LOS ANGELES — Twenty-three years ago this month, Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne ventured here to recruit a gifted young running back with a street-hard past but seemingly limitless future.
On Saturday, Lawrence Phillips again drew Osborne to Southern California — this time so his coach could say goodbye.
Standing near the coffin bearing Phillips' body, the coach said he will always remember Phillips for his strong work ethic, deep love for his teammates and positive outlook on life.
He recalled the last time he saw Phillips, visiting him in a California prison in 2009. Phillips smiled through the whole hour, was upbeat and didn't blame anyone for his plight.
"I came into the visit thinking I would lift his spirits,'' Osborne said. "Actually, Lawrence lifted my spirits more than I was able to lift his. Which is really quite a testament to his character.''
The remarkable saga of Lawrence Lamond Phillips came to an emotional close Saturday inside a big church in L.A.'s inland valley, not far from the high school fields on which he starred and the group home where he lived.
The nearly 200 former coaches, teammates, friends, relatives and others who gathered at Christ's Church of the Valley in San Dimas spent two hours telling stories of a Phillips that people who knew him only from the jarring headlines never got to see. Indeed, Pastor Dane Johnson said Saturday's events would "fill in the blanks'' of Phillips' life.
The player who at Nebraska became the poster boy for what was wrong with college football was described as a good student and great teammate, always a humble team-first guy.
The prison inmate charged last year in a cellblock slaying was the same man who eschewed the gangs and drugs on the inside and wrote hundreds of thoughtful letters, his carefully penned cursive words filled with compassion and everyday humanity.
"Lawrence touched a lot of people, and when Lawrence loved, Lawrence loved hard,'' fellow Husker running back Clinton Childs of Omaha said tearfully. He was just one of several former Huskers to speak of how the teammate they called "LP'' had impacted their lives.
Phillips' friends and family members were still having trouble Saturday grasping why a man who had seemingly carved out a hopeful life for himself behind bars would have chosen to end it 10 days earlier at age 40 in what authorities have ruled a suicide.
Indeed, Phillips seemed the most enigmatic of football stars, a powerful and elusive back who was never able to outrun his childhood demons.
That Osborne was on hand for the occasion was particularly notable.
Phillips' 1995 attack on a former girlfriend in Lincoln and Osborne's subsequent decision to stand by him left an indelible mark on Osborne's coaching legacy. Osborne alluded to those days Saturday, saying he and Phillips had been "through tough times together.''
But to the end Saturday, Osborne would not turn his back on Phillips.
"I just felt it was something I needed to do as a matter of some closure,'' Osborne said in an interview. "When a player made a commitment to be in your program, in a way he's part of your family. You don't really turn your back on them."
Osborne flew in Saturday morning with former Husker assistant George Darlington.
Other former NU teammates who came to pay their respects included Damon Benning, Ahman Green, Toby Wright, Joel Wilks, Vershan Jackson, John Pedersen, Ben Kingston, John Livingston and Barron Miles. Jackson, Wright, Childs and Paul Koch served as pallbearers.
And in their own way, hundreds of Cornhusker fans showed they remained sympathetic to the flawed star. They contributed much of the $25,000 raised in an online fund drive that paid for Phillips' funeral.
When Osborne came calling on Phillips in L.A. in 1993, setting coach and player on a life-altering course, that official "home visit'' took place at the residence of Ty Pagone, an assistant principal at Baldwin Park High School. That's because, for all practical purposes, Phillips had no place to call home.
Phillips' childhood was one of strained and broken relationships that essentially left him on his own by age 12, sleeping at friends' homes and even in cars, and rarely attending school. The boy landed in a group home.
When his foster mother fortuitously signed Phillips up for football, he seemed to reverse field.
Playing like a man among boys, Phillips by his junior year led Baldwin Park to a state sectional championship.
Johnson, the pastor, had his own personal story to tell of the young man's football prowess. Back then, Johnson was actually an assistant coach at a rival school — one that made the mistake of kicking the ball deep to Phillips at a pivotal point in a key game.
"He took two steps to the left, and then it was like he was shot out of a cannon,'' Johnson said. "We did not lay one hand on him.''
Off the field, Phillips was humble and toed the line, Pagone said. The kid who had rarely attended school was coming early and staying late to make up for lost credits.
The college coaches came calling — including Osborne.
