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Silent Running : Lawrence Phillips, Nebraska’s Suspended Star, Won’t Talk, so Others Try to Explain His Anger

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His mother gave up on him. His father. . . . What father?

He grew up in a West Covina group home, a ward of the state. One of the other kids there once sneaked into his room and urinated in his bed.

Notre Dame, the school of his dreams, recruited him, then vanished at the first hint of academic trouble. He went to Nebraska and soon discovered that, at times, it was nothing more than a red and white prison.

He has been on his own since he was 12. He has been in hiding since Sept. 10, the day he was indefinitely suspended by the second-ranked Cornhuskers after striking his former girlfriend, the day his Heisman Trophy hopes turned into a fine mist, then evaporated in the heat of the ensuing controversy.

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And you want to know why Lawrence Phillips has an anger problem?

*

In search of Lawrence . . .

There he is, on Page 90 of the Nebraska media guide. And Page 91. And 92. A small head shot is included, but no one will mistake it for an Olan Mills sitting. Phillips isn’t smiling. Not even the beginning of a grin. Instead, he has the look of someone hoping the shutter jams.

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That’s the way Phillips is. Reveal the absolute minimum. Bare no part of your soul. Stare blankly into the lens. You owe the world nothing.

Three encyclopedia-size pages provide just enough room to list Phillips’ football accomplishments. Preseason this. First-team that. Record holder deluxe.

But there is nothing about Phillips himself, except for a three-sentence bio that could fit under a bottle cap:

“The son of Lawrence Phillips and Juanita Phillips, he was born on May 12, 1975, in Little Rock, Ark. Phillips is a volunteer speaker for the SPICE Program. He majors in sociology.”

The way Phillips figures it, that’s three sentences too many. He came here to play football, not tell his life story. Even now, exiled from the field while the NCAA, Nebraska officials, Coach Tom Osborne and a school student-conduct committee determine his immediate future, Phillips chooses not to talk.

“No, he does not want to do it,” said Frank Solich, who coaches the Cornhusker running backs and who pitched the idea of an interview to Phillips.

Everyone who knows Phillips--and it is a short list--predicted as much. Even before the misdemeanor assault charges, the suspension and the ongoing debate concerning his Cornhusker future, Phillips disliked interviews or, more accurately, disliked attention. He would rather have his tongue scraped.

Solich is one of the few who has earned his trust. They talk every day. The conversations, rarely about football, don’t last long, but they are long enough for Solich to see the hurt.

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“I think that he’s feeling that he did make a mistake, that he feels badly about it and would like to try to do whatever possible to get his life squared away and try to move forward,” Solich said.

It isn’t that simple. It never has been with Phillips.

He pleaded no contest to the assault charges, issued a public apology, underwent psychiatric evaluation and testing at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., returned to school and there he remains, the unwilling centerpiece of a controversy that has called into question the motives of Osborne, prompted Nebraska fans to rethink their blind allegiance and made Phillips, the sixth-leading rusher in school history, an even more mysterious figure.

“No matter what I tell you, people are going to think what they want,” said quarterback Tommie Frazier. “Everyone already says he’s an evil guy. The damage has already been done.”

And this from I-back Damon Benning, who used to room with Phillips on the road: “I just don’t want people to judge Lawrence by this incident. That’s not really who he is.”

There’s the rub. Who is he?

Phillips, who hasn’t practiced or attended a team meeting since the suspension, works out by himself almost every morning. He runs. He lifts weights. He goes to classes and then retreats to his apartment. Sometimes he’ll spend time at a teammate’s place. Night life is a rented movie. He doesn’t get out much. Not worth the trouble.

Clinton Childs, another Nebraska I-back, is probably Phillips’ best friend on the team. Almost every day he catches himself looking for Phillips on the practice field.

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“It’s like seeing a brother out there, and then the next thing you know, he’s taken away,” said Childs, who moved up on the depth chart because of Phillips’ suspension.

Nebraska officials may not be thrilled with the gesture, but Childs put Phillips’ jersey number--No. 1--on his own helmet and wears it in honor of his friend. That way, said Childs, nobody at Nebraska will forget about him. As if anyone could.

Meanwhile, a season races by, and with it Phillips’ chance of posing next to a Heisman Trophy. Maybe it’s just as well. Phillips, who has attended at least one Nebraska home game on his own, isn’t much for speeches.

