In 1986, there were only eight players in the NFL that weighed 160 pounds or less. Three of them were kickers. Another was wide receiver Phillip Epps, a 12th-round pick by the Packers four years earlier, who during his career was not only difficult to find among the league’s big bodies, but even harder to chase down.
As a player, at first Epps was one of those hard-working longshots, a flanker from Texas Christian back when the school was a perennial doormat in the Southwestern Conference. That’s not to suggest he wasn’t gifted. Slight in frame and only 5-10, the Packers took a flyer on him with the 321st overall pick in ’82 because of his speed.
No matter how high in the draft order, plenty of players are at least given an opportunity because of their stopwatch time. Epps was nearly a flash when at full stride, a member of the USA track team who consistently ran 100 meters in just a blink over 10 seconds. His time of 20.1 in the 200 meters was among the world’s best that year. Epps could cover 40 yards in around 4.3 seconds, despite being unable to even shift into top gear at such a short distance.
He learned he had been drafted by Green Bay while representing TCU at the Duke University Invitational.
“One of the Team USA coaches told me that I was drafted by the Packers, and he said we were about to go to Europe for six weeks for track,” Epps said. “It wasn’t an Olympic year. I remember all of this like it was yesterday. He said, ‘The sky is the limit for you in track; you aren’t going to make it in the NFL because you’re too small.’ If you tell me I can’t do something, I tend to do the opposite.
“I thought, ‘Who is this guy to tell me I’m not big enough to play football?’ He had only known me a few days. He was going to tell me I can’t play in the NFL? So I thought this was my chance. I’m very happy with the decision I made.”
Epps immediately became one of the NFL’s fastest men, and he proved to be more than just an Olympic-class sprinter masquerading as a football player. He started off as a solid punt returner and ranks fifth in team history in return yardage.
Through repetition, Epps transformed into a consistent wide receiver and he was always a threat to turn a slant into a long gain. Despite his stature, he even hung tough on crossing routes.
Epps finished his career with the Packers in 1988 with 192 receptions for 2,884 yards and 14 touchdowns. He added 10 carries for 121 rushing yards and a TD.
When Epps arrived in Green Bay, the Packers had one of the NFL’s top offenses, and it all centered on the passing attack. QB Lynn Dickey was the triggerman, All-Pro James Lofton and John Jefferson formed one of the league’s most productive duos at wide receiver, and tight end Paul Coffman moved the chains.
Epps was a raw talent who had 10 grabs and returned punts during his strike-shortened rookie season, when the Packers advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“We had a lot of good receivers for a while, and I think Phillip Epps was underrated,” said former Packers center Larry McCarren, a teammate early in the wide receiver’s career and a 12th-round pick in ’73. “People don’t think of him enough. Once he learned his craft, he was a really good player – really good.”
At his first training camp, Epps’ background in track actually worked to his advantage because it bolstered his confidence.
“It was an uphill climb but I was all about competing so I wasn’t intimidated,” he said. “I was elated to be in the company of John Jefferson and James Lofton and I had watched them play, but I looked at it as just playing football, just like how it was when I was running track. I didn’t look at it like I was a 12th-round pick. It was a transition, but track and playing football is what I had been doing all my life.”
Epps had a slow rise at receiver. In his second year, he had 18 catches – averaging 17.4 yards per reception – and scored a pair of TDs. He also shook loose for a 90-yard touchdown on a punt return, the longest in the NFC that season. There weren’t many balls to go around. Lofton, Jefferson and Coffman combined for 169 receptions for nearly 3,000 yards. Epps, however, had started making an impression in practice.
“Once Phillip learned to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage, he became hard to cover,” said former Packers safety Johnnie Gray. “At first, people in practice lined up to cover him. He was just learning. He really worked hard at becoming a good player. When he developed, you had to respect him because of his speed.”
In ’84, the steady progress continued, with Epps hauling in 26 passes and a trio of scores. The following year, Jefferson was traded and Epps became a leading contributor in the passing game with 44 catches, and he led the team with 1,211 all-purpose yards. Epps added 103 yards rushing on five carries and had the team’s longest reception (63 yards), kickoff return (48) and punt return (46).
In ’86 he had a career-high 49 receptions for 612 yards and would have posted even bigger numbers but broke his left ankle against Chicago in Week 12 with four games remaining.
“For me, it was a learning process,” Epps said. “Once I learned the position, it became second nature. The guys were a lot bigger than I was, but I felt like no one was faster. Football is a game of contact and courage, and it tests you every day. I wasn’t afraid of the contact, and for a lot of guys, they’ve never been challenged like that. With concentration, you can improve on everything else.”
Despite his fearlessness, when he couldn’t run away from opponents, the collisions he was enduring on offense and as a returner began to add up in scars. Epps suffered injuries to both knees during his career, though he emerged from the first knee surgery without seeming to lose a step. While his broken ankle mended, he had left knee surgery, but returned to post 34 receptions in 10 games in ’87. The following year he broke his wrist, pulled a hamstring and suffered a back injury. Epps only appeared in six contests in ’88, and it was his final season in Green Bay.
“Once I couldn’t run, I was of no use at my size,” Epps said. “That’s just the way it is. Injuries caught up with me, I started losing my speed and I couldn’t recover. If you are small, you better be fast in that league or it’s over.”
Epps is retired and lives outside of Dallas in Grand Prairie. He has three daughters and a son, and his 28-year-old daughter, Rachael, was married last week. He comes up to Lambeau Field to see games periodically, but his knees prefer that he watch from his living room.
“I’m so proud of the Packers I don’t even know what to do,” he said. “That’s my team. It’s hard to put the whole package together like they do. We could never get the whole thing together when I was there. Sometimes we’d score 30 points and give up 35. Sometimes it was the other way around. We weren’t consistent.”
Epps played for the Jets in ’89, serving as a backup at wide receiver and as kick returner. He ended up making the giants of the NFL miss most of the time for 95 career games, 85 in Green Bay.
“I’m very proud of what I did in the NFL; I was very blessed,” he said. “God looked out for ol’ Phillip. There aren’t too many 5-10, 160-pound guys make it in that league. Trust me on that.”
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