Jan. 13, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Philip Wheeler is back in the NFL playoffs, where he’s seen it go both ways in a nine-year career, yet the Falcons linebacker is just as happy to talk about his time at Georgia Tech prior to Atlanta’s rematch against the Seahawks in Saturday’s NFC divisional round showdown.
In a raucous Falcons locker room that might be mistaken for a boys club with players razzing each other, playing ping-pong on three tables and watching sports on several TVs, Wheeler made it clear on Wednesday that Tech is still part of his life.
He was quite a player for the Yellow Jackets from 2003-’07 after starring at Shaw High School in Columbus, Ga. and forged life-long relationships with teammates. Plus, he went back to school last spring to take 12 hours and plans to return to finish his degree in business management.
“I go back all the time. I talk to some of the players, the coaches,” he said. “I work out there all the time. I have two more classes, six hours. I’m going to try to do it after this season. I know a lot of people there still and I communicate with them. I’m always on campus.”
Much as Wheeler’s gone back to school, he’s back in the NFL postseason.
After the Indianapolis Colts drafted him in the third round of the 2008 draft, he went to the playoffs in each of his first three pro seasons.
They lost a wild card round game to the Chargers in overtime his rookie year, and then went all the way to Super Bowl XLIV the next season.
What a deal that was!
The Colts led 10-6 at halftime and a ring was 30 minutes away for Wheeler.
During the break, Saints head coach Sean Payton told his team that when they opened the second half, they were to run `Ambush,’ an onside kick.
Rookie punter and kickoff specialist Thomas Morehead hit a squibber, that rattled off the Colts’ Hank Baskett and Wheeler’s former Tech teammate, safety-linebacker Chris Reis, recovered. That set up a touchdown drive for Drew Brees and the Saints, who went on to win 31-17.
“Everybody’s pulling at the ball and I’m grabbing on, holding for dear life,” Reis told reporters. “Some refs were saying blue ball; some refs were saying white ball. But I clearly had it. There was no way I was coming out of that pile without the ball.”
Wheeler would rather not talk about that or the Colts’ 17-16 loss in the wild card round to the Jets a season later.
In addition to four playoff appearances as a pro, he also authored many special moments on The Flats.
After playing sparingly and mostly on special teams as a freshman at Tech in 2003, he redshirted in ’04. That helped.
In ’05, he tied safety Dawan Landry — another future NFL performer — for the team lead with four interceptions and added 10.5 tackles for lost yardage as a part of one of Tech’s most stout defenses. Wheeler had two sacks when the Jackets won, 14-10, at No. 3 Miami.
As a redshirt junior, his nine sacks led the team and, as a senior, he led Tech with 89 tackles and closed his career with 11 tackles against Georgia and another 11 against Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
The Tech ties bind.
Quite a few former Tech teammates are on Wheeler’s call list and he sees several from time-to-time. He attended the Clemson and Duke home football games this past fall and the Jackets’ men’s basketball game against North Carolina A&T in December.
“There’s so many,” he said. “I talk to DeMaryius Thomas all the time. I talk to Calvin [Johnson] every once in a while … Tashard Choice, Reggie Ball, Reuben Houston …”
He’s chasing a Super Bowl title now with the Falcons, having played in all 16 regular-season games and registering 28 tackles with two for lost yardage.
However, Wheeler will be back on The Flats to chase something even bigger than a ring. His goal is to get that degree. With only two more classes to go, he believes he’s a better student than he was back in the day.
“It’s amazing, man, but it’s better now because I know what I’m doing,” Wheeler said of his Georgia Tech classes. “I’m paying attention more. I took an investment class. I’ve got money now, so I can apply it to real life.”