It’s Sunday, and nine hardcore Dolphins fans are gathered in a private room at Bokamper’s Sports Bar & Grill in Miramar to watch their team take on the Cardinals in Phoenix. Tua Tagovailoa has started his second game as the Fins’ quarterback and the tension is high. Miami drives toward the Cardinals’ goal line. A DJ spins music and it feels as if it’s all happening at Hard Rock Stadium just a few miles away. The electric nature of the room is unparalleled.
Then a superfan in full camouflage gets up from his seat and yells at the TV screen, critiquing incomplete passes.
Suddenly, jumpiness turns to jubilance as Tagovailoa completes a nine-yard pass to Preston Williams and the score goes to 21-14. Passionate dancing ensues. Thomas “Big Papa Pump” Phillips and his friend Daniel Berk vigorously jump up and down, pointing at each other with wide smiles on their faces as they move their hips and sway side to side. The dance has obviously been performed before.
The Dolphins go on to win 34-31. Tagovailoa has become a star, at least in Phillips’ eyes and, in that moment, that’s all that matters.
“The boy has some skills and a lot of talent. I think he’s the guy that can take us to the next level when you’re talking about Super Bowls,” Phillips stated.
Phillips is more than just a superfan. He’s known as Big Papa Pump to friends and random Dolphins fans alike. Now 51 years old, he attended his first Dolphins game at age 7, and over the years figures he has been present at more than 200 Fins matchups.
Born and raised in Miami Gardens, Phillips attends every Dolphins home game dressed in a Dolphins jersey, wristbands and shorts. He has a Dolphins tattoo on his arm and drives a 2019 Dodge Ram truck decked out in Dolphins stickers and logos. Then there is the black-and-orange chain he wears around his neck that resembles his truck, and a Dolphins’ colors Papa Pump face mask.
And he’s the epitome of loyalty when it comes to family work, and youth.
“If loyalty and dedication had a child,” said Phillips’ childhood friend, Roger Farrell, “it would be Big Papa Pump.”
Phillips was born on April 25, 1969. As kids, he and Farrell would run around avoiding chores, and sneak into the Dolphins’ training grounds.
“So the Dolphins used to play at St. Thomas University and as kids, me and Pump used to squeeze through the gate and watch them practice,” Farrell said.
Phillips moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, nine years later to finish high school and lived there for four years before returning to Miami. His mother worked in the South Florida State Hospital kitchen and his father was a musician.
Phillips’ love for the Dolphins just happened, the same way his name was chosen for him and his home team was picked.
“I was born in it,” he said. “My family’s all Dolphins fans. My mom, my dad, my older brothers, my older sisters. It was inherited, there was no choice. I actually grew up down the street, not even two blocks from where they used to train at Biscayne College ... before it was St. Thomas, they used to practice there on the regular. You know, that’s what really got me.”
Phillips has held a Dolphins season ticket for 28 years and has never missed a home game since then. The first purchase came while he was working security at Miami Carol City High School. He used his tax return money to buy it. (Dolphins season tickets range in price from $550 per year to $5,200, according to tickettiq.com.)
“If you know me, you know I’m loyal to everything,” Phillips said. “My wife and I have been married for 23 years, that’s dedication, that’s loyal. Also my job, I’ve been working for the school board for 28 years. Look at where I’m going with that. Everything’s consistently in place. There’s no shifting and switching.”
He currently works at Norland Middle School as the head janitor and guards North Miami Beach Adult Center. His love for the Miami Dolphins is correlated with his caring for friends and the less fortunate, said Farrell.
“I called him up two weeks ago Saturday morning telling him that my heart is telling me to grab 30 burgers from Burger King and to go to downtown Miami to pass out to the homeless and less fortunate,” recalled Farrell. “His reply was, ‘Let's do it! What time?’”
Wrapped in Miami Dolphins stickers and logos, Phillips’ truck reflects his passion for the team in abundance. Every few years he changes his vehicle and gets a new design with the work of MetroWrapz. They’re the same company that designs banners for the Miami Heat rafters and The Hard Rock Stadium.
Then there’s that nickname. It came after he appeared several times on the stadium jumbotron, recalled his buddy, Lorenzo “Ice T” Thomas.
“I asked him, ‘How did you get your name?’ Thomas said. “He was like, ‘They gave it to me.’ So basically, they would always play some Notorious B.I.G., some Biggie and put him on the screen, so that’s how they gave him the name ‘Big Papa’ and he would always be pumping it up.”
Phillips’ energy is infectious, added his friend Farrell.
“Who is this Energizer Rabbit that is the life of the party but has never taken an alcoholic drink in his life?!” he asked.
In 2016, Big Papa Pump lost 85 pounds with the help of Herbalife. His doctors, he said, asked him, “Do you want to see your daughter Tomia graduate, get married and have children?” he recalled. “So I needed to get that weight off.”
He’s not superstitious, but he is consistent in how he prepares for games.
“Let me tell you my ritual,” he said. “Prior to going to sleep the night before, I set out what I’m wearing – my shoes, socks, shorts, jersey and gloves … As I wake up, I take my pills and my vitamins, I brush my teeth, and I listen to my church ’cause I got to get my gospel in and get a little prayer in for my teammates.”
Phillips has remained a fan even though his team hasn’t won a championship since 1973. Also, despite the pandemic, he’s made it into the stadium for every game this year.
But real fans head to Bokamper’s in Miramar. Phillips and friends watch in a private room with DJ music at every commercial break and coordinated clapping after every play that favors the home team. After every first down, they exclaim, “And that’s another Miami Dolphins first down, move the chains, move the chains, move the chains, move the chains!”
Phillips’ wife, Meisha, is a second grade teacher at Miami Springs Elementary School. She isn’t a sports fan like her husband, but she supports him.
Asked how he would react if the Fins won the Super Bowl, she replied: “Oh my God! I think that would be the highlight of his life, more than the birth of his daughter or marriage to me.”
This story first appeared in Florida International University’s South Florida Media Network.