For Lawrence Phillips, a Dead Cellmate and Another Day of Reckoning

Lars AndersonSenior WriterMay 14, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

Before death was unleashed in his two-man cell on April 11, inmate No. G31982 led a quiet life inside the stone and concrete walls of California's Kern Valley State Prison, a haunting, fortress-like structure that rises out of a dusty patch of land in the San Joaquin Valley.

Most mornings, inmate No. G31982 was stirred awake at 6 a.m. as guards at Kern told the nearly 4,000 all-male prisoners—the maximum-security facility was built to hold 2,400—it was time to begin the day. Soon, a hot breakfast that typically consisted of eggs, hash browns and thinly sliced ham was delivered room-service style to his cell. Many mornings, he purchased a special package of vitamins and proteins, the fuel for his late-morning workout.

For a few hours, Kern's most notorious prisoner then had some free time in his cell. He loved to read books—he devoured about one a week, according to several people who corresponded with him. The words in the pages were his escape, his way to fly away from his chains at Kern.

He also wrote letters, reams of them, to old friends and mentors. He was particularly interested in the state of the Nebraska football program, wondering in his handwritten notes how it had fallen from the ranks of the nation's elite. Yet his prose was steadfastly upbeat in his missives.

"He was trying to earn good-behavior time in prison," said George Darlington, an assistant coach at Nebraska for 30 years who regularly traded letters with inmate No. G31982. "He was focused on the future, on getting out and getting another chance at life."

Later in the morning, along with many of the condemned wearing their state-issued blues, inmate No. G31982 would be released to the yard.

A Kern Valley State corrections officer.
A Kern Valley State corrections officer.RIC FRANCIS/Associated Press

Though there weren't any weights to lift—"We had to get rid of the weights a few years back because inmates used them as instruments of destruction to kill each other," said Lt. Marshall Denning—he'd work out with such intensity, it was as if he was back in the training center at the University of Nebraska.

He'd do pushups, situps and burpees. On a pullup bar, he'd lift himself up over and over to the point of exhaustion. Other times, he'd run sprints across the yard like he was training for the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.

In the early afternoon, he'd be escorted back to his cell, where he'd eat a sack lunch that usually featured either a bologna or pastrami sandwich, an apple and a cookie or two. Then, for a few hours, he'd work on his appeal of his two convictions: felony assault with a deadly weapon and domestic assault. The sentences for the two guilty verdicts added up to nearly 32 years behind bars.

Though inmate No. G31982 earned more than $5 million in the NFL from 1996 to '99, he was now broke and couldn't afford to hire a private lawyer. After his second conviction in 2009, he fired his public defender.

In the evenings, he was free to roam in what is called the "Day Room Floor," an area inside Kern where inmates can sit at tables and converse. But inmate No. G31982 almost always kept to himself—which made him an ideal prisoner to his jailers.

"He was not someone who caused problems, and he was really quiet, just doing his own thing," said Denning. "We have got the worst of the worst in here, the most violent of the most violent, and that was not Lawrence Phillips from what I saw. Not at all."

According to three sources, Phillips—the former Cornhuskers running back who was the No. 6 overall selection in the 1996 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams—asked prison officials several times to be put in solitary confinement for his own protection.

In at least two instances, Phillips' wishes were honored, according to a source. But then in early April, for reasons that remain unclear, Phillips, 39, was moved from isolation into a cell with 37-year-old Damion Soward, who was the cousin of former USC Trojan and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward.

Prison officials didn't respond to a request from B/R seeking clarification on why Phillips was moved out of isolation.

According to court documents, Damion Soward was a member of the Inland Empire Projects Gang in San Bernardino, California. He was serving 82 years to life for the murder of Michael Fairley, a rival gang member.

"Lawrence wanted nothing to do with the gangs in that prison," said Tony Zane, Phillips' high school football coach at West Covina (California) High, who has communicated with Phillips about twice a month for several years. "That was why he was always asking to be moved into isolation. He knew that guys could make a name for themselves, so to speak, if they came after him because of his notoriety."

At 12:46 a.m. on April 11, Soward was found strangled to death in the cell he shared with Phillips, who has been named as a murder suspect. The district attorney, who has been investigating the incident for nearly one month, has yet to announce if any charges will be filed.

