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John Phillips was becoming a meme.
Six years ago, Phillips was watching No. 8 Northwestern take on No. 1 Gonzaga in March Madness. Phillips’ dad was the athletic director at Northwestern, and Phillips had been close with the team, which had brought its magical run within a few good minutes of reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
After an iffy call that went against the Wildcats, cameras caught Phillips, then just in middle school, reacting.
Emotions run high during March Madness, both for the players on the court, and the fans watching in the stands and at home.
“Northwestern crying kid.gif” was born.
Crying Northwestern kid dot gif pic.twitter.com/LoRUCqdByo
— Jeff (@jamfan40) March 18, 2017
Phillips has since turned his moment of viral fame into a positive
As is true of any reaction meme, Phillips is more than Northwestern Crying Kid. Now a freshman at Harvard, Phillips spoke with Insider just after an Economics class. He’s planning on a double major in Economics and Government, with an eye on a pre-law track, though as a freshman, the path is still unveiling itself in front of him.
Phillips had long thought he would attend Northwestern as a student, but he decided to apply to Harvard at the suggestion of his mother and a guidance counselor.
“Northwestern was home for forever, basically. Almost as long as I could remember,” Phillips said. “But during the college process I wanted to look everywhere and see what different opportunities were out there.”
While Northwestern and Duke were both high on his list, once he got into Harvard, he couldn’t say no.
“I just wanted to challenge myself, to kind of push myself to gain new experiences, to put myself out of my comfort zone,” Phillips said. “As much as I love, love, love Northwestern, I felt like if I’m ever going to put myself out there and challenge myself, get outta my comfort zone, college seems like a pretty good chance to do that.”
In a way, Phillips’ moment of meme-dom helped him reach the Ivy League, as it was the subject of his college admissions essay. His mom began joking about using the moment as college essay fodder while he was still in middle school, he recalled.
“Then once we got into to junior year, senior year, we’d go to these workshops,” Phillips said. “And they were like, ‘Try to think of kind of a unique experience, something that kind of demonstrates who you are.'”
Yep, he had one of those.
Gonzaga forward Zach Collins dunks over Northwestern guard Scottie Lindsey. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
In his essay, Phillips described how his viral 15 minutes of fame, and the attention that it brought him in the days, months, and years to come, helped make clear the nature of empathy, and the value it holds.
Social media can be a cruel place, and commenters were quick to pile on Phillips’ emotional reaction to the Wildcats’ loss.
“People online and in-person routed me with false stories and negative comments: I was spoiled, I was over-emotional, I was a sore loser,” Phillips wrote. “Not a single person who criticized me knew my backstory or my heart.”
What a meme can’t tell the viewer was that Phillips was wildly close with this Northwestern team. He wasn’t just some kid in a jersey. As son of Northwestern’s athletic director, Phillips had spent real time with this team, shared meals with them.
“I was passionate because this team was family to me,” Phillips wrote. “But the internet didn’t know this when they spread my crying reactions everywhere.”
For Phillips, that moment was a life lesson laid out in full. Others didn’t know his story, just as it’s impossible to know anyone’s full story.
“When we seek to understand others first, we guard ourselves against quick judgments and false stereotypes,” Phillips wrote.
John Phillips (crying Northwestern kid) is a freshman in college.
Feel old yet?
(h/t @CardChronicle) pic.twitter.com/9FRNPtoZKn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 15, 2023
John Phillips was becoming a meme. Again.
Things were a bit calmer this second time around, though.
His father, Jim Phillips, is now the commissioner of the ACC, and he was attending March Madness once again in that capacity. His son was by his side once again, sans braces and now swapping out his Northwestern jersey for a tidy blazer.
The internet made the connection, and suddenly, Phillips was in the spotlight once again.
“I’m not on Instagram or really social media at all, so people were sending me these things and I was like, Oh my gosh, it’s happening again,” Phillips said with a laugh. “It was really unexpected, but just kind of a fun thing.”
On campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his status as Northwestern Crying Kid doesn’t come up often, but Phillips doesn’t shy away from it when it does.
