(If you aren’t a football fan… bear with me here.)
Lawrence Phillips wasn’t “a” football player. He was one of the best college running backs I have ever seen–live, on tape, in person, etc.. He had a great combination of speed, size, and agility. He was tough. He made exceptional athletes look very, very average. If there was a weakness in his game, it was in his attitude. Lawrence Phillips was an angry and scary Marcus Dupree. When Lawrence ran with the football, he didn’t just want to score a touchdown; he wanted to score a touchdown after running you over.
As a football fan, I loved watching him play. It was a happy coincidence that Phillips was a great player at Nebraska… and I happen to be a Nebraska fan.
In 1993, I watched on TV as Nebraska played UCLA in California. It was a tough game. Phillips was a freshman from California and the team relied heavily on him for a victory. At the end of the season, Phillips again led Nebraska as the Huskers went toe-to-toe with a very tough Florida State team.
1994 was Lawrence’s break-out season. He ran for over 1,700 yards as Nebraska won a National Championship. 1995 was supposed to be his Heisman Trophy year.
But that didn’t happen.
I don’t recall all of the details, but some time after Nebraska defeated Michigan State, Lawrence Phillips attacked a former girlfriend, beating her up and dragging her by hair down a flight of stairs. Phillips was immediately suspended. He was brought back to the team for the Iowa State game that year. I remember that vividly because (1) I was there and (2) it was INCREDIBLY cold (okay… probably not THAT cold… I was likely not dressed appropriately for the weather. I admit it.)
After that season, Phillips declared himself eligible for the NFL draft and was picked in the first round by Dick Vermeil and the St. Louis Rams. Vermeil had a reputation for working with troubled players (for example, Eagle receiver Harold Carmichael went from being known as a selfish prima-donna to a great role-model under Vermeil’s tutelage.)
But that didn’t happen.
Phillips got in trouble with the team and with the law, prompting the Rams to get rid of him. From there, Lawrence bounced from team to team. He had some success (i.e. rushing for over 1,000 yards in the European league) but mostly experienced failure by his own hand. Athletically, he was probably best known as the guy who missed a block against the Arizona Cardinals, which caused a hit that gave Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young a career-ending concussion.
After burning bridges with every club for which he played, Lawrence Phillips’ final football game was a touch football game in a park in Los Angeles against some teenagers. Phillips and some of the players got into an argument, so Lawrence went to his car and ran over some of the teens.
Lawrence Phillips was convicted of multiple crimes and sentenced to over 30 years in prison. And while in prison, he was placed with a known gang member. By all accounts, Lawrence adjusted well to prison life… except for his roommate. There are accusations and counter accusations, but we do know one thing: Lawrence Phillips’ roommate ended up dead in their shared cell. Obviously, Lawrence was the prime suspect.
With this hanging over his head, Lawrence Phillips committed suicide.
I’ve heard it all.
Yes, Lawrence Phillips was a great athlete. Yes, that fact probably afforded him more chances than the average person would ever have. And yes, I am biased as a Nebraska football fan.
But the Lawrence Phillips story isn’t just about his failures; his violence; his inability to control himself. It goes deeper than that.
Does it matter that he grew up in a horrible situation? Maybe a bit.
Does it matter that at age 10, he reportedly was urinated upon, beaten, and abused by drug using friends of his mother… while his mother watched?
Does it matter that incidents like that led Lawrence to be placed in a group home which was essentially a prison? A home in which older children reportedly abused Phillips further?
I don’t want to make excuses for Lawrence. But did he have much of a chance in life? Was he equipped to deal with stress at all? (Let alone the stress of being a professional athlete.) There are people that overcome these types of situations.
One such person is Adrian Peterson. Peterson’s dad was convicted of a drug crime and went to prison when Adrian was 13. Peterson went to college and went on to the NFL. By all accounts, he was a model of one who overcame his circumstances. But then Peterson was accused of child abuse. He reportedly beat his child with a switch that left cuts, welts, and bruises on the child. When interviewed, Peterson claimed that he was trying to discipline his child.
The question haunts me today: Did he know better?
I don’t know.
Did Lawrence Phillips know better?
I don’t know that either.
It would be so convenient; so efficient; so relieving to be able to say that Lawrence Phillips is dead and that it is a “good” thing because Phillips was a “bad” man.
But I cannot say that. Instead, I’m haunted by the question “did he know better?”
If a young man can deny responsibility for his actions based upon “affluenza,” then how much moreso for the Adrian Petersons and Lawrence Phillipses of this world? What of men and women who grew up only learning “wrong” and not “right from wrong?”
Someone once said, “It takes a village to raise a child…” What happens when the village fails? That failure has a ripple effect–from Lawrence Phillips to Kate McEwan to Damion Soward.
It would be convenient to be smug about the death of Lawrence Phillips. Instead, I feel convicted–convicted of negligence and apathy for all of the Lawrences and Adrians out there today who need rescuing.
Goodbye, Lawrence. I hope that you came to know that there is hope and forgiveness even in the face of it all. I hope that someone shared the Gospel with you… and I feel horrible that I cannot say with certainty that such a moment ever happened.