This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.
Everyone has a story about Phil Silva. The trouble is, Phil Silva has a story about everyone else, too.
Mississippi State’s head equipment manager for the last 33 years, Silva has been the most consistent presence in the modern era of Bulldog football, his time spanning from Emory Bellard to Dan Mullen and John Bond to Dak Prescott. The equipment room in the new football complex is already named after the legendary figure and personality, and this weekend, Silva gets yet another honor as he is inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame.
His name is not one typically heard by most fans of the game, but there are few people who work in any level of football who don’t know Silva, not just because of his work with the New Orleans Saints or the Senior Bowl in addition to his role at MSU, but because after 33 years, he’s sent hundreds of young equipment managers out into the world. The Phil Silva equipment tree is metaphorical redwood, stretching high and wide with branches in every direction.
Silva’s relationships with coaches and players are a big part of his legacy, but just as important to him are the students who have worked for him the last three decades.
“The main thing is seeing my students I’ve had grow up to be good young people,” he said in his signature gravelly voice. “We put in a lot of hours. They don’t make enough money. I try to do everything I can to help them and guide them in the right way. After they get out of school, they realize, they understand why I got on their butts about being on time, being clean cut. It makes a difference.”
Beneath the sarcasm, the jokes, the high demands and the oft-present cloud of cigar smoke, Silva wants to help people. A heart like his is practically a requirement if one is going to last that long in the equipment world. It’s not an easy job, nor is it one that often receives many thanks. As Athletic Director Scott Stricklin pointed out, there is a lot of giving and very little receiving for someone in his position.
But that’s what Silva likes, and that’s what he’s done for the last 33 seasons of MSU football, taking time for those he serves and putting in the extra effort when many others would choose not to. And for his favorites over the years, his office was always open for someone to talk to, or even just a place to getaway from all the noise. Players like Jerious Norwood and Dak Prescott frequented Silva’s office hidden in the bowels of MSU’s athletic complexes. Coaches like Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom found shelter and quiet on his couch.
“Coach Sherrill used to come all the time and hide in my place,” Silva recalled. “He’d sit down and take a nap. Coach Croom too. I’d close the door and take the phone off the hook so nothing could bother them for a while, then we’d go out to practice through the backdoor.”
Relationships like those are what helped put together the look of one of the most iconic games in MSU history – the 2000 Snow Bowl. Of course, they didn’t know it was going to be a snowy game. Before the end of the game, it was called by its proper name, the Independence Bowl.
Shortly before MSU was due to leave Starkville, Silva and a few of his students and assistants were eating dinner at Harvey’s, and they happened to be seated near Sherrill and his wife.
“I guarantee he’s going to ask me about getting white helmets,” Silva told one of the students.
Texas A&M was already planning to wear maroon jerseys, MSU knowing it would wear white, but at that point, the Bulldogs hadn’t wore white helmets in decades. It certainly had never been done under Sherrill.
“Phil, come here,” Silva remembers Sherrill calling to him. “What do you think about white helmets?”
“Coach, I told them you were going to ask me about white helmets,” Silva replied. “I already called. We’ve got four styles of white helmets on the way to choose from.”
“How’d you know?” Sherrill asked.
“Coach,” Silva answered, “I know you by now. I understand what you want.”
Just another part of the job, playing some combination of psychologist and psychic.
“You figure them out after a while, what they want,” Silva said. “So that was it. We wore white helmets for that game. Got white shoes to go with them. It was really cool, it was. That’s probably one of the best games I’ve been a part of.”
Silva’s career is littered with stories like those, anecdotes from bowl games and rivalry games, winning seasons and losing seasons, the unexpected and the meticulously planned. There’s the can of Sprite Silva had ready for former quarterback Wayne Madkin before every game. There are 33 years worth of extra wristbands, misplaced socks and late nights doing laundry for 100-some-odd football players, making sure their practice and game gear magically reappears in their locker rooms every day, fresh as new.
A New Orleans native, Silva didn’t go to school at MSU, and he actually got his start in equipment as an undergraduate at Nicholls State, but after all this time at State, after raising his three boys in Starkville, there’s nowhere else he’d rather call home.
“It’s been a great ride. I never went to school here, but it’s felt like my university. I’ve always thought that,” he said. “When I retire, I ain’t gonna go anywhere. My two granddaughters are here. I’m going to be a good grandparent, that’s the next thing I want to do.”
It will be a sad day for MSU whenever that moment comes, but it will surely be a happy one for MSU’s living equipment legend.
“Phil is one of those iconic guys in our athletic department,” Stricklin said. “For better or for worse, there will never be another Phil Silva.”