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Lawrence Phillips: The Villain, the Victim and the Questions He Left Us With


Believe it or not, I shed a tear when I heard on Wednesday that former Nebraska and NFL running back Lawrence Phillips had taken his own life. That may seem incredibly odd for those that hate him with a capital “H-A-T-E” or others that saw Phillips as nothing more than wasted talent that made poor choices and ended up a prison rat. “Good riddance,” some have said.

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No, I shed a tear because I knew I would never read a happy ending to a story I have been following ever since I was a teenager.

My introduction to college football coincidentally started during the 1994 season when Nebraska began its glory days. I knew nothing of American football, but I knew that this beast wearing No. 1 in scarlet pummeling members of the opposition as they attempted to knock him down in vain was special. I loved watching him make defenses look the fool every Saturday.

Lawrence Phillips was the athlete that Nebraska Cornhuskers fans pine for to this day.

He then assaulted his ex-girlfriend and who he truly was started to bubble to the surface. Brought up in horrific conditions, along with his understanding of consequence twisted and ability to rein in rage broken, this was Phillips: an angry, broken young man.

As time went on, I found out I had more in common with him than I thought.

I make no secret that I suffer from mental illness. I suspect Phillips did too despite no official diagnosis. I’ve not committed the crimes that he has, but as someone else who likely looked at the world through similar eyes trying to make sense of it all, I felt a connection with the part of Phillips that was screaming for help.

Thanks to his amazing athletic ability, he was given chance after chance from being selected as an NFL first-round draft pick to playing in the now-defunct NFL Europe to the AFL and CFL. He was just that good. I like to think that the organizations which took him on were of the same mind as me. Maybe this’ll be the time. Maybe he’ll finally understand.

I was actually enthused when I heard that letters were being sent to the small number of people he could call familyin June 2015, those that had positive influences on his life. He wrote to Tony Zane, his coach at Baldwin Park (Calif.) High School and Ty Pagone, who helped him get everything straight academically so he would be able to attend college.

These letters didn’t read like something a “thug” would write, but a human being. The human being that I found myself becoming more and more connected to, hoping that something better could become of all this madness.

Yes, he did horrible things and I am not going to say that he did not deserve to be sentenced and serve his debt to society, he did. However, no person deserves to be shoved into a corner so small that the only way out is death by their own hand. Maybe Phillips would’ve been sentenced to death for the alleged murder of his cellmate, but that’s why words like “alleged” were invented.

According to a piece by USA Today, Phillips seemed “confident” and “optimistic” about winning his appeal. Unfortunately, in suicidal situations, a high can come before the eventual (and final) fall.

I wanted to wake up one day and read a story about how Phillips had hit rock bottom but was now on his way to a life he never knew. That he’d be happy and able to live life as an average human being who was getting help with deep-seated demons.

Now neither I — nor anyone — will ever get to read those words. That makes a brother sometimes in misery very, very sad.

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow Brandon on Twitter @eightlaces and like his Facebook page.