The Mysterious Case of Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips

Willie McDuffyContributor IOctober 2, 2010

One can only imagine how good Lawrence Phillips could have been
One can only imagine how good Lawrence Phillips could have beenMike Powell/Getty Images

The story of Lawrence Phillips is simple: extremely athletic running back with a terrible upbringing causing a life-long struggle interacting with society.

Lawrence Phillips might be the best running back you haven't heard of.  Or like me, the best running back you remember who faded away into obscurity.

Lawrence Phillips was born on May 12th, 1975 in Little Rock, Arkansas.  His journey to where he is today is complex.  

He played at West Covina High School in California his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to Baldwin Park, CA, where he finished out his career leading them to back-to-back CIF championships.  When Nebraska came knocking his senior year to offer him a scholarship, Phillips was staying in a foster home.

Upon his arrival at the University of Nebraska, Lawrence Phillips made an immediate impact. His freshman year he came off the bench to beat eventual Pac-10 champ UCLA and rushed for 137 yards.  

His sophomore year he tied a school record rushing for 100 yards 11 games in a row, despite having eight and nine-man fronts against him.  

During his junior year things began to spiral out of control.  After two games his junior season he was averaging 11 yards per carry.  Upon the team's arrival from its game at Michigan State Phillips was arrested for domestic violence against his then-girlfriend. Coach Tom Osborne came under heavy pressure from media to bench Lawrence but stuck with him and started Phillips in the national championship game.  Phillips rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns stomping Florida 62-24.  

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With head coach Tom Osborne's advice Lawrence Phillips declared early for the draft.  The St. Louis Rams traded Jerome Bettis and drafted Phillips sixth overall.  Optimism was widespread for Phillips.  Many thought he had changed his life and put his troubles in the past. 

Phillips was the featured back, but a dispute with head coach Dick Vermeil two years after he was drafted landed him on the free-agent market.  The Dolphins picked him up, but later cut Phillips after he pleaded no contest to assault on a female in a night club.  

Phillips missed the entire 1998 season and came back to play in the NFL Europe during the 1999 season.  While playing in NFL Europe he shattered every rushing record and again showed scouts why he was so desirable as a running back.  In the fall of 1999 he played for the San Francisco 49ers but was unable to finish the season.  He later played in the CFL but was cut for arguing with a coach.

After leaving the CFL in 2003 Lawrence Phillips didn't play another down. In 2005 he was arrested for assault after he allegedly ran his car into three teenagers following a pick-up game of football.  At the time of his arrest he was wanted in San Diego for domestic abuse.

In 2006 he stood trial for assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  While serving this sentence Lawrence Phillips was convicted for assault on his then-girlfriend and was sentenced to 31 years in prison. He will be 65 when he gets out of prison.

So we ask ourselves how does someone who ran the ball with such grace, loved by millions of people, fall so hard so fast?  He had problems with women.  He had anger issues.  From a young age he had nobody to look up to.  

It was evident that he was never happy.  Everyone and anyone could make him explode. A ticking time bomb he was.

Society let him down.  Nobody was able to get across to him and this should not happen.  Football player or not we as people can't allow an individual to impose his cruelty on others when in reality he is vacating his life.  

Lawrence Phillips had nobody to turn to in his desperate attempts for attention. Everyone saw him as a running back that could get them wins.  Prolong a coaching career.  He was axed at will, his reputation followed him and crippled his attempt to do well on and off the field.  

He was doomed from the start.  A product of a brutal culture that spits you out as fast as it takes you in.  

The Lawrence Phillips I will remember carried the ball with speed and power.  Crushing a Miami Hurricanes team led by Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp in the national championship game.  A player who was deceived into thinking backwards on what his true priorities were.  

He bounced between foster homes and never had a stable environment.  Not trusting anybody, he had a me-against-the-world mentality.  The system failed Lawrence Phillips.  Society failed Lawrence Phillips.  He is left sitting in a prison cell wondering how he got to this point; I'm sure he is feeling now what he has felt throughout his life—hollow.  

Guidance is gold.  No matter the individual, we have to care and nurture each other.  Athlete or not Lawrence Phillips was a man with a boy's mind.  He had nobody to guide him, now we find ourselves asking: "What if?"