Soward's family is looking for answers. "I just want to find out what happened," R. Jay Soward told TMZ. "That's the only thing I care about."

Several people close to Phillips believe they already know what happened in that tiny cell in the dead of night on April 11.

"I truly believe this was a situation where Soward said, 'Only one of us is walking out of here in the morning,'" said Zane. "Look at Lawrence's history. Yes, he has a very troubled past, but he's never done anything like this. Look at Soward's history as a hit man. I believe this was 100 percent self-defense. I believe Lawrence had no choice. Lawrence has been a target at Kern ever since the day he got there."

Lawrence Phillips breaks a tackle in Nebraska's 1996 Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida.
Lawrence Phillips breaks a tackle in Nebraska's 1996 Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida.Getty Images

Two decades ago, in the spring of 1995, I traveled from my home in New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska, to spend time with Phillips for what would turn out to be my first Sports Illustrated cover story. Phillips was entering his junior year at Nebraska, the world spread out before him like an endless buffet of chances, and he was already being compared to some of the greatest I-backs in Cornhuskers history: Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, I.M. Hipp. Phillips was the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.

The previous year, he had run for 1,722 yards—still a record for a sophomore at Nebraska—and helped Nebraska win the 1994 national championship. But instead of focusing on his on-field gifts, I wanted to burrow deep into Phillips' past. Only 20 years old at the time, he had already lived a remarkably hard life. I wanted to understand what made him tick.

In 1987, Phillips' mother, Juanita, invited her boyfriend to stay in their home in Inglewood, California. Lawrence and the boyfriend bickered constantly—the boyfriend allegedly abused Lawrence, according to Jason Cole, then writing for the Sun Sentinel—and Lawrence began to run away from home and skip school.

State officials eventually intervened and placed Lawrence in a foster home. After living there for only two weeks, he was transferred to MacLaren Hall, a juvenile detention center straight out of a child's worst nightmare, a place where abuse was allegedly rampant, according to Carla Rivera of the Los Angeles Times.

We may never have heard of Lawrence Phillips if not for Barbara Thomas, who supervised a state-supported group home in West Covina. "When I first saw Lawrence he looked very athletic, but he was smoking cigarettes," Thomas told me back in '95. "I knew sports would give him a chance, so I took him into our home and immediately enrolled him in sports leagues."

The rage that tormented Phillips' life—"He was basically abandoned by his mom, and his dad wasn't around, so that caused a lot of anger in Lawrence," a Nebraska staff member told me—was his best friend on the football field. He soon emerged as one of the top high school running backs in the nation, a snorting bull of a back with 4.4 speed and always charging at the red flag. He picked Nebraska precisely because it was so far from his troubled past in California.

When Phillips and I sat down in the lounge beneath the south end zone of Memorial Stadium, he eyed me suspiciously. I was only 23, and I tried to connect with Phillips by telling him how much I enjoyed the college lifestyle and that he should savor every moment of it.

He eventually warmed up and then shared with me many of the horrors from his past: nights of being homeless, not going to school for weeks at a time, trying to stay a step ahead of the gangs in his neighborhood.

"It was a tough time," he said. "But I owe a lot to my school. They stuck with me."

Phillips, a sociology major, spoke about how he one day wanted to open a group home for wayward kids. He was articulate—in eighth grade, standardized tests revealed him to be intellectually gifted—and passionate when he dreamed aloud of helping others.

As we ended our conversation, Phillips leaned closer to me. In a soft voice, he said, "I'm still working on controlling myself and my temper. Lincoln has been a great city for me to grow up and mature in, and I'm learning to stay out of situations where I could get in trouble."

Phillips then rose and disappeared into the Nebraska locker room. I wouldn't see him again for four years.

9 Nov 1995: Lawrence Phillips #1 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers carries the ball during a game against the Michigan State Spartans at the Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. The Cornhuskers defeated the Spartans 50-10. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Danie
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

About five months after I spoke with Phillips, Nebraska traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, and administered what remains the worst drubbing of Nick Saban's coaching career. In the Huskers' 50-10 victory over Michigan State, Phillips rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy was his to lose.

