Another middle-aged former NFL player committed suicide on Wednesday. His name was Lawrence Phillips, and he was found unresponsive in his cell at Kern Valley State Prison in California. He was taken to a local hospital and died soon after. It was a long way from college-football stardom and NFL dreams, and could have perhaps been prevented if only someone had taken a moment to give a damn, not only before but after his incarceration.
Lawrence Phillips started his life as a target of constant physical abuse by the men in his mother’s life. In the words of a former teammate, he “went to school in sixth grade and never came back.” Phillips was shuffled through group homes before his football skills got him plucked out of poverty. Then, when off-field issues outpaced his on-field production on the NFL’s ledger sheet, he was cast aside.
The one-time Cornhuskers star was serving 31 years for driving his car into three teenagers and assaulting an ex-girlfriend. It was the latest in a long, ugly, and almost certainly under-documented history of violence against women. This was learned behavior. Phillips mother was repeatedly beaten, battered, and abused. In the words of a teammate, he grew up “seeing things no child should see.” Before his 12th birthday, Phillips was knocked unconscious by a man she was seeing while trying to defend her. As his former teammate said, “He was a hurt person. And hurt people… hurt people.”
Yet his early run-ins with the law, instead of provoking interventions by the football coaches who comprised the adult authority figures in his life, only brought cover-ups, aimed to protect their golden goose: a kid who coaches and who, scouts said in hushed tones, ran the ball like a future MVP. In listening to a series of interviews with old teammates, you hear stories of violence conjoined with mental illness: of someone who “didn’t have all the tools in his tool box,” who could turn from kindness to anger on a moment’s notice, lash out, and then be consumed with regret. This was someone who needed counseling. Instead, he had people just hoping he would win the big game before his next arrest.
That took place most notoriously at Nebraska, where Phillips dragged his ex-girlfriend, Kate McEwen, a basketball player, down a flight of stairs. After pleading “no contest” to charges of misdemeanor assault, he was suspended for just six games. As for McEwen, she had her athletic scholarship taken away. An abhorrent message had been sent to not only Phillips but to a team that collected gender-violence charges like they collected conference titles.
Phillips’s coach, the legendary Tom Osborne, said at the time that he took Phillips back onto the team without further punishment because the young man needed “structure” and stability that only Cornhuskers football could offer. That “structure” was a college football program that, like so many others, was built on rank exploitation, with little care for the person under the helmet.