When the term “NFL Draft busts” comes up, most people lead with Ryan Leaf. It’s hard not to for a myriad of reasons. You can pretty much pick any one of the Cincinnati Bengals’ picks over the span of a decade and you’ll find them on the list.
But not far down the list, you’ll find the name Lawrence Phillips.
Emerging on the scene during his sophomore season, with injuries to quarterbacks Tommie Frazier and Brooks Berringer, Phillips tied a University of Nebraska record by rushing for 100 yards or more in 11 straight games during the 1994 season. He would finish the season with 1,722 yards, still a record for Nebraska sophomores. His performance in the Orange Bowl that year helped secure the Huskers’ unbeaten season and National Championship.
A front-runner for the Heisman Trophy in his Junior season, Phillips wasted little time making his case. In the second game of the season, a visit to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans, Phillips ripped off 206 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, it was after returning home from East Lansing when the troubling signs began to emerge. Phillips was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Kate McEwen, a basketball player for Nebraska’s women’s team.
Head coach Tom Osborne suspended Phillips, which became a huge controversy as many felt that Osborne was coddling the star running back by not kicking him off the team permanently. Osborne said that abandoning Phillips might do more harm than good as he felt that the best way to help Phillips was within the structure that the football program provided. It was a decision that would follow Osborne until his retirement.
He was reinstated, splitting time with freshman Ahman Green but was named starter for the Fiesta Bowl — #1 Nebraska vs #2 Florida State for the National Championship. The national media pressure was on Osborne to sit Phillips. Osborne is probably glad he didn’t listen as the troubled back ran for 165 yards and a pair of scores as well as adding a 16-yard touchdown catch in a 62-24 route.
With the boost to his draft stock following a huge game, Phillips decided to forgo his Senior season and enter the 1996 NFL Draft.
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Most remembered for being the draft in which USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson was selected first, what most people probably don’t remember is the hype for Phillips heading into the draft.
During the broadcast, ESPN analyst Joe Theisman said “Everybody’s calling him the best player in the draft.” Rumors circulated that the Baltimore Ravens, picking fourth, would take Phillips to fill their need at running back. They opted instead to select tackle Jonathan Ogden who went on to have a 12 year career, seeing 9 All-Pro and 11 Pro Bowl selections along the way. Funny how things work out.
The Rams, who selected Phillips with the sixth pick, were so high on the back that they traded his predecessor, Jerome Bettis, to Pittsburgh. They chose him ahead of a few pretty good players: Willie Anderson, Eddie George, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, and Terrell Owens to name a few.
Phillips saw the field in 15 games in 1996, starting 11. He managed 632 yards and four touchdowns for the year. He would surpass his yardage total in just 10 games in 1997 but, after spending 23 days in jail due to off-field issues in his less than two seasons, the Rams lost patience with him and released him.
The rumor at the time was that Dick Vermeil, head coach of the Rams, told Phillips that he was being demoted for inconsistent performance and his inability to stay out of trouble. Phillips stormed out of that day’s meeting and missed practice before being released.
From there, it only got worse for Phillips.
He would sign with the Miami Dolphins but lasted only two games before being released after assaulting a woman in a Florida night club.
After missing all of the 1998 season, he attempted his comeback the following year in NFL Europe with the Barcelona Dragons, rushing for over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns and managing to garner interest from the San Francisco 49ers.
Even when Phillips was keeping his nose clean, things still weren’t working out. He was so bad as a pass-blocker that the Niners wouldn’t keep him in on passing downs and perhaps nothing more exemplifies that than a play on Monday Night Football in 1999. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams blitzed and Phillips failed to pick him up. Williams would knock quarterback Steve Young unconscious, giving him a severe concussion that effectively ended his career.
Frustrations began to mount and Phillips began to slip into his old ways. Coach Steve Mariucci noted that Phillips began losing interest early in the season to the point that he was finding “reasons and ways why he shouldn’t practice.”
Before a November game in New Orléans, Phillips refused to practice at all on November 10th and 12th, openly mocking coaching directives. Running Backs coach Tom Rathman declared that he was at wit’s end with Phillips and that he’d stay in San Francisco if Phillips made the trip. That night, Phillips received a three-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
On November 16th, Mariucci said that the team would cut ties with Phillips at first opportunity and that the only reason they didn’t release him right away was that his entire signing bonus would’ve counted against the team’s cap for 1999. Just a week later, the team would waive him, marking the end of his professional career.
He would attempt to make it in the Arena Football League but didn’t play a single down with the Florida Bobcats before being released after leaving the team without telling his coach.
In his final try, he joined the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and achieved a bit of a resurgence, rushing for 1,022 yards and 13 touchdowns, even earning himself a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
But even in Canada, he couldn’t escape his troubles. After walking out on the team and his agent severing ties with him not once but twice, the team released him before the 2003 season for not meeting minimum behavioral standards. It was later learned that he had been charged with sexual assault.
After signing with the Calgary Stampeders and being released for arguing with head coach Jim Baker, the chances for the talented running back had finally run out.
With no one left in the disciplinary world of football to even attempt to get him straightened out, this got even worse for Phillips.
According to an ESPN piece on his trial, in August 2005, he drove onto a field near LA Memorial Coliseum and struck three boys, narrowly missing four other people. He was allegedly upset after losing a pickup football game to the boys and accused them of stealing some of his possessions.
At the time of his arrest, Phillips was wanted in connection with two domestic abuse incidents by the San Diego police. The incidents involved a former girlfriend who claimed he choked her to the point of unconsciousness during one of the incidents. And on top of all that, the LAPD was looking for him on a separate domestic abuse charge that had previously occurred in Los Angeles.
In October 2006, he was found guilty of seven counts of assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the August incident. He was sentenced in October of 2008 to 10 years in California state prison and while serving that sentence, was convicted in August 2009 for assault on his then-girlfriend and also had assault with great bodily injury, false imprisonment, making a criminal threat, and auto theft added on to all that. For all of that, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, running consecutive to the initial sentencing. For those keeping score at home, he has a tearm of 31 years (his 2008 sentence was reduced to just under 7 years).
Lawrence Phillips, who once had all the promise in the world as the sixth pick in the NFL Draft, will not be eligible for release from prison until he is 57 years old.
From running over linebackers to running over teens out of blind rage, Phillips is a precautionary tale for the ages.
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