“It would have been nice,” Childs said. “But he’s told me, ‘You can’t miss what you haven’t had.’ ”

*

In 1987, janitors spent more time in his elementary school classrooms than did the cigarette-smoking Phillips. On the brink of becoming a grade school dropout, his rage already at the boiling point, Phillips, with his mother’s permission, was turned over to state social-service workers.

He went to a foster home. He lasted two weeks. He was moved to a juvenile detention center. He seethed.

In something of a last resort, Phillips was interviewed by social workers at Tina Mac, a state-supported group home in West Covina. He was peppered with questions, among them the one that counted: “Are you willing to make something out of yourself?”

“Yes,” Phillips mumbled.

Thomas Penegar was there the day Phillips became the newest resident at Tina Mac. Penegar had already spent a year at the group home and wanted to see who the new guy was. He knew what was going through Phillips’ mind.

“You’re thinking, ‘Are the other guys going to like me? Am I going to get into any fights?’ ” said Penegar, now a counselor at the home and a linebacker at Mt. San Antonio College.

Penegar was 13, Phillips 12. He asked Phillips if he wanted to take a walk. So they went out, bought some candy and talked. Sort of.

“He didn’t talk much,” Penegar said.

They became roommates. At Tina Mac it’s two to a room and each kid has to do his share of chores. At the end of the week, you get an allowance, just like in a real family.

“It’s a very warm setting,” said Barbara Thomas, who helps oversee the group home. “It’s just like your house or my house. It’s not an institution. It’s a family home.”

Maybe so, but Phillips still stretched the concept. He wasn’t much for chores--"The laziest,” said Penegar--and he wasn’t much for school, either. Penegar and Phillips kept skipping classes and getting suspended. They ignored curfew. They were picked up for disturbing the peace. They started fights with security guards at the skating rink. By the time they got to high school, Phillips and Penegar were known by the police.

Tired of the police visits, Thomas and another social worker, Manuel Burnett, decided enough was enough. They took Phillips and Penegar to a county lockup and stopped the car.

“Here’s where you’ll end up if you keep doing this,” Burnett said. “Home or jail, what’s it going to be?”

Phillips and Penegar chose home.

“Hey, I had already got sent to Los Padrinos [a juvenile hall] for two months,” Penegar said. “I didn’t want to go to the big jail. The kiddie jail was bad enough. I mean, if it wasn’t for Manuel and Barbara giving us those talks, we’d probably be in jail, or be dead.”

They turned to sports, especially Phillips, whose young body already had the cut of an athlete. Phillips had never played an organized sport, but Thomas signed him up for everything--basketball, football, baseball. She went to nearly every game and watched as he became a star.

“You could tell by his movements, he was quick to learn,” Thomas said. “Very athletic.”

He was also deceivingly bright. Thomas knew it from the beginning. Standardized tests administered to Phillips in junior high confirmed it.

But there were still problems. If threatened, Phillips never retreated. And if confronted, he attacked.

“The only time he really showed real anger and temper was when somebody did something to him,” Penegar said.

Few at the home dared. A kid named James stole Phillips’ shoes. Phillips found out, demanded an explanation and then, after catching the would-be thief telling lies, put him in a headlock and wrestled him to the floor.

“But he didn’t start bashing him,” Penegar said.

Another kid, named Henry, borrowed something--Penegar can’t remember what it was--from Phillips, then refused to return it. When Phillips went to get the item, Henry tried closing the door on Phillips’ hand. Later, Henry urinated on Phillips’ bed.

“Lawrence never took a balled fist and socked Henry,” Penegar said. “Lawrence would wrestle with the person until the guy couldn’t go nowhere. We had a saying here: ‘We’re going to get you on the green carpet.’ That’s where you settled things, on the green carpet in the living room.”

And then a change occurred. Shortly before his junior year at Baldwin Park High, Phillips quit skipping school and actually began concentrating on his classes. Ty Pagone, the assistant principal at Baldwin Park, and Thomas and Burnett had convinced him that it was worth the trouble.

“Lawrence saw that without getting the grades, he couldn’t go to college,” Burnett said. “He picked up real well then.”

Baldwin Park won a Southern Section championship during Phillips’ junior season. By the end of his senior year, he had rushed for about 3,000 yards, scored 38 touchdowns and earned the attention of recruiters everywhere.

Penegar was there when the recruiters called. He said Phillips was unfailingly polite, no matter the time of the call and no matter the size of the school.

Phillips started pinning the recruiting letters on his bedroom wall. When he got to 30, he stopped. But the letters kept coming. They filled a shoe box and then an entire trash bag.

