There was something terrifying about the way Lawrence Phillips ran with a football, the way he danced around people and plowed right through them, the intimidating marriage of size and speed that rendered him almost impossible to bring down. He was an anomaly, one of those rare college backs who seemed as if he could literally outrun the angles of the game itself; watch him in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl against Florida, and he looks damn near unstoppable.
Phillips, who died this week in prison of an apparent suicide at age 40, was already in the midst of an inexorable downward spiral by the time that game came around. He’d been arrested after Nebraska’s second game of the season for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and dragging her down a flight of steps; if it happened now, the public pressure would have almost certainly kept Phillips off the field, but Nebraska’s coach back then was a devout Christian named Tom Osborne, who felt strongly that the only way to keep Phillips from flying off the rails altogether was to maintain the structure that football provided.
And so Phillips was reinstated later in the year, and he served as a backup, and then he started that Fiesta Bowl and he turned pro early, getting picked sixth in the 1996 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. He was likely the most talented player in that draft; but he was carrying with him the demons born of a painful and difficult childhood. He’d grown up in Los Angeles, and he’d never really known his father; when his mother began dating a man he had conflicts with, he left home, sleeping at friends’ houses, sometimes sleeping in cars. He was arrested several times; his mother admitted she’d lost control of her son.
He wound up in a group home, still unable to control the violent streak that coursed through him. “They say when someone hits you you’re supposed to turn the other cheek,” Barbara Thomas, who ran Phillips’ group home, said in 1995. “He couldn’t do that. He would try to kill that person.”
Shortly after that, Phillips began playing football. He played at one high school through his sophomore year, then transferred to Baldwin Park High School, where he began to find himself. He pulled up his grades, and he ran for 1,200 yards and was heavily recruited by schools like Nebraska, which saw a kid who had been abandoned as a youth and had pulled his life together. He got along well with Osborne, and he was by all accounts a model teammate. He ran for nearly 600 yards as a freshman, then more than 1,800 as a sophomore, but from time to time, shades of the old Lawrence Phillips – the Lawrence Phillips who could not turn the other cheek – would crop up.
In 1994, he was charged with misdemeanor for grabbing a 21-year-old man and pulling him away from another person. A couple of months before the beginning of the 1995 season, he was arrested and fined for disturbing the peace when the police came to break up a party; Phillips responded by blasting the stereo in his car so loudly that nearby officers couldn’t hear themselves speak. He also had dalliances with the recruiter for a sports agent, and drove a 1995 Mustang convertible that was supposedly being leased by the director of his group home back in Los Angeles.
That incident may have triggered Phillips’ ongoing detachment; that incident led to more serious incidents, including the one involving his ex-girlfriend. But he was such a tantalizing talent that the NFL could not stay away, and so he went to the Rams, and he was arrested three times and spent 23 days in jail over the course of 19 months before St. Louis released him. He went to Miami, was charged with hitting a woman at nightclub, and got released again; he played well in NFL Europe, went to San Francisco, failed to win the starting job, and became so detached and insubordinate that the 49ers released him, as well. He signed with an Arena Football League team and never played a down, signed with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and played well before getting released due to a sexual assault charge, signed with another CFL team and got released once more for arguing with his coach and never played football again.
His post-football career was marred by further legal issues, by a mélange of horrifying assault charges against his ex-girlfriend and an incident where Phillips allegedly drove his car into a group of teenagers after a pick-up football game. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, then was convicted of the assault against his ex-girlfriend and had his sentence extended to 32 years.
“Right now, I’d rather everyone forget about me,” Phillips reportedly told one of his old coaches at Nebraska, and for years, he was largely forgotten, and then in 2015, his cellmate at Kern Valley State Prison in California was found dead, and Phillips was considered the prime suspect and was charged with first-degree murder. Less than a year later, Phillips was found dead in his cell, thereby closing the circle on one of the great cautionary tales in modern football history.
“You know, he made some mistakes and had some negatives, but he also wasn’t quite the evil person that some people might think he was,” Osborne said. And maybe that sounds like a retroactive apologia for a man who engaged in reprehensible behavior, but the question will linger for years as to whether Lawrence Phillips might have somehow been saved if only he’d found the proper mentors and counselors amid his burgeoning football career, or whether he was beyond saving. Either way, this is how Lawrence Phillips will be remembered, as an intimidating talent who could wend his way around almost anything on a football field and could not harness the anger that brought on his untimely demise.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb