Lawrence Phillips

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne with Lawrence Phillips after the I-back's return to the team after an assault charge in 1995.

This article was originally published in Dec. 23, 1995, editions of The World-Herald. 

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During the Nebraska football team's final scrimmage this week before leaving for the Fiesta Bowl, Lawrence Phillips ran wild. The 20-year-old junior from West Covina, Calif., scored two touchdowns — one of them going through and over four first-team defenders.

This is the way it was supposed to be from the beginning of the season, just what Phillips had expected to be doing in late December: gearing up to play for a second straight national championship.

But between then and now, so much has happened.

First came the phone call, waking him in the middle of the night. The caller told him his girlfriend was with another man. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said this week he was told the call came from a woman who was seeking to break up Phillips and Kate McEwen.

After the call came Phillips' assault on Ms. McEwen, his arrest and dismissal from the team.

And then, finally, the second chance from Osborne. It's a chance friends of Phillips say he's extremely grateful for.

"He feels like he's been reborn," said Barbara Thomas, who heads the West Covina group home where Phillips had lived since age 12.

Osborne said this week he's been happy with the progress Phillips has made, both on and off the field, since his six-week suspension for the assault on Ms. McEwen.

The coach said he's convinced that Phillips is a better person today than he would have been if Osborne had simply kicked him off the team, leaving Phillips on his own with his problems.

"It's helped him a lot," Osborne said. "I see him better away from football now. He's a little more at peace with himself."

Many Nebraska fans have become familiar with Phillips' story. He was abandoned at age 12 by a mother who said she couldn't control him. He lived for a while on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles until he found a home with Ms. Thomas.

"He carries a little baggage with him off the field," Osborne said.

He eventually found football, which years later took him to Nebraska. As a sophomore, he helped the Cornhuskers claim their first national championship in 23 years.

It appeared that much bigger things were in store for his junior year this fall. Osborne, not normally effusive in his praise, likened him to Mike Rozier, Nebraska's 1983 Heisman Trophy winner.

Phillips backed up his coach's words, rambling for 359 yards and seven touchdowns in the Huskers' first two games.

As he returned to Lincoln the night of Sept. 9 after an impressive, four-touchdown performance against Michigan State, he was being talked about nationally as an early front-runner for the Heisman.

But just hours later, everything had fallen apart.

After going to sleep that night, officials say Phillips was awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

Thomas Penegar, a former roommate of Phillips in the group home, said it came from a woman who knew both Phillips and Ms. McEwen and wanted to drive a wedge between them.

"It was a girl who liked him, who didn't want him to be with Kate," said Penegar, who still lives in West Covina.

The caller told Phillips that his girlfriend was at that moment in the apartment of Scott Frost, a teammate of Phillips.

Osborne said this week that Phillips has never identified the caller.

Osborne said the woman led Phillips to the apartment, showed him the name on the mailbox and "instigated the whole thing." Phillips became so angry, Osborne said,"he couldn't control himself."

Police say Phillips then climbed to a third-story balcony to gain entry to the apartment, assaulted Ms. McEwen and dragged her down the stairs. Ms. McEwen required hospital treatment for cuts.

Later that day, Phillips was arrested. He eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and trespassing.

He was ultimately given a number of sanctions by both the university and the courts, including orders to continue counseling originally ordered by Osborne, pay restitution to Ms. McEwen for medical expenses and for damage to the apartment, and perform two hours a week of community service. He also faces a 30-day jail sentence if he fails to comply with the terms of probation.

Osborne said the immediate aftermath of the attack was devastating to Phillips.

"This guy had everything going for him, and he knew he blew it," Osborne said. "Probably an hour after it, he knew there was no Heisman Trophy and probably no more football."

Osborne at first dismissed Phillips from the team. But Osborne later reconsidered after learning more about the incident and turned the dismissal into an indefinite suspension.

Osborne said he thought Phillips could better deal with his anger problem within the structure of the football program — and with a return to the field as an incentive — than he could on his own.

"It was a fit of rage and passion that caught him unaware," Osborne said. "He needed to learn to deal with those situations. If he didn't, someone else would pay the price later."

Osborne and Phillips' friends say the next six weeks were very difficult for Phillips. Penegar said Phillips didn't like to talk about what had happened that night.

The idea of going to school without being on the football field had little appeal to Phillips, Penegar said. He talked about going home to California.

Around that time, Phillips was also contacted by runners for several agents, Penegar said. One said that if Phillips left Lincoln, he could have $100,000 to live on until the spring NFL draft.

"He could have signed with one of those sharks," said Ty Pagoni, an administrator at Phillips' high school who has been his mentor. "But he stayed through the pain."

Pagoni and Penegar both say the carrot Osborne held out — the chance to play again at Nebraska — is what motivated Phillips to stay.

Ms. Thomas said Phillips complied with all of Osborne's directives, sticking with school and with his twice-weekly counseling sessions. Though he couldn't practice with the team, he lifted weights ferociously, adding 20 pounds to his 220-pound frame.

Bruce Harris of Lincoln, a friend of Phillips, said Phillips wasn't out to prove anything to anyone but himself. "He was like, 'I've got to do better. I've got to do what's right.' "

One day, after hearing his name thrown about on a radio call-in show, Phillips phoned in to speak his piece.

"I'm going to look this right in the eye," he said on the show. "I'm not going to be afraid or I'm not going to be embarrassed or nothing. I did wrong. Everybody does wrong. I'm just going to take care of it."

On Oct. 24, Osborne made the announcement Phillips had hoped and waited for. He was back on the team, and would be back in uniform two weeks later for the Huskers' game against Iowa State.

"He was so excited," Penegar said. "He told me, 'Man, I'm going to run for 500 yards in that game."

But things didn't go quite that well. He appeared sluggish and out of sync in spot duty against Iowa State, picking up 68 yards, and he ran for just 47 the next week against Kansas.

But against Oklahoma in Nebraska's regular-season finale, NU running backs coach Frank Solich said Phillips showed flashes of the back who had been so dominant when the season began. He gained 73 yards, not only with bruising power, but with the moves that made tacklers miss.

"He has worked extremely hard to get back," Solich said. "He'll be ready to go for the Fiesta Bowl."

Pagoni said he could tell Phillips was also back mentally and emotionally during a recent phone conversation. Reticent in the weeks after his suspension, Phillips was now speaking in rapid-fire syllables, as he always did when happy and excited. He was talking about the future.

Phillips' future beyond the Fiesta Bowl is unclear.

He said last week that if he is projected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, he will probably forgo his senior year at Nebraska and turn pro. Pagoni said there's no question in his mind Phillips is a first-round pick.

"I think they'd be pretty foolish to pass on this guy," he said. "They're going to find he has some things to deal with, some of the anger. But it's probably what makes him a great football player."

Phillips doesn't seem to dwell on it, but Pagoni said he sometimes wonders what would have happened if Phillips' phone had not rung that night. Would he have been the one stepping up to accept the Heisman two weeks ago?

Part of Pagoni wants Phillips to come back to Nebraska next year and win that Heisman, while part of him says Phillips should just turn pro and "put it all behind him."

Either way, Pagoni said his biggest hope is that Phillips continues to use his gift for football to grow as a person, and to prove Osborne did the right thing in letting him play again.

"There is no question in my mind Lawrence needs football," Pagoni said. "It's what God gave him. He didn't give him some other things, but God gave that to Lawrence."

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