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Uncle Phil: The Gateway to Duke Student Nightlife (Feature)

Durham, NC—Before peak hour on Wednesday night, the Shooters II Saloon, a local southern-themed nightclub, felt like the quiet opening to a contemporary Western.

Durham, NC—Before peak hour on Wednesday night, the Shooters II Saloon, a local southern-themed nightclub, felt like the quiet opening to a contemporary Western.

Just outside of the club, beams of flickering white light cast over the sidewalk, where a mixture of grease, grime, and gum caked the cracked asphalt. Two bouncers leaned over the front railing, talking comfortably in between smokes. Next to the door, a vacant Grille Masterz food truck sat adjacent to a cadre of police officers.

All was quiet and placid, the wind lightly sweeping like a double-hinged saloon door.

Then, out stepped Phillip Rhew from the back entrance—a six-foot-something, 280 pound bouncer.
While there aren’t any guns, outbreaks of bar fights, or rolling tumbleweeds, like any good Western, there’s a protagonist. And this one had the physique of a former college football line-backer.

At first glance, the 59-year-old Durham native is intimidating. His white-streaked hair shoots up from his scalp, as though standing at attention. His hazel eyes are intense and piercing. But on further inspection, you see more. His left arm relies on an old, battered sling for support. Wrinkles and abundant laugh lines sculpt his face and his smile emanates with Southern hospitality.

He’s popular with the college students that roll through on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, many of whom call him “Uncle Phil.”

“All the kids know Phillip,” said Ed, one of Rhew’s co-workers with a chuckle.

Rhew landed the job at Shooters in 2004 following a freak motorcycle accident that sent him flying from the highway into the woods. But before that, he worked construction.

Fresh out of Orange County high school, he joined his dad and step-father on building the expansion for Duke Hospital. In school, Rhew was an all-star athlete: he wrestled, ran track-and-field, and played ball. He was even recruited by East Carolina University for football, but missed his shot.

“I reckon it was a mistake, but I wouldn’t have met Carissa’s mama and I wouldn’t have had my daughter,” Rhew, who is a single father, explained, “so I look at it like that.”

Putting his athletic prowess to good use, he worked on tubing, piping, and other large-scale structural support—helping transport heavy beams and operate unruly heavy-duty equipment.

“I was a BIG guy,” he said, gesturing to himself.

But after the accident, losing most mobility in his left arm and dragging around a stubborn leg, it was nearly impossible for him to continue. He motioned to his paralyzed, claw-like hand in the sling. “If you can’t hold a nail, you know—you can’t do it.”

On November 17th, 2003, he was riding a Fat Boy Harley Davidson at 100 miles an hour on the highway. “A Fat Boy for a fat boy,” he laughed.

A car hit him, causing him to swerve off the road and hit a mud hole. As his bike lodged in the ditch, he catapulted into the woods, landing 100 feet from the roadside.

“They say I fly real well but I don’t land too good.”

A search party of highway patrol and his biker buddies later found him sprawled between two trees. And for 47 days, the motorcycle enthusiast, who rode everything from dirt bikes to Harleys since he was a teenager, was in a coma. The only thing that Rhew recalls was “just trying to wake up.”

When he finally came to his senses, his sister was sitting in the medical room watching the NYC ball drop on television. ​10...9...8... A​ s it approached the new year, Rhew jolted awake down to the second.

While he experienced a “happy new year!” the recovery process that would follow eclipsed the momentary euphoria. A mile-long list of health concerns piled up: broken bones, fractured ribs, potential permanently disabled extremities.

Doctor after doctor told Rhew he would stay paralyzed, but Dr. Kimberly Barry from Triangle Orthopedics gave a second opinion, assuring Rhew that she could save his left arm.

“She took nerves out of my leg and put them in my arm,” he said while mapping where the different procedures happened on his person. In total he had 13 surgeries. And like Dr. Barry predicted, he regained autonomy.

Aside from the physical recovery, Rhew had to make ends meet as a single father and out of work. He had a stint as a limo driver for a few months until he was approached by two of his friends, Kim and Danny, with a new gig at Shooters.

“They said, ‘Well come help us, you know, it gives you something to do so you don’t lie around that house,” he joked, “and I’ve been doing this ever since.”

“Plus,” he added, “I’m a diehard Duke fan.”

In his house he has an entire room dedicated to Duke paraphernalia: basketballs, jerseys, tennis shoes, posters, footballs, pendants—Rhew has it all.

And a lot of the merchandise comes from students.

“I’ve seen all the ball players come through,” he said while whipping out his phone to show a picture of him with Zion. “I even have their phone numbers.”

As he scrolled through his phone, a group of intoxicated college students staggered by, waving frantically at Rhew.

“Hey Phil!” one shouted. He waved back and told them to stay safe.

As a bouncer at a nightclub that predominantly draws college-aged customers, Rhew has a responsibility to protect customers from harm, especially given the staggering rates of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. He marks wrists for underage patrons with a thick, black sharpie. He surveys the floor, checking up on inebriated students while he mops away the residue of spilled beer from pong. And he will always intervene when danger is afoot.

“If you have trouble with somebody, you come get me. I’ll stop what I’m doing, and I’ll go straighten it out” he said.

“These kids, I take care of them like my kids.”

In some ways, Rhew is grateful for the accident. He works three nights a week and is beloved by students, parents, and patrons alike. He’s gotten front-row seats to Duke basketball games, signed merch from past college athletes that went pro, and the opportunity, overall, to stay connected to a community that he loves.

And you better believe he knows his stake in the terrain. As the gatekeeper to college nightlife, Rhew proudly affirmed: “You gotta come through me to get into this club.”

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