For those who truly know football the list of truly great collegiate running backs is relatively short. Names such as Archie Griffin, O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson, Marcus Dupree, Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Herschel Walker, Lawrence Phillips, and Adrian Peterson come to mind. As with most debates one usually casts their vote in support of the greatest running back of their era. Hence my vote is split between Barry Sanders and the University of Nebraska’s Lawrence Phillips.
Lawrence Phillips the collegiate running back is indescribable. In contemporary terms think about a bigger stronger, angrier, and more determined Adrian Peterson. Making matters more troubling for non-Cornhusker fans is the reality that Phillips seemed to be achieving his feats with minimal focus either on the field or away from it. Lawrence Phillips is one of the few athletes who challenged the old Woody Hayes mantra of “You win with people.” That mantra was the legendary coach of The Ohio State University Football Team way of relating that personal qualities — commitment, diligence, honesty, and truthfulness — matter on the field, but more importantly in life.
The largest lesson that today’s African-American athletes can learn from the way that Phillips’ life has unraveled is that although your physical attributes may cause those around you, such as Phillips’ collegiate coach, the legendary Tom Osbourne, to look the other way during your most dastardly moments, no one escapes the evil they do.
While at Nebraska, Phillips drug an ex-girlfriend down three flights of stairs by her hair, only to be re-instated by coach Osbourne in time for the gifted running back to lead the Cornhuskers to a national championship. Unfortunately, collegiate coaches were not the only one’s willing to ignore Phillips off-the-field issues. The St. Louis Rams selected Phillips with the sixth-overall pick months after the Cornhuskers national championship victory. In light of such moments, maybe we should not blame Phillips for concluding that he was football’s Mr. Untouchable.
Predictably, Phillips’ uncanny ability to escape accountability for criminal exploits simultaneously ended with his brief National Football League career that was cut short due to his being extremely difficult to deal with. Phillips apparently expected his professional employers to extend him the same privilege that the legions of coaches and law enforcement agencies had previously offered.
A resounding failure in the NFL, Phillips disappeared from the spotlight only to resurface for twice choking an ex-girlfriend and running down three teenagers with his car after a dispute during a pick-up football game. A Judge finally held Phillips accountable and sentenced him to 10 years for the later offense and 31 years in prison for the former charge.
I must admit to being shocked to see Phillips image this morning. However, I was not surprised to see that he was being investigated for murdering Damion Soward, Phillips’ 37 year old cellmate who was serving 82 years to life in prison for first-degree murder. The sad saga of Lawrence Phillips offers cautionary tales for both young athletes and those that handle them. Clearly those who dealt with Phillips failed to hold him accountable for innumerable offenses and transgressions. Put simply, their negligence is a notable factor in this young man’s life being ruined. However, the individual most responsible for this debacle of a life is Mr. Lawrence Phillips himself. Unfortunately, he was so busy pursuing all of the material possessions that one could want that he never paused long enough to receive any of the life lessons that he needed to make it in this world.
Although it appeared in the heat of battle that Woody Hayes’ admonishment that you win with people did not apply to Lawrence Phillips, however, in the marathon of life Coach Hayes’ statement remains valid, character matters in life and everything else that we do.
James Thomas Jones III
©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015