Pagone recalled Saturday that during Osborne's visit in his home, Phillips had just one question.
"Who wears No. 1?''
"You will,'' Osborne replied.
And in Lincoln, No. 1 quickly blossomed. As a freshman in 1993, he scored in the national title game and nearly helped the Huskers pull off a big upset. Then during a breakout sophomore year in 1994, he ripped off 11 straight 100-yard games to help the Huskers claim the national championship.
Osborne recalled Saturday how during one critical game against rival Kansas State in 1994, Phillips carried the load for the Huskers despite a painful, heavily swollen thumb that would have kept most players on the sideline.
And he did it all without pounding his chest and looking for attention, Darlington said.
"Lawrence Phillips is as fine an example as we've ever had at the University of Nebraska of a team player,'' the coach said, choking on his words.
Going into his junior season in 1995, Phillips was the top returning vote-getter in the Heisman Trophy balloting. And he started the year in unstoppable fashion, scoring seven touchdowns in the Huskers' first two games and averaging an amazing 10 yards a carry.
But trouble loomed. Throughout Phillips' time at Nebraska, he put an emotional wall around the pain of his youth, stiff-arming anyone who would get too close to it. But it became clear to Osborne and others that an anger smoldered in Phillips.
"Lawrence pretty much had to fend for himself, and I think that does something to you,'' Osborne said.
When properly channeled in football, Phillips' emotions fueled him. But when he felt wronged, hurt or abandoned, his emotions could rage out of control. That had led to some minor incidents in Lincoln, including a locker-room fight.
Then, on a fateful night in September 1995, Phillips' anger proved his undoing.
Learning a former girlfriend he still had feelings for was with a teammate, Phillips stormed in the teammate's apartment and dragged her out. He was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault.
Osborne at first kicked Phillips off the team, but then gave him a second chance, sending him to Kansas for an intensive mental evaluation. Doctors there found Phillips had anger and trust issues rooted in his childhood.
Phillips followed all the proscriptions laid down for him by Osborne and the Kansas doctors. And late in the season, Osborne reinstated him — a controversial decision that set off a media firestorm.
Phillips ultimately logged 181 yards and three touchdowns as Nebraska romped to victory over Florida to claim its second straight national title.
Phillips and Nebraska then parted ways, the running back leaving early to enter the NFL draft. Out on his own, Phillips' life quickly unraveled.
Within four years he'd completely washed out of the NFL. Most significantly, over the next decade Phillips on at least four occasions lashed out violently against women, his issues proving far deeper than the Kansas doctors or anyone in Nebraska had known.
After a 2005 arrest, California authorities threw the book at him, sending him to prison on a 31-year sentence.
From prison, Phillips wrote hundreds of letters to Osborne, Darlington, Husker teammates, his old high school coaches and others. The day before Phillips' funeral, Tony Zane, his high school coach, and Pagone shared some of Phillips' letters, along with pictures, press clippings and stories.
"Please give my love right back to your family,'' Phillips wrote in a February letter to Zane.
Phillips' letters also often spoke of his efforts to resist sharing cells with gang members, with Phillips willing to spend time in solitary confinement as punishment for his refusal, Zane said.
But Phillips last year was bunked with a well-known gang member imprisoned for murder. In April, authorities found the inmate dead in the cell. Phillips was charged in his slaying.
On Jan. 13, a day after attending a court hearing on the murder charge, Phillips, too, was found dead in his cell. Authorities ruled his death a suicide but have released no details.
Zane expressed frustration that prison officials insisted on placing Phillips in such a potentially volatile situation.
"I can't imagine why it was done,'' Zane said. "I don't think any of this would have happened. None of it.''
More than a week later, the emotions remained raw Saturday for many of those who knew Phillips. Osborne's voice also cracked at the end when he spoke of Phillips' faith in God.
Afterward, Osborne and the other Husker players gathered together for photos, holding up single index fingers to symbolize Phillips' jersey number with the Huskers.
Osborne, 78, said he thought the service well brought out the qualities that made Phillips so special to those who knew him. He was "a human being with a pretty big heart,'' Osborne said.
"Listening to the service, you'd think he was perfect,'' Osborne said. "Well, he wasn't perfect. But none of us are.''
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"Lawrence touched a lot of people, and when Lawrence loved, Lawrence loved hard.'' Clinton Childs, fellow Husker running back