“It’s not something that I generally bring up,” Phillips said. “Not because I’m embarrassed or scared or ashamed or anything like that. I think it’s a pretty cool thing. It’s just not something that I’m usually bringing up.”
John Phillips wasn’t the only heartbroken Northwestern fan on that fateful night. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
When sharing a fun fact about himself, as sometimes comes up as a college freshman, Phillips opts to talk about his family.
“I have four siblings. My dad is the youngest of 10, my mom’s the youngest of seven,” Phillips says. “So I have countless aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’m more proud of that.”
Phillips’ family proved a support system in the immediate aftermath of his original viral moment
During the game back in 2017, Phillips had been locked into the action on the court, but once the final whistle blew, he realized his phone was getting bombarded with messages as he and his family waited to greet the team.
“We were just sitting in the arena, and I had I don’t know how many texts from my friends and family,” Phillips said. “I was sitting with my siblings, and we were all just kind of scrolling and it was just appearing more and more and more.”
Many of Phillips’ friends and family that knew him initially told him to stay offline, but he was eventually able to embrace his newfound fame, even as a middle schooler.
John Phillips watches Northwestern take on Rutgers in football. Corey Perrine/Getty Images
“They were trying to be protective,” Phillips said. “I know my mom and my family especially wanted to make sure that I was doing okay — they didn’t want this to be a negative factor.
“Once things settled down from the initial shock of the moment, we were able to see okay, this doesn’t have to be a negative thing,” he said. “This can be a positive thing, and I could really embrace it.
“I’m really grateful to my friends and my family. Without my family, I wouldn’t have been able to handle things or gain this kind of perspective. I credit my Catholic faith as well, [playing] a big role in that. I don’t know what my perspective be would be without those.”
While he doesn’t advertise it at school, sometimes his memefied alter-ego becomes public knowledge. When fellow students ask about what he wrote about in his college essay, he tells his story. Sometimes the meme is coincidentally used in a public setting where he is present, making for a fun moment.
Phillips now has years of practice when it comes to making the best of his elevation into a character on the internet. In 2019, Pizza Hut used Phillips’ now iconic image in an ad campaign tied to March Madness, with Phillips donating the money to charity.
Phillips is mostly off of social media for now, though it’s not a direct result of his image being an online mainstay.
“As I’ve grown older, I wanted more time and more head space to focus on the things that I know I really care about,” he said.
He doesn’t use his own meme often, but there are moments when it comes in handy. When a friend was recently going through a tough time, suffering from a moment of their own embarrassment, Phillips texted him the image.
“I was like, ‘Hey, if you’re ever embarrassed, this is me as a seventh grader. Don’t worry,'” he said.
“It ended up being a funny moment. We could unite around that thing and rally around it.”
This Utah State cheerleader was going through it ? pic.twitter.com/Rqhpz3zBaZ
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 16, 2023
Phillips is not alone in having his emotional reaction to March Madness become a widely used meme. In 2015, Villanova’s crying piccolo player Roxanne Chalifoux quickly became shorthand for persevering through tough times, and just this past year, Utah State cheerleader Ashlyn Whimpey went viral as she reacted to her final game cheering courtside.
I joked that Phillips could start up a support group for basketball fans whose emotions brought them viral fame.
“Maybe we need to start that up,” he said. “Anything happens, just to reach out to me. We’ll get through it together.”
Phillips has solid, practical advice as someone who had lived through an unexpected viral storm
“The biggest one is just to try and embrace it and enjoy it,” Phillips said. “No matter what happens, no matter what moment you’re caught in, just to try to be you. Try not to run away from that fact and just say, ‘Hey, this is me.’ Use that as more of a positive than a negative. That was definitely the best thing that my family and friends allowed me to do, and I couldn’t imagine the situation not having done that.
John Phillips and his family at Harvard. John Phillips
“The second piece of advice, and it’s a really big one, is enjoy it, but don’t read any of the comments,” Phillips said with a laugh.
“There’s gonna be hundreds, thousands of comments and those aren’t the people that know you, and love you, and know who you are. Rely on the people close to you, because those are the people that have been with you through it and will know you through all the rest of it.”