Why was one of Nebraska's greatest football talents given so many chances to turn his life around? In 2005, on the 10-year anniversary of Phillips' tumultuous junior season, The World-Herald talked to friends and acquaintances who described why Phillips was hard to give up on.
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The coach wore a khaki trench coat in those days, something out of Inspector Gadget’s closet. Clinton Childs laughs at a 10-year old memory that seems so recent.
Frank Solich's I-backs liked to laugh back then, too. One time, the best of those backs, the infamous one, had an idea. He snatched the coat off Solich’s office door and slipped it on before a meeting. His buddies sat discreetly. Solich walked in and found a 220-pound detective testing the coat seams.
"Now, if you imagine the size difference between Lawrence and Frank," Childs recalls. "Solich laughs and says, 'I knew you guys were up to something.' He hid that coat from us from then on.
"Lawrence had a way of being able to make people laugh."
Childs smiles a moment longer, savoring a pure moment easy to forget when stuck among a cavalcade of impure events. He insists this about Lawrence Phillips:
"The guy has a big heart," said Childs, a Nebraska I-back who played with Phillips from 1993 to 1995. "And he's made mistakes; he has. The only thing I can do is pray and hope everything gets better for him. But if he ever needs to talk, he knows he can call me. I’ll always be here."
Behind the renegade athlete who fiddled away chance after chance after chance to be a star, behind Phillips' press clippings and mug shots and highlight reels, there's a high school kid who asked to come out of football games in the fourth quarter. Let the other kids carry the ball, he'd say.
There's a Husker who once rushed 31 times through the cold and drizzle with a thumb swollen so badly it looked like a miniature pear — Tom Osborne doesn’t know many guys who could've played that day. There’s a man who jumped on a plane the moment he heard a friend’s mother had cancer; she cared for him like few others did.
That reputation is long gone with Phillips' Heisman chances, though.
One of Nebraska's finest I-backs has all but morphed into some comically sad caricature of the person friends once knew, like a tragic literary figure whose mistakes mount one by one, dragging behind him like clanging tin cans in the street. It’s the cans, not the man, that make the noise these days.
Ten years ago this weekend, Lawrence Lamond Phillips got his first in a long line of second chances. The star-studded I-back, two months after bludgeoning an ex-girlfriend and tarnishing what may have been the finest college football team in NCAA history, rushed 12 times for 68 yards against Iowa State on Nov. 4, 1995. That afternoon was billed a fresh start.
But in the decade since, the legend of Phillips has grown each time he has stumbled in St. Louis and Miami, San Francisco and Canada, San Diego and L.A. Usually it’s a blip on the nightly news just to remind us Lawrence is still Lawrence. A fresh punch line to the same joke; that guy still hasn’t figured it out, has he?
Anonymous thousands have surely wasted talent and grown old thinking about what they could’ve been, should've been. But how many do it on SportsCenter, on CBS, on Page One? How many Heisman Trophy candidates batter ex-girlfriends and miss six games of a national championship season?
That's not how Childs thinks of Phillips.
"With him, whenever something comes up, a whole list of everything that has ever taken place with him comes out again. I'm not saying people should forget about it, but . . . it’s almost like they don’t want to believe he can get better."
Childs and Phillips met as Nebraska teammates. They played video games. They talked about cars. They were “infatuated” with one in particular: a Toyota Land Cruiser.
They agreed that if only one made the NFL, he would take care of the other. Phillips was taken by the St. Louis Rams with the sixth pick of the 1996 draft. After Childs was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, Phillips called. Told Childs to go to any car lot he wanted. Pick up that Land Cruiser. It's on me. Childs declined but appreciated the gesture.
"Whether people realize this or believe it or not, Lawrence would give somebody the last shirt off his back," Childs said. "That's just the type of person he is."
August 1995: "You grow up in stages. I think he’s still learning to accept responsibility for his actions." Barbara Thomas, who raised Phillips at Tina Mac’s Los Angeles group home.
Phillips was abandoned at age 11 by his mother, whose boyfriend clashed with her son. The boy lived for a while on the south-central Los Angeles streets before moving into a group home. There he found football. He transferred to Baldwin Park High School before his junior year.
"His first game for us we used him at wide receiver," said Baldwin Park coach Tony Zane. "I still didn't know his talent. He caught a few passes, but when he caught them he started running over people. I said, 'Well, wait a minute.' So we moved him to running back."
But if Phillips wanted to star on the college level, he had to make amends for a poor academic past. He arrived at school at 6:45 a.m. as a junior and senior. He stayed another hour after school. All to fulfill college entrance requirements.
June 13, 1996: Phillips is arrested for drunken driving in California. He spends 23 days in a jail. It's the first of at least 15 charges he’ll face in the next nine years, stemming from seven incidents. Those charges include attempted murder, domestic violence, death threats and false imprisonment.
During that same period, Phillips will bounce from the Rams to the Dolphins to NFL Europe to the 49ers to the Canadian Football League.
Phillips wasn't a difficult person to like, said Don Benning, retired assistant superintendent of Omaha Public Schools and father of former Husker I-back Damon Benning. He could talk about more than football. He could charm.
"He had a lot of talent," Benning said. "It wasn’t just physical talent. He was a smart individual, who, if he chose, could've made a nice career for himself in just about any area he wanted to."
But Phillips' didn’t trust people. When you grow up on the street in a "survival of the fittest" environment, Don Benning said, it’s unnatural to seek help. Unnatural to admit problems. Kids do what they have to do to make it, Benning said.
"That type of mentality and experience is very difficult to redirect," Benning said.
