The night of Oct. 23, Tony Veland stood before the greatest football team in Nebraska history and remixed his last pregame pep talk.
Just as he did 20 years earlier before the national championship annihilation of Florida, the co-captain from Omaha went position by position, listing the 1995 Huskers’ achievements, restating why they were so fearsome. His peers, now on the wrong side of 40, roared with delight.
When Veland came to the I-back position, he called Lawrence Phillips the best running back ever at Nebraska.
Wednesday afternoon, 2 1⁄2 months after their reunion, Veland was home when he checked Facebook and saw the news: Phillips was dead.
“I’m glad his pain is over now,” Veland said, “but I hated to see him go like that.”
Phillips, one of the most tragic figures in Husker history, spent the second half of his life in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Regardless of his transgressions, ex-teammates mourned his loss. Joel Makovicka called it a “punch in the gut.”
To the outside world, Phillips was a runaway truck destined to crash. To those in the locker room, he was a flawed but loyal friend.
“I’m sure I speak for pretty much all the players when I say that he will be sorely missed,” Veland said. “He will always be considered a brother not only on the football field, but also in life.”
Why was Phillips so revered? It wasn’t just his talent, it was his toughness.
During the 1994 season, he recorded 11 straight 100-yard games for the national champions, enduring injuries to his ankle, groin, toe and thumb. One day, he grabbed Jay Foreman in practice and told the linebacker to hit Phillips’ aching thumb as hard as he could.
“That’s the way it’s going to be in the game,’’ Phillips said. “I have to be ready.’’
Asked in 1994 what it would take to get him off the field, Phillips said, “It would have to be a situation where I can’t walk or a situation where I might die.”
Phillips wasted no time making an impression. During his first major scrimmage of 1993, the true freshman ripped off two touchdowns runs of more than 50 yards.
“You could tell he had what we called ‘earned his stripes,’ ” former I-back Calvin Jones said on The World-Herald radio show “The Bottom Line.” “He was the truth. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was something special.”
Phillips had a skill package that most coaches dream about, Jones said. Makovicka played with and against several elite running backs, both in college and the NFL. None could elude defenders in tight spaces like Phillips did.
“He was able to change direction in one step and make people miss with just a little wiggle in the hole,” Makovicka said. And when he didn’t juke, Phillips could drop his shoulder and run through a defender. There’s a reason he wore a fullback face mask rather than a traditional I-back mask.
Teammates immediately recognized Phillips’ vulnerabilities — he was suspended the first game of his career for punching a teammate in the locker room. But he countered his anger with an unusual charisma.
Clinton Childs once told the story of Phillips snatching Frank Solich’s trench coat — like something out of Inspector Gadget’s closet — and slipping it on before a running back meeting. Solich walked in and found detective Lawrence, all 220 pounds of him, testing the coat seams. Solich hid the coat from then on.
“Lawrence had a way of being able to make people laugh,” Childs said in 2005.
In 1999, Makovicka was a fullback for the Arizona Cardinals when he ran into Phillips, who was trying to revive his NFL career. Phillips, taking handoffs from Steve Young, rushed for 102 yards on nine carries, including a 68-yard touchdown.
“He ran all over us,” Makovicka said. “Outside the locker room, they were waiting for their buses and he came up to me and the first couple things out of his mouth were asking about my brother and my mom and dad. He truly cared about people.
“There was a lot of good and gentleness to him.”
Veland knew the circumstances that Phillips faced these past 10 years — “We hated everything that he went through.” He knew it was possible that Phillips might be harmed in Kern Valley State Prison. He didn’t expect Phillips to harm himself.
He envisioned a day when Phillips might get one more shot, not at football, but at life. He could’ve served out his prison sentence, rejoined society and given back. He could’ve shown younger athletes what it takes to be a force on the field and, through his own mistakes, a good citizen off the field.
“I would’ve loved for him to be able to come back and redeem himself,” Veland said.
Instead, Phillips’ friends are left with memories and regrets. Life moves at breakneck speed, Makovicka said. You always think you’ll have time later to reach out to a friend like Phillips.
“Now it’s too late.”
Contact the writer: