loss instead of a spot in the provincial high-school championship game.

Let go of the friendly grudge he holds against the official who blew that whistle on a play now decades old.

Yes, one day he might let it go. Today is not that day.

Mackay-Dunn, the 63-year-old coach of the Earl Marriott Mariners’ football program, is sitting in his classroom, detailing for a listener exactly what happened all those years ago.

It was the 1969 provincial semifinals, and Vancouver College – Mackay-Dunn’s school – trailed Maple Ridge 16-14 late in the fourth quarter.

Maple Ridge kicked the ball off, and Vancouver’s returner caught it and weaved up field, eluding tacklers en route to what would have been a game-winning touchdown.

“We ran a reverse – the same kind of return we run here now (at EMS) – and our guy went all the way. I was about 30 yards away from the ball and some guy hit me from behind, but I got called for roughing.

“The play got called back, and we lost by two. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

The official who made the call was Matt Phillips, a South Surrey resident who now, at 83, stands next to Mackay-Dunn on the Earl Marriott sidelines as a volunteer assistant coach, the latest coaching stop for the well-travelled football lifer who has been involved in the game for so long – as a coach and official – that his bio on the B.C. Football Officials Association states that “Matt, seemingly, has coached football in B.C. forever.”

“That call is still clear as a bell. I’ll never forget it. That was my last high-school game,” Mackay-Dunn continues, with a laugh. “But I don’t bug him about it too much anymore.”

Phillips, who lives just a short drive from school, is in his first year as a coach with the Mariners, volunteering to come aboard this summer after spending much of the last season watching the team’s home games from the bleachers.

“Afterward, he’d call me up and give me his observations and thoughts, whether I wanted the information or not,” Mackay-Dunn laughed. “But he’s been great to have on our staff. He’s an excellent coach, and he’s a great backboard to bounce ideas off of, and you find yourself having some great discussions about football.”

Phillips’ official title with the program is special-teams coach, and when asked, tends to downplay his contributions to the team, which plays in B.C.’s AA Tier 2 conference and is currently in first place.

“I don’t do much, and I try not to butt in too much with what the other coaches are doing, but I think I can help,” he said.

“I’m not here because I’m a pretty face – there’s never a situation we run into during a game that I haven’t seen before, somewhere.”

Phillips, who was born in New Westminster, has been around the game since the 1940s, when he took up the sport as a high schooler at Toronto’s Upper Canada College – the private boarding school he was sent to after, in his own words, “I got into a very comfortable groove doing as little as possible.”

From there, Phillips moved on to college, playing at George Pepperdine College in Los Angeles – now known as Pepperdine University – where he also got his degree in physical education.

Before turning to coaching, Phillips had a short playing career – “If you can call it that,” he quipped – in the Canadian Football League, as a tackle with the BC Lions. But the experience was marred by injuries.

After knee surgery in June 1957, Phillips returned to the field just a month later once he was “pronounced fit to play.”

“Really, I was fit to limp, is all I was. So I limped around practice for a year, got into a couple, three games. But every time I got in, I’d end up at the bottom of a pile with somebody lying on my bad knee,” he explained. “Every time I got on the field, I ended up getting carried off.”

After that, Phillips began a long career as a teacher, while also coaching and officiating. The list of schools at which he’s coached is long enough that it’s tough to remember in full, but includes Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary and  Cambie Junior High; Richmond’s London Junior and Steveston Secondary; North Delta, Montgomery Junior High in Coquitlam, and Clovedale’s Lord Tweedsmuir.

“I wrote ’em all down one time, but I can’t remember now,” he said, while on the sidelines of an EMS practice last week. “I lost count, but it’s at least 52 years of coaching.”

Phillips says the game today is almost unrecognizable from the one he grew up with – the players are bigger, faster and stronger, and the game plans are much more advanced.

“In the ’60s, we’d just get the ball in the middle of the field and bash away at each other,” he said.

“We are doing things in Grade 8 now that we would’ve maybe, maybe, thought about doing at the senior level back then.”

But though the game has changed on the field, his love for the sport has never wavered – it’s why he continues to volunteer his time coaching athletes who are young enough to be his great-grandchildren.

“I think kids can learn a lot about life from athletics… and I can still relate to the kids. The ones I can’t relate to are the ones who don’t want to work hard, who don’t want to listen,” he explained.

“Coaching does takes a lot of time and effort, but it keeps you out of trouble.”

Mackay-Dunn finds an even simpler way to explain his colleague’s continued dedication to local football.

“This is who he is.”

Phillips, meanwhile, said he’ll be happy to stay on the sidelines as long as the team will have him – even if a 46-year-old roughing call is brought up from time to time.

“I can’t remember now exactly what Mike did wrong, but I’m sure I was right to call him on it.”