Phillips was a great high school and college player. He led the University of Nebraska to victory in the 1995 Orange Bowl and the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. But even when he was playing under the legendary coach Tom Osborne at Nebraska, there were signs of the issues that would eventually end his professional career. In 1995, he was arrested for breaking into an apartment, grabbing his ex-girlfriend, dragging her down three flights of stairs by her hair and then smashing her head into a mailbox. At first, he was suspended from playing football but he was eventually reinstated by Coach Osborne. At the time, Osborne said that football was perhaps the only thing in Phillips’s life that could keep him on track.
The assault may have kept Phillips from winning the Heisman Trophy that he had been widely considered a favorite to receive but it didn’t keep him out of the NFL. In the 1996 Draft, the Rams selected him as the 6th overall pick. Phillips proved himself to be a talented running back but his life off the field continued to be erratic. When he showed up drunk for a pre-game practice, Phillips was cut from the team.
Phillips went to Miami, where he played two games for the Dolphins before he was arrested and charged with assaulting a woman in a nightclub. Again cut from the team, Phillips eventually ended up in NFL Europe, where he set records and proved that he could still play. Returning to America in 1999, Phillips was signed by the 49ers but he was cut after refusing to practice and missing a block that led to quarterback Steve Young suffering a season (and career) ending concussion.
With no future in the NFL, Phillips signed with the Arena Football League but was cut when he failed to show up for practice. He then went to Canada, where he had one good season with Montreal Alouettes before again getting cut after being charged with a sexual assault. The last team he played for was the Calgary Stampede. He was cut for arguing with the coach.
Phillips was 30 years old and washed up as an athlete. After his then-girlfriend tried to break-up with him, he grab her by the throat and nearly strangled her. A few days later, while driving around Los Angeles, he spotted three teenagers playing a pick-up football game. He joined their game but, after he became convinced one of them had stolen some money from him, Phillips ran the teen over with his car. Convicted of both domestic abuse and attempted murder, Phillips was sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison.
In prison, he originally kept his head down, refused to join any of the prison gangs, and stayed out of trouble. But, in 2015, Phillips’s cellmate was found strangled to death in their cell. Phillips claimed that he had accidentally killed him in self-defense. Charged with murder and facing the death penalty, Lawrence Phillips was found hanging in his cell. The official ruling was suicide.
What happened to Lawrence Phillips? How did he go from being one of the best players in the game to being an inmate in the California penal system? That’s the question that’s considered by the documentary, Running For His Life. Featuring interviews with his friends, coaches, teammates, and one of his victims, Running For His Life follows Phillips from his abusive childhood to his final days in prison. Almost everyone who is interviewed describes Phillips as being outwardly intelligent, friendly, and talented, except for when he was angry. That was when the other Lawrence would come out. Most of the people interviewed still seem to be shocked that Phillips’s life derailed the way that it did. Tom Osborne comes across as being particularly troubled that he wasn’t able to do more to help Phillips overcome his demons. The majority of the people interviewed say that Phillips’s problems were the result of growing up in group homes and spending his childhood being abused by the people who were supposed to be looking out for him.
It’s a compelling argument but Running For His Life could have used a greater variety of voices. Almost everyone who is interviewed was a friend of Phillips’s and, even though they acknowledge his crimes, it still seems that they are sometimes too quick to make excuses for him. Many of the women who he victimized were not interviewed and, as a result, the documentary feels incomplete. His victims deserved more than just a cursory mention. It may be a tragedy that Lawrence Phillips never lived up to his potential but the far greater tragedy is that so many people were hurt by his actions.