“All that stuff got dull,” Penegar said.

The only school that mattered was Notre Dame. But when Phillips didn’t immediately score the required numbers on the SAT, the Irish backed off. Heartbroken, Phillips turned his attention to Nebraska, Washington State, UCLA, USC and to those SATs.

“That standardized test? He took it to pass it,” Barbara Thomas said. “He refused to take the preparation [courses].”

Penegar remembers the day Phillips surpassed the qualifying score on the SAT. It didn’t last long, but for a few minutes there was actual joy on his face. And vindication. He kept telling Penegar, “Nobody thought I was going to pass! Nobody thought I was going to pass!”

He went to Nebraska for a recruiting visit and when he returned, Phillips handed Penegar a Cornhusker cap.

“You committed, didn’t you?” Penegar said.

“Yeah, I had to,” Phillips said. “All they do is run the rock.”

Nebraska had done its share of the usual background checks. Defensive backfield coach George Darlington, whose recruiting area included most of Southern California, talked to Baldwin Park administrators, coaches, even the servers in the school cafeteria. He also talked to the staff at Tina Mac’s.

“Quite frankly, we’ve turned down some great players in California because someone would say, ‘He’s a great player, but . . . ' " Darlington said. “No one added a but in Lawrence’s case.”

Maybe they should have. In 1993, Phillips played in every Cornhusker game as a true freshman, except one. He missed the season opener because he was serving a suspension for fighting.

In 1994, Nebraska’s national championship season, Phillips rushed for 1,722 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He played hurt. He played tough and never once did he complain about not receiving enough attention.

But during the off-season, Phillips and a student from Doane College in nearby Crete, Neb., skirmished. Phillips broke his necklace and damaged his car, the student said. Phillips agreed to pay for the damages. A few months later, Phillips was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace. And in September, two games into the Nebraska season, Phillips was arrested for allegedly striking his former girlfriend.

“When I heard, I wouldn’t believe it at first,” Childs said. “I’ve never seen him try to hurt anybody. I kept going, ‘I wonder what it was that triggered it?’ ”

Osborne knew. He had warned Phillips.

“I had told him to stay away from this particular girl because there had been, oh, not terrible problems, but there had been some problems,” Osborne said. “He agreed to do that. So when this happened, [the suspension] was kind of automatic. And he knew that.”

Shortly after the incident, Osborne said he asked Phillips, “Were you in control or out of control?” According to Osborne, Phillips answered, “I was out of control.”

Osborne initially said that Phillips would be dismissed from the team, then changed the I-back’s status to an indefinite suspension. Critics howled, but Osborne remains adamant about allowing Phillips to return to the team if Phillips is given medical clearance by the Menninger doctors; if he undergoes regular anger-control treatment and if a student-conduct committee approves. An NCAA investigation into possible extra-benefits violations involving the junior running back were resolved last week, in Phillips’ favor, but the decision is probably out of Osborne’s hands.

“Some columnists and people took off on me because I mentioned the anger thing,” Osborne said. “But I don’t think they understand where [Phillips’ anger] comes from and what happened to him and the fact that he has a lot of anger to deal with. He hasn’t been close to very many people and has not been close to very many females at all. His mother left him when he was 11. I think when it looked like another one had left him, that triggered some pretty strong emotions.”

Burnett recently traveled to Lincoln to see Phillips. As much as Burnett wanted to ask him about the incident, he didn’t.

“He knows he messed up,” Burnett said. “He just wants to get his life back.”

Penegar called. He wanted to tell his boyhood friend to stay strong. But he also wanted an explanation.

“He knows he screwed up big time,” Penegar said. “But Lawrence is the type of guy, it was the principle, [the ex-girlfriend] being with another guy.”

Before he hung up, Penegar tried to offer Phillips some advice. He did it the best way he knew how, by reciting a line from “Scarface.” The friends used to recite lines from the movie all the time.

Said Penegar, doing his best Al Pacino imitation, “I tell you, we’re getting sloppy. I take it we don’t want it anymore.”

Phillips laughed when he heard it, but he understood.

Phillips still wants to play for Nebraska. If he didn’t, he probably would have dropped out of school, taken money from an agent and readied himself for the January supplemental NFL draft. At least, that’s Osborne’s theory.

But here he is, a prisoner of the past and now the present, still living in Lincoln, waiting, wondering and hoping. He isn’t talking. But then, what could he say that anyone would really understand?


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