There isn’t a more dangerous word than potential. On one hand, it suggests future greatness. On the other, it leaves the possibility of failure. Perhaps no NFL player epitomized that word than Lawrence Phillips. One of the most physically gifted running backs to ever live, he had all the talent to earn a bust in Canton one day. Yet, the Nebraska RB never lived up to his potential.
Legal troubles eventually cost Phillips his freedom. And at the age of 40, he took his own life inside his cell at Kern Valley State Prison. Here’s the story of the rise, fall, and tragic death of Lawrence Phillips.
Lawrence Phillips was a star at Nebraska
Back in the ’90s, running backs still mattered. College offenses routinely featured superstar ballcarriers rather than prolific passers. So when Lawrence Phillips signed with the University of Nebraska following a dominant career at Baldwin Park High (Calif.), it appeared the Cornhuskers had scored a program-changing talent.
As a true freshman, Phillips played sparingly. However, he made his limited opportunities count. The physically imposing tailback ran for 508 yards on just 92 carries. He flashed dynamic speed, which gave way to an incredible sophomore season.
With Calvin Jones taking his talents to the NFL, Phillips earned the starting running back job. Running behind a rugged offensive line, he turned in one of the most impressive seasons in college football history. Despite facing stacked boxes, the California native racked up 1,722 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 286 carries during the regular season.
Carrying the load for the Cornhuskers, Phillips led Nebraska to back-to-back national titles. However, his final season included a six-game suspension after he got arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. While Phillips put on a magical performance in the Fiesta Bowl, that represented the peak of his football career as his legal troubles would only get worse from there.
Legal troubles prevented the talented running back from living up to his potential
NFL teams rightfully had serious concerns about Lawrence Phillips. His talent should have made him a first-round lock. His character concerns caused some teams to completely ignore him. Still, the St. Louis Rams selected the Nebraska star with the sixth overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
The Rams dumped Jerome Bettis in order to build around their younger, faster back. That proved to be a massive mistake. Phillips didn’t struggle on the field as much as he did off of it. In fact, before he even suited up for the Rams, he got arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Los Angeles County. He spent 23 days in jail for violating his probation.
Rams coach Dick Vermeil gave Phillips numerous chances. Yet, before his second season in St. Louis concluded, the running back got cut. He briefly suited up for the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers. Phillips also turned in a few decent seasons in the CFL.
However, he once again found himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2005. And just over a decade later, he would be dead.
Phillips died by suicide in prison in 2016
The last 10 years or so of Lawrence Phillips’ life involved many days in court and even more behind bars. The troubled former Nebraska running back received a 31-year prison sentence in December 2009 for multiple convictions, including domestic violence, spousal abuse, vehicle theft, and false imprisonment.
While in prison, he faced a first-degree murder charge after his cellmate, Damian Soward, was strangled to death in April 2015. Facing the possibility of the death penalty, Lawrence Phillips died by suicide in his cell on January 13, 2016. USA Today reported that he hung himself with a bedsheet and taped a note to his chest that read, “Do Not Resuscitate.”
At 12:05 a.m., a correctional officer noticed the observation window of Phillips’ cell was covered by a towel. The officer knocked on the door and asked Phillips to remove the towel.
When Phillips failed to respond, the officer opened the food slot on the cell door, reached in and pulled down the towel. The officer then saw Phillips in a seated position with a ligature, made from a bedsheet, secured around a television shelf and tightly around Phillips’ neck.
Lawrence Phillips was just 40 years old when he died. His family agreed to donate his brain to be researched for CTE at Boston University.