But later that night he did just that. Phillips, according to several sources, was asleep in his Lincoln apartment when he was awakened by a phone call. The person on the other end of the line informed Phillips that his former girlfriend, Kate McEwen, was inside the apartment of sophomore quarterback Scott Frost, who is now the offensive coordinator at Oregon.

In a fury, Phillips stormed to Frost's apartment, scaled the wall to his third-floor balcony, entered and dragged his ex-girlfriend by her hair down three flights of stairs. Phillips was later arrested for assault. (He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge.)

According to several former Nebraska coaches, McEwen was Phillips' first true love. "Lawrence has major abandonment issues, especially when it comes to females because of how he was treated by his mother," said a former Nebraska staffer. "He was never given the proper counseling to develop coping mechanisms when he's put in a high-stress situation. And when he got the call in the middle of the night, he just lost it."

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne suspended Phillips six games, but he allowed his troubled tailback to return for the final three regular-season games and for the Fiesta Bowl. Facing No. 2 Florida on Jan. 2, 1996, Nebraska won its second straight national title, demolishing the Gators 62-24. Phillips ran for 165 yards and scored three touchdowns.

But this Nebraska team was never invited to the White House. "There was a cloud over that team, and a lot of it was because of Lawrence," said Ron Brown, a longtime assistant at Nebraska who is now at Liberty University. "The White House wanted nothing to do with us."

Brown can still recall the moment he realized Phillips could have emotional problems. During Phillips' freshman season of 1993, Nebraska played UCLA in the Rose Bowl, which sits just a few miles from where Phillips grew up. Midway through the game, Phillips, who would rush for more than 100 yards in Nebraska's 14-13 win, fumbled the ball, and the Bruins recovered.

Phillips ran to the bench, took a seat and began sobbing uncontrollably. It was a staggering outpouring of emotion, especially considering Barbara Thomas had never seen Phillips cry once between the ages of 12 and 18.

"Lawrence looked like this grown man, but there he was on the bench crying like a baby," Brown said. "I put my hands on his shoulder pads and said, 'You'll get more opportunities. Just stick with us.' But in that instant I realized that there is a sensitivity to Lawrence that few people ever saw. He grew up rough, but he was innocent and naive in many ways. There was a little baby boy in there that never grew up.

"I wondered then—and still do now—if that's how he acted in his relationships when they didn't go well. He just couldn't handle trauma, like there was always something swelling inside of him. When he let someone down or someone let him down, he had a hard time coping, just like most little children. As adults we have a foundation and a way to deal with these things. But Lawrence never had that. He was never coached in the ways of life."

As a Barcelona Dragon, Lawrence Phillips vaults over the line of the Frankfurt Galaxy in an NFL Europe game in June 1999.
As a Barcelona Dragon, Lawrence Phillips vaults over the line of the Frankfurt Galaxy in an NFL Europe game in June 1999.AP Photo

The next time I spoke to Phillips was in Barcelona, Spain, in the spring of 1999. At the time he was trying to resuscitate his flagging career in NFL Europe.

Though Phillips was a Category 5 risk of a prospect, the Rams had selected him with the sixth overall pick of the 1996 draft. In less than two seasons in St. Louis he was fined more than 50 times for an assortment of violations. And on the field he appeared a step slower than he was at Nebraska. At the request of the Rams coaches, Phillips gained about 15 pounds from his Nebraska playing weight of 205.

"I'll never understand why the Rams coaches had him gain weight," said Darlington, the longtime Nebraska assistant. "They thought he needed to bulk up, but Lawrence was already a power runner. And throw in the fact that they had a rookie quarterback [Tony Banks] who fumbled every other snap, and Lawrence had no chance. Every time he came into the game there would be nine guys at the line of scrimmage focused on him."

Frustrated with the losing—the Rams went 11-21 in 1996 and '97—Phillips grew increasingly withdrawn. When head coach Dick Vermeil told Phillips late in '97 that he was being demoted to second string, Phillips immediately left the Rams' practice facility.

A day later, when Vermeil announced he was releasing Phillips, he told reporters that Phillips had more potential than any running back he'd ever coached. As the coach spoke, he choked up, and his eyes moistened. He wasn't the first to feel as if he had failed to save Lawrence Phillips.