During Nebraska’s 1994 national championship season in which Tommie Frazier suffered blood clots and Brook Berringer battled a collapsed lung, Phillips surpassed 100 yards in every game, gaining 1,722 yards.
Osborne never had problems with Phillips on the field. The kid listened. He loved the game. Still, the seed of Phillips' anger was sown before September 1995. The kid who was kicked out of middle school for fighting grabbed a 21-year-old in 1994. He was charged with misdemeanor assault. Osborne suspended Phillips one game in 1993 for fighting with a teammate.
But the coach saw a kid with charisma whose edges were pretty smooth most days.
"There was something a little bit vulnerable and appealing about him even though he had erected a wall around himself," Osborne said.
Osborne remembers fondly the 17-6 win at Kansas State in 1994. Phillips carried the ball 14 of Nebraska’s first 15 offensive plays with a dislocated thumb. He finished with 117 yards.
"He was about as tough a guy as I knew of being able to play with pain," Osborne said. "I remember that game. I remember the price he paid to play it. Sometimes when people behave badly, and he has and I don't excuse him at all, sometimes people don’t know those things about that person that make it hard for you to just disregard him or throw him to the wolves."
"Anyway, I’m terribly disappointed by the way he’s responded because he’s been given lots of chances and there’s no excuse for his behavior. But he was still a human being, and there were some parts of Lawrence that were good."
2003: Phillips sells his 1994 Big Eight championship ring for $20 at a Las Vegas pawn shop. The owner, according to the L.A. Times, offers Phillips $20 out of pity. Keep the ring, he said. Phillips wouldn’t take charity. The owner later sold the ring on eBay for $1,725.
Phillips rushed for 359 yards and seven touchdowns in Nebraska’s first two games of 1995, before the episode the morning of Sept. 10, 1995. Phillips was awakened at 3 a.m., by a phone call from a girl who, friends said, wanted to drive a wedge between the running back and Phillips' ex-girlfriend Kate McEwen. The caller told Phillips that McEwen was staying at Scott Frost's apartment.
Phillips' high school coach said McEwen was the first girl Phillips ever cared about. He didn’t know how to handle it when the two broke up.
Phillips drove to Frost's apartment complex, scaled the building, broke in through a third-story sliding door and found McEwen in the bathroom. He threw her to the floor and struck her several times to the face. Phillips then dragged her down stairs, where Frost and two neighbors pulled her away.
Phillips was arrested and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and trespassing. He was suspended the rest of September and October.
Osborne, who initially dismissed Phillips from the team, reinstated the 20-year-old for the Iowa State game, a decision that, to this day, taints Osborne's national reputation. The legendary coach said Phillips could better deal with his anger if football was still part of his life.
Benning, whose University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team brought the first collegiate national championship to Nebraska in 1970, has educated many kids like Phillips. Seen enough to know to which you award a second chance, which you send packing. He understands why Osborne stood by Phillips.
"Normally, I would think there were ulterior motives, but in that situation, well, you didn't even ask that question," Benning said. "Lawrence was the type of individual that, with his intelligence and ability, with support and care, had a good chance to make it in life.
"But on the other hand, because of some deeply rooted experiences, he could go south, too."
Summer 1999: "I'm pretty sure he's done with all that stuff he did at 19, 20 years old. He's definitely had some time to think about what happened." Roger Craig, former Nebraska and 49ers running back, after San Francisco signed Phillips in 1999.
During the fall of '99, the 49ers released Phillips for insubordination after Phillips argued with coach Steve Mariucci one day at practice. He never played another NFL snap.
Craig counseled Phillips during those months in San Francisco. Craig remembers a respectful, bright but lonely kid.
Phillips trusted Craig. He told him about his past. About his troubles. About his family. Phillips came to Craig's house and had dinner. He spent the night. He played with Craig’s five kids.
But Phillips was depressed a lot, Craig said. Coaches yelled at him in practice like he was a rookie, Craig said.
"I was like, 'Give this guy a chance, man,'" Craig said. "He's only human. Don't yell at him and break his spirits. From day one, screaming and yelling at him. It’s crazy. It just wasn't fair for him. It’s like everybody had it out for Lawrence.
"Nobody understood Lawrence. You've got to understand him. Did anybody get a chance to talk to him?
"I just feel bad about the breaks he's been getting. It's not fair. He just needed somebody to help him out a little bit. He was like a kid that was searching for love. No one wanted to give him any love."
August 2005: Phillips, wanted by police for two cases of domestic violence, allegedly drives a stolen car across a Los Angeles park into a crowd of teenagers who, Phillips believed, had jacked his wallet after he’d stopped to play a pickup football game with them. He strikes three kids, according to witness accounts compiled by the Associated Press.
Phillips has pleaded not guilty to charges that include assault with a deadly weapon and child abuse. He’s being held in Los Angeles County jail.
Phillips had gotten to know Childs' mom. She cooked Thanksgiving dinner for him. She helped him get over the McEwen incident. He trusted her. She believed in him.
Phillips was still a Ram when Childs phoned him. The two talked about once a week back then. About football. About life. This time Childs had bad news: Mom has cancer.
Phillips jumped on "the first thing smoking from St. Louis to Omaha," said Childs.
Childs' mom passed away three years ago. Phillips called his old teammate one day from Canada to check in. The two hadn't talked for a few months. Childs told him the news, then waited in silence. Quit playing around, Phillips said. Then his voice softened.
Give me a few minutes, Phillips told him; I'll call you back.
"That's just a side a lot of people never got to know about him. He did a pretty good job of disguising it."