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Saxophonist Mike Phillips hopes his anthem performance brings attention to ending domestic violence

Sharneen Norman, his manager and close friend, was murdered in 2014

There is an adjective we have to include when we discuss the national anthem performances of saxophone player Mike Phillips, whose rendition before an Atlanta Falcons playoff game launched the #saxthem hashtag on Twitter and whose encore at the NFC championship on Jan. 22 drew more than 2.7 million video views on the NFL’s Facebook page. “Soulful” is the description that pops up most often. “Hopeful” is one that emerges when he describes how the optimism that America can live up to its lofty ideals infuses his playing.

To those adjectives we must add “painful,” for the hurt he still carries inside from the murder of his manager by her boyfriend in December 2014, a torment that drives him to perform at his best.

Sharneen Norman — known as Shawn to all — was paired with Phillips when he joined the Hidden Beach recording label at the dawn of the millennium. Shawn was the daughter of former Dallas Cowboy Pettis Norman. She inherited a good share of his height, much more than Phillips expected when he first saw her after hearing her sweet, bubbly voice on the phone. She also took on her father’s business acumen and tenacity that served him well after his playing career.

“Shawn was like a pit bull,” Phillips said. “A marketing pit bull.”

She put together a deal with Nike that made Phillips the first nonathlete to be sponsored by the Jordan Brand. On a personal note, she’s responsible for my friendship with Phillips by keeping on both of us to connect after I referenced one of his anthem performances at a Los Angeles Lakers-San Antonio Spurs game in The Los Angeles Times. It’s why I wanted Phillips to use the extra attention coming his way from the NFL playoff performances to keep both Shawn’s memory and the issue of domestic violence alive.

It’s not something he likes to talk about.

“Every time someone mentions Shawn, I get mad,” Phillips said.

But it’s something he feels compelled to talk about.

Norman was found in her Dallas apartment, dead from a gunshot wound, on Dec. 1, 2014 — just two days shy of her 50th birthday. There were no signs of forced entry. A man later identified by Norman’s family as her boyfriend was seen on surveillance cameras leaving her apartment building early in the morning the day before she was found. Later that week, police found him in a hotel room in Arkansas, dead from an apparent suicide.

Phillips called Shawn’s death “a big hit.”

“You go back and ask yourself, ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ ” Phillips said. “Why would a person do that?

“I saw the guy one time. He didn’t look too good. He wasn’t a great communicator.

“You play Monday morning quarterback, you go back through why the dude wasn’t talking. You take these things and it prepares you for the next time. That next time you see a couple or somebody you know and a guy that she’s with tugs her by the wrist and says, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here,’ those are signs. Those are signs you don’t pay attention to until it’s too late.”

Phillips was at an airport as he spoke to me on the phone. He noted that airports are filled with announcements to notify security if you see anything suspicious.

“I think domestic violence has to be like that, where if you see something, view it as a red flag,” Phillips said. “If I would have known some of the things I know now, I would have saw those red flags. Or I would have acted differently. Or I would have pulled Shawn aside and said, ‘We need to do something.’

“Would it have changed the outcome? Maybe not. But it would have raised the percentages.”

That’s why he’s sharing the story, to raise the percentages, to get people talking, to open the communication channels.

“When we’re raising boys, as fathers we institute this masculinity, but what it does is desensitize our boys,” Phillips said. “What will happen is that when the boys turn into men, they have no outlet to how to express themselves.

“This guy that’s been muted when he was a child, he gets into a relationship [and when] he gets frustrated, he has no way of communicating, so he gets violent. It’s crazy where men can’t put themselves in the emotional position to talk things out. Now they’re with their women and they just start swinging because they haven’t had the tools to have the outlet of talking.

“I’m not sure what happened with Shawn’s situation, but he was at the point where he didn’t have the tools to express himself. If you can’t express you way out of that … anger, plus lack of being able to express it, is danger for every man.”

Phillips’ outlet for expression is his saxophone. Music has been his passion since childhood; instruments allow him to communicate the range of emotions from joy to sorrow. It allows him to deal with the loss of his manager and friend.

“You have a foundation of wanting her to be proud,” Phillips said. “I have to replace the anger with being ferocious in this industry and making her proud.”

He has played on tour with musical giants such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Prince. His saxophone has taken him to a mixture of sporting events that not even the greatest athletes can claim, from NBA courts to the postseason baseball fields. His run of playing the anthem at Falcons games, which got its start with a preseason game a couple of years ago, won’t continue at the Super Bowl, but he will be in Houston as the musical director for a gospel program next Friday night.

Phillips managed to make The Star-Spangled Banner uplifting and unifying after the season began with the anthem becoming one of the most divisive issues the NFL has faced when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used the playing of the song to make a political statement. As an African-American, Phillips isn’t blind to Kaepernick’s talking points. It gets back to his belief in the potential of this country and the power of music.

“Creatively, I’m putting everything I can into it,” Phillips said. “Despite everything that’s gone on in America and all of the issues that are still pending, I can still play the song with the hope of America catching up to the greatness it should be at.”

When he played it before the Falcons-Seattle Seahawks game, he noticed a fan in a Seattle jersey wedged between two Atlanta fans; they were all holding hands and swaying together. He had a war veteran approach him afterward and tell him it was the best rendition of the anthem he’d heard. He has seen the positive reactions on social media.

He tries to tell a musical story of highlights and flaws and forward progress. And he took time this week to tell the sad side story, in the hope that it can make even the slightest difference when it comes to domestic violence.

“If that leads to one life saved or one less injury,” Phillips said, “then all of this work is not in vain.”

J.A. Adande is the director of sports journalism at Northwestern University and has been a staff writer at ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. He believes SiriusXM's FLY channel is one of the greatest developments of the 21st century.