MISSOULA — One of the tattoos Reese Phillips has on his left arm sums up his attitude perfectly.
“It’s not about what you walk away from, it’s about what you walk away with” is inked in a black script-like font on his tricep.
Though the inspiration comes from his borderline obsession with all things Lil Wayne, the meaning resonates much deeper than that.
Phillips’ road to Montana was far from traditional.
A three-star quarterback out of Signal Mountain High School in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, Phillips went to Kentucky and was recruited by Joker Phillips and his staff. But just as Reese got settled in, Joker was fired and so was the person who convinced Reese to become a Wildcat — former Tennessee Volunteers quarterback and then-Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
“They just made it feel like home and I was a big Randy Sanders fan,” Reese said. “Tennessee ties that helped a lot."
Mark Stoops came in to the Kentucky program with offensive coordinator Neal Brown in 2013 and redshirted Phillips. The following season, Phillips was the backup to Patrick Towles and saw action in three games.
Phillips saw several changes in the offseason before the 2015 campaign. Brown took a new job at Troy and Shannon Dawson took over as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. But he wouldn’t be working with Dawson in the traditional sense.
Phillips tore his right Achilles tendon two days before spring practice, rendering him out for the majority of his sophomore season.
“We were doing old school football drills,” Phillips said. “It was like the last station too, sprinting five, shuffle five, sprint five, that type of thing. I sprinted five and shuffled one and it just popped.”
He got up thinking that someone had stepped on him.
“When I realized no one was around, I was like ‘Man, it’s over,’” Phillips said. “I knew it was done when it happened. I was in a really low place when I got hurt. I put on 20-something pounds. I was basically fat. I was kinda over football. That was my last chance there to kinda really do something and I felt with Shannon I would get a really good chance to actually be able to at least play.
"It’s unfortunate what happened, but at the same time, getting hurt kind of made me understand how much I do love the game. It was good for me honestly. If it wasn’t for that year, I wouldn’t be here.”
While Phillips was on the sidelines, he and Dawson forged a close friendship. And that friendship made Phillips reconsider leaving Kentucky at the end of the season.
But when the Wildcats posted a 5-7 record with a 2-6 ledger in the SEC, nothing was certain.
“At the end of the year, he was like, ‘They haven’t told me anything, so I think I’m staying,’ ” Phillips recalls Dawson saying in December 2015. “I was like, ‘If you stay, I’ll stay. I’ll stay here for you because I like you a lot.’ ”
Dawson was fired a week later and he broke the news to Phillips.
“I was like ‘All right, they fired you, they might as well have fired me, so I’m leaving,’ ” Phillips said.
Phillips walked away from Kentucky on the night of Christmas Eve after receiving his release from Stoops. Sixteen days later, on Jan. 9, he announced he was transferring to Montana.
The recommendation to go to Montana came from Dawson, as he’s good friends with Montana coach Bob Stitt.
“‘You gotta take him,’” Stitt remembers Dawson saying on a phone call. “‘This guy throws it better than anybody I’ve ever had.’ I trusted him. There wasn’t much film to watch because he hadn’t gotten a lot of reps there, but Shannon just said, ‘Trust me. You wanna take this guy.’ So we did.”
Phillips said Dawson is one of the biggest factors into why he’s wearing a Griz uniform today.
“I just trusted him so much,” Phillips said of Dawson. “He’s the reason I’m here. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know where I’d be. He said, ‘You gotta take a leap of faith. Just trust the process. If you go to Montana, you need one year there and that’s all you really need.’ I was like ‘All right. I trust you. I’m gonna go on your gut.’”
Phillips' first completed pass for Montana came on Oct. 8 against Mississippi Valley State — 770 days after his last completed pass. In the third quarter on second-and-12, Phillips tossed a 4-yard pass to his then-roommate Caleb Lyons.
He finished that game throwing 5-of-7 for 35 yards and had three yards rushing.
"The journey he's been on and for that work to kinda pay off, get into a game and complete a pass, that's pretty good to see,” Montana quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle said.
Selle said seeing Phillips completing that first pass while wearing the Montana uniform is his favorite memory of Phillips thus far.
Phillips has one more chance to be a starting quarterback and he’s doing his best to walk away with more good memories as a Griz.
“I always knew what I was capable of and that’s why Kentucky was so disappointing,” Phillips said. “I knew that I could play. I knew I could play at a big level. That’s another reason why I came here. This is like the SEC of the FCS in the sense of the environment and everything. What motivates me is it’s taken five years to get to this point and I’m just enjoying every second of it. It’s been a long road for sure.”