By Sarit Schneider
Brandon Phillips is not only easy on the eyes; he is also an extremely talented polo player. With almost 20 years as a professional polo player and a 5-goal handicap, he has captured some of the sport’s most coveted trophies. Yet, his life has not always been perfect. In fact, Brandon has faced more in his 36 years than most of us will in a lifetime.
Brandon was born in King City, Canada, just outside of Toronto. Growing up, he was extremely athletic and could always be found playing one sport or another. As most Canadian boys do, Brandon loved iced hockey, but also split his time between soccer, rugby, basketball and polo.
“Because polo is not very common in Canada, people are often surprised that I play it professionally,” said Brandon. “It was actually a natural fit for me because I was surrounded by horses from an early age.” His father and brother played polo as amateurs at the Toronto Polo Club, two of his uncles were Olympic show jumpers and his mother foxhunted.
Brandon rode his first horse when he was only 18-months-old and started working with stick and ball at six. At the age of 11, he played his first match at the Toronto Polo Club, becoming the youngest polo player there at the time. Everything seemed to be falling into place for Brandon as he led a fun and busy teenage life.
Then, everything changed. In June of 1992, Brandon’s world was turned upside down. He woke up one Sunday morning with severe swelling and an aching pain in his right leg. Having played a polo game the previous Wednesday, a rugby game on Friday and an exceptionally rough game of soccer the night before, he attributed the pain to a sports injury. Worried after the swelling did not go down, Brandon’s parents took him to the hospital. It turned out that they had more reason to worry than they knew.
Twenty hours later, Brandon was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor wrapped around his left ureter, the tube that connects the kidneys with the bladder. It had shut off his left kidney and hit the lymph nodes, preventing his leg from draining fluid. This buildup of fluid was causing the aching in his leg. Though Brandon’s parents did not tell him at the time, the doctor’s prognosis was six weeks to live. He was only 14-years-old.
“I was scared like any other 14 year-old would be, trying to process what was happening and the road I had ahead. But I was determined to beat it,” Brandon recalls.
From that moment, Brandon was suddenly forced to grow up faster than those around him. Soccer practices and school dances were replaced by doctor visits and intensive chemotherapy sessions. His friends and family were with him every step of the way, and their encouragement and love enabled Brandon to find the strength to keep battling. He lost weight, lost hair, but never lost his spirit or hope for a better tomorrow. “Through it all, I never accepted death as an option; instead, my biggest grudge was missing soccer season,” said Brandon.
After five grueling months, Brandon beat the odds and went into remission. He was eager to return to the life of a normal teenager and rejoined his school basketball team that November. Though now physically healthy, the emotional effects of the cancer lingered. Brandon was left with an altered outlook that would change the course of his life forever. Those months spent in a hospital bed fighting for his life made Brandon realize how precious each moment was. Once he recovered, he made sure not to take anything for granted and was thankful for every new day. He vowed to dedicate his life to doing what he loved — playing polo.
Brandon threw himself into polo as his participation in other sports slowly dwindled. Todd Offen, a Canadian polo player with a successful career in the United States, became Brandon’s idol. When Brandon was 16, Todd invited him to New York to attend the U.S. Open. This was his first experience watching high goal polo, and he was in awe of the power and strength of the players and the level of excitement to the game. It motivated him to push his own limits, aspiring to become a high goal player one day.
The launching pad for Brandon’s career occurred in Connecticut in 1994 when he was exposed to top polo players and when he impressed Peter Brant. The following winter, Brandon was invited down to Wellington, Florida during his break from school. When he arrived, Brandon was put into a practice with Peter. Afterward, Peter approached Brandon and asked him to stay and play the 22 Goal at White Birch Farm. Unbeknownst to Brandon, the trip had been arranged as a tryout. In February 1995, at the age of 17, Brandon Phillips was officially a professional polo player.
Brandon began his career traveling back and forth between Florida and Canada. He spent the winters of his final two years of high school in Florida playing polo and working with tutors to complete his schoolwork, then returning to Toronto in his downtime to attend class and visit friends and family. He played 22 Goal for one month before being hired for the 26. That year Brandon played in the Gold Cup and then that summer in the U.S. Open in New York, where he had once been so inspired. His dream had become a reality.
After leaving White Birch Farm, he worked for Memo Gracida, another polo player who helped give him his start. For almost four years, Memo served as a mentor to Brandon as they traveled and played polo together. Under Memo, Brandon improved both his game and his confidence. One day when Brandon was 4-goals, Memo suggested it was time to take his career to the next level. Out of his 20 horses, Memo offered Brandon six of his choice to be paid off as he could, allowing him to go out on his own and advance as a player.
Since then Brandon’s career has flourished. Those six horses have turned into 20, and he has never looked back. He has won the USPA Silver Cup, the Gold Cup of the Americas, and the C.V. Whitney Cup, as well as making it to the finals of the U.S. Open once and the semi-finals twice. He continues to push himself and hopes to one day win the U.S. Open, where he can hopefully continue his dream and inspire future polo players just as he was inspired.
With all of the success, Brandon continues to remember the catalyst that changed the course of his life and maintains his positive attitude along with his ambition to live each day to the fullest. His journey has made him the person and the player that he is today. He strives to be a role model on and off the field by dedicating much of his time to philanthropy by supporting charities such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which has made Brandon the Honorary Chair of its inaugural Polo for a Purpose event on January 4th.
“I feel that my experiences give me a unique perspective and chance to connect with and help others,” explained Brandon. “Being able to tell my story and show that there is always a chance for survival helps me remind those battling cancer that they should continue to believe in their own futures.”
Brandon’s adolescent years were an emotional roller coaster that thankfully had a happy ending. His strength and determination in the face of peril is inspirational, and his story encourages people to treasure each moment and fight for their dreams.
About the writer: Sarit Schneider is an account manager at Sirota Public Relations. Originally from Georgia, she now lives in New York City with her boyfriend and her dog, Stewie.