The Miami Dolphins picked up Phillips late in 1997. In two games he gained 44 yards on 18 carries. He was cut after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery for allegedly hitting a woman in a Plantation, Florida, nightclub who refused to dance with him. It was an all-too-familiar story: A woman who rejected Phillips wound up on the business end of his wrath.

After sitting out a year, Phillips went to play for the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe in the spring of '99. At the time I was researching a book on the league—The Proving Ground would be published in 2002—and everyone in the Dragons organization marveled at Phillips' talents and his willingness to follow orders.

"Lawrence loved to practice," Jack Bicknell, Barcelona's head coach, said at the time. "Every time we ran a play, he'd break through for 40 or 50 yards. I'm sure he did that all of his life because I've talked to people at Nebraska, and they said he was one of the hardest-working guys they ever had."

In the resort town of Sitges, a half-hour drive south of Barcelona, where the Dragons were based and where temptation lurked around every corner, Phillips rarely went out. Occasionally he'd play dominoes with his teammates in the lobby of the team hotel, but usually he stayed in his room or lay on the beach and listened to music.

He also liked to wade in the Mediterranean, the warm salt water soothing to his legs. It was the perfect football environment for Phillips: He practiced, went to meetings, ate his meals, kept to himself on the beach and went to bed early—a simple life.

Phillips thrived. He became the first player in the history of the league to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He was named NFL Europe's MVP. And he led the Dragons to the championship game, which they lost to Frankfurt 38-24.

"Without Phillips, that team would not have won two games," Amsterdam coach Al Luginbill said at the time. "If he can learn to run with the right people and stay away from alcohol, he can be all right. But when he boozes, he becomes a different personality."

Lawrence Phillips leaving court in March 1997 to begin a 30-day sentence for a probation violation.
Lawrence Phillips leaving court in March 1997 to begin a 30-day sentence for a probation violation.AP Photo

Twenty years have passed since my first conversation with Lawrence Phillips. I sit in my home office, a middle-aged writer now, searching for clues about Phillips, trying to understand how so much promise can turn into so much despair.

I have written Lawrence a letter requesting to speak to him—as long as he is in administrative isolation at Kern, this is the only way anyone outside of the prison can reach him—but I have yet to hear back. Phillips has told a few friends that he wants people to forget about him, but I cannot shake the mystery that is Lawrence Phillips.

Reporters, with enough digging, can often uncover truths about their subjects that the subjects themselves cannot see. But what is the great truth about Lawrence Phillips?

After NFL Europe, Phillips signed with the San Francisco 49ers. He didn't last an entire season. The beginning of the end for Phillips in the Bay Area came on a Monday night game against Arizona on Sept. 27, 1999. He didn't make a block on blitzing cornerback Aeneas Williams, who throttled quarterback Steve Young with a devastating blindside hit. Young, knocked out cold, suffered a concussion—the final one of his career. He never played again. San Francisco waived Phillips later that fall, his final exit from the NFL.

Away from football, Phillips burned through his money. "We'd go out for a night, just the two of us, and by the end of the night there would be 30 people in our group at a club," said one of Phillips' friends. "Lawrence would pay for everybody. And this happened a lot. I mean, all the time."

Phillips, broke, had just borrowed $100 from a former high school teammate in August 2005 when he went to Exposition Park in Los Angeles to play in a pickup football game. Minutes after the game, Phillips couldn't find the $100. Accusing a few of the teenage boys he'd been playing with of stealing from him, he drove his SUV into a throng of the kids.

No one was seriously injured, but in October 2006 he was convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon. While serving his seven-year sentence, he was convicted of an earlier domestic violence charge against his girlfriend and sentenced to an additional 25 years.

So what to make of Lawrence Phillips? I phoned a former staff member at Nebraska who I have known for 15 years, a man who is as familiar with Phillips as anyone.

What, I asked, is the underlying moral of the Lawrence Phillips story?

"This is a story of one thing," he said. "This is a story of a broken kid who never got the help, for whatever reason, that he really needed. He never got the help to overcome the demons that were created in his childhood."

In the end, in the case of Lawrence Phillips, the demons beat his angels.

The D.A.'s investigation into the homicide of Damion Soward continues. Alone in his cell, Phillips waits for yet another judgment day.


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