Lawrence Phillips- Doomed Athlete Or Failed System?

Posted 1/7/18

Lawrence Phillips was a stellar high school football player, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and the 6th overall pick at the 1996 NFL draft. But..

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Lawrence Phillips- Doomed Athlete Or Failed System?

Posted

Lawrence Phillips was a stellar high school football player, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and the 6th overall pick at the 1996 NFL draft. But his constant run-ins with the law made him a doomed sports figure even beyond his football years. Two years ago this week, the 40-year old former athlete committed suicide in a California prison.

Born in 1975 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Phillips and his family moved to California where young Lawrence escaped an abusive household and ended up living in different foster homes.

Despite rough beginnings, Phillips displayed promising talents on the gridiron at Baldwin Park High School and soon caught the attention of college scouts. He was recruited to play at the University of Nebraska in 1993.

Phillips showed few if any reportable transgressions in high school and his serious problems began in college. In early 1995, the star running back pleaded not guilty to charges of assault, vandalism and disturbing the peace.

The accusations followed Nebraska’s championship run at the Orange Bowl where Phillips helped the Cornhuskers defeat the Miami Hurricanes 24-17. That season he ran for 1,722 yards, still the school record for a sophomore.

The next year, talk circulated regarding his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy after he scored six touchdowns and averaged more than 11 yards per carry in the first two games of the season.

But trouble ensued as the college junior was arrested for breaking into a teammate’s apartment and dragging a female student by her hair down three flights of stairs before smashing her head into a mailbox.

Perhaps direct personal intervention and off-the-field guidance at that point might have made a difference. But too often, the all-win ethos of competitive sports doesn’t coincide with what’s best for the individual athlete.

After a six-game suspension, Phillips was back on the field and even started at the Fiesta Bowl where he rushed for 165 yards and two touch downs. The Cornhuskers routed the Florida Gators 62-24 and Phillips earned an early ticket into the NFL.

The St. Louis Rams took a chance on the young talent out of Nebraska and even traded away his running back predecessor, future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But a similar pattern would persist with Phillips- the occasional shining performance on the field, punctuated by inexplicable problematic behavior, followed by some form of discipline or punishment.

In just his second season with St. Louis, Phillips was released for continuous insubordination and scandalous exploits.  Following the Rams, his unstable whirlwind career would take him through a number of football franchises, including the San Francisco 49ers where he was most notably accused of neglecting a block that ended quarterback Steve Young’s career.

In 2008, Phillips ended up in jail serving a 32-year sentence for multiple convictions. Seven years later, he would kill his cellmate and then hang himself.

Phillips’ tragic biography begs the question of what might have been had the talented but flawed sportsman received proper life counseling and not just football coaching.

Would a different coaching style and leadership have made a difference, or was Phillips battling irreversible childhood demons born out of a dysfunctional family and a failed social system?

We would never know, but such personal stories are not uncommon among some young athletes.  Erratic and explosive behavior should be addressed at an early stage with a focus on the individual's well-being, not the team's score card.

The documentary DVD “Running For His Life: The Lawrence Phillips Story” is available for sale on our site.

Lawrence Phillips, Cornhuskers

SPORTS HISTORY MAGAZINE in DIGITAL

Winter 2021

Fall 2020

Summer 2020

Spring 2020

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

CURRENT ISSUE

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

FOOTBALL February 6, 2011  The Green Bay Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, launched 3 touchdowns and completed 24 of 39 passes to win the game MVP. His counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, hurled 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, one of which resulted in a 37-yard running score against Pittsburgh. It was the 4th SB victory for Green Bay, the NFL’s first champions dating back to the 1966 season.

20 years ago

BASKETBALL February 11, 2001  The NBA holds its 50th All-Star game at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. Allen Iverson picked up the MVP after rallying the Eastern Conference to defeat the West in a narrow 111-110 game. Vince Carter (Toronto Raptors) and Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers) topped the highest number of selection votes from the East, while Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers) and Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) were most popular in the West.

30 years ago

BASEBALL February 4, 1991  The Board of Directors at the Baseball Hall of Fame votes 12-0 to bar Pete Rose from being inducted. Due to his past gambling activities around the game, both as player and manager, Rose continues to be kept out of the prestigious institution. Playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-1989, Rose was a 17x All-Star and 3x World Series champion. In his playing career he batted .303, hit 4,256, and had RBI of 1,413.

40 years ago

MOTOR SPORTS February 15, 1981  Rich Petty wins the 23rd annual running of the Daytona 500. Rounding the 200-lap chase in just under 2 hours and 57 minutes, Petty beat Bobby Allison by 3½ seconds and brought out Buick’s first NASCAR win since 1956. It was the 7th and last Daytona 500 victory for the North Carolina native who still holds the record for most wins at the famed track. Petty is tied with Jimmy Johnson and Dale Earnhardt for the NASCAR series (7x).