Behind an Athlete’s Strange Spiral

Times Staff Writers

He strode into a Las Vegas secondhand shop at lunchtime early last year and offered to sell his ring for $20.

The owner of Steve’s Buy & Sell needed only a brief glance to surmise the identity of the muscular man on the other side of his counter. The engraved “Nebraska Football,” “Big 8 Championship,” “13-0” and “L. Phillips” gave him away.

Steve Gibson stood face to face with Lawrence Phillips, one of the best running backs ever at the University of Nebraska, and one of the greatest busts in the National Football League.


“Dude, you don’t want to sell your Big 8 championship ring,” Gibson recalled telling Phillips, who was no longer playing for any team. “Let me just give you the $20.”

Phillips’ pride wouldn’t let him take a handout. Gibson handed him $20, then sold the ring on EBay for $1,725 after a barrage of bids from folks with screen names such as “CornhuskerRed.”

The athlete seemed well into a downward spiral, to be hawking such an important symbol of his past -- for such a paltry sum.

Two weeks ago, he landed hard. Phillips was accused of driving onto a field across from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into a crowd of teenagers with whom he had just played a pickup game. A witness said he seemed to snap after realizing that his wallet was missing and accused the teens of stealing it.

Phillips, 30, was already on the lam from San Diego police for allegedly battering his live-in girlfriend and stealing her car -- the same one he is accused of using to ram the kids in Exposition Park.

Now he is in Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, facing charges including assault with a deadly weapon and child abuse in the L.A. case. He has pleaded not guilty. He has declined to comment, and his attorney did not return repeated calls.


To many who follow football, this latest episode cemented Phillips’ image as a man whose athletic prowess had won him chance after chance, while personal demons kept using them up.

Friends saw signs of despair in his public meltdown, irreconcilable with the often charming, smart and generous man they know.

“It sounds to me like he’s hit rock bottom and he’s asking to be disciplined,” said Houston Texan quarterback Tony Banks, who played with Phillips on the St. Louis Rams.

Thomas Penegar Jr., Phillips’ closest friend since they met as 12-year-olds at a West Covina group home, said a childhood tinged with neglect and abuse had left Phillips unable to tolerate even a hint of humiliation.

“When you grow up in a group home,” Penegar said, “the last thing you want is for somebody to make fun of you.”

Troubled Childhood

Phillips was named Lawrence after a father he hardly knew, friends say. He spent his early years with his mother in South Los Angeles and Inglewood.

At 11 he entered the foster care system, after clashing with his mother’s abusive live-in boyfriend, and stopped attending school, Penegar and a former school administrator said.

He skipped most of fifth grade and was shuttled from a foster home to a juvenile detention center and, finally, to the group home, said Ty Pagone, a former assistant principal at Baldwin Park High School.

At the home, Phillips and Penegar found discipline, structure, decent food and each other -- in as close to a family-like environment as they’d ever get.

“We loved that place,” Penegar said. “ ... We knew once we were emancipated from it, nobody was going to do anything for us.”

Penegar read poorly before entering the home. Phillips helped him with homework and never ridiculed him for mispronouncing words, said Penegar, who eventually went on to earn a college degree.

The home’s owners, two sisters, steered Phillips into sports, particularly football.

Tony Zane, then a coach at Baldwin Park High, took Phillips in hand as well, picking him up for school each day at 7:15 a.m.

“You could tell there were some issues from his past, but he didn’t talk about them,” Zane recalled. “He was a regular kid, a nice kid with a good work ethic.”

Pagone said Phillips was well-mannered, smart and hard-working. Pagone and his wife, Christine, hosted at their home the many recruiters who came to woo him after he led Baldwin Park to the 1991 Southern Section Division IV championship.

Phillips landed in the storied University of Nebraska football program in Lincoln, where he got off to a rocky start. He missed the first game after being suspended for fighting with a teammate, according to some newspaper accounts.

But he soon became a breakout star and, heading into his junior season, a contender for the Heisman Trophy.

Hours after leading Nebraska to a 50-10 rout of Michigan State, however, Phillips was awakened by a phone call in the predawn hours of Sept. 10, 1995. A female friend told Phillips that his girlfriend was cheating on him with a teammate, a backup quarterback, according to Pagone’s and Penegar’s recollections of Phillips’ account.

Enraged, Phillips rushed to the quarterback’s apartment, climbed up to the third-floor balcony and entered through unlocked sliding glass doors to find the pair in bed, Pagone and Penegar said.

According to police, Phillips pulled the woman by the hair downstairs and bashed her head into a mailbox.

Phillips pleaded no contest to charges of trespassing and misdemeanor assault, generating national headlines. He was sentenced to one year’s probation and received mandatory anger-management counseling and therapy.

He said little publicly beyond an apologetic university-issued statement until he called in unexpectedly to an Omaha radio show. “I reacted without thinking,” he told listeners. “I’m here to pay my debt.”

Friends said they believe Phillips was deeply humiliated not only by what he considered a betrayal, but by being publicly spurned in favor of a lesser player who was white (as was his girlfriend).

He also told them he did not smash her head, but rather his own hand, into the mailbox.

Pagone now wonders whether the incident -- and Phillips’ seeming inability to live it down -- triggered the self-destructive behavior that followed.

“I don’t excuse it,” Pagone said. “But no one knows how they’ll react when they walk in on a girlfriend, a wife or a spouse with someone else.... He cared for this girl, I can tell you that for a fact.”

Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne initially dismissed Phillips from the team after the attack, then relented and meted out a six-game suspension -- a decision that drew the ire of women’s rights groups.

Katherine Redmond -- then a student at Nebraska and later founder of the nonprofit National Coalition Against Violent Athletes -- said Phillips and society would have been better served if he had been sacked entirely.

“They took a very troubled kid and gave him protection from accountability,” she said.

Once reinstated, Phillips rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns to help Nebraska win a national championship game.

The St. Louis Rams chose him as their first-round pick in the 1996 draft, sixth overall, despite a pre-draft psychological evaluation that concluded he had “maturity” issues.

Problems surfaced before Phillips even finalized his contract.

Driving home from a nightclub with friends, he was stopped on the Pomona Freeway for speeding, then charged with drunk driving.

His gold Mercedes was clocked going 78 mph in a 65-mph zone on a flat tire, and his blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit.

Before he could be handcuffed, Phillips pulled off his Nebraska championship ring and threw it in the dirt, apparently angry because he had violated his probation from the Nebraska assault. He spent 23 days in jail.

Phillips never fulfilled his promise with the Rams, or any other NFL team.

Unproductive on the field and disruptive off of it, he was cut by St. Louis in late 1997. He was then signed by the Miami Dolphins.

But not long after, he was charged with hitting a woman in a Florida nightclub.

Press accounts, including The Times’, said Phillips punched the woman after she refused to dance with him. Penegar said Phillips told him that, while dancing, another man deliberately bumped into him and that when Phillips asked the man to stop, the woman got between them and taunted Phillips.

He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and received six months’ probation. He was cut from the team.

Banks, his former teammate on the Rams, said he had seen people provoke Phillips in similar situations, perhaps because his volatility was “such an open book.”

“He’d be challenged when he was out,” Banks said. “I would let it roll off. Lawrence would respond differently. He would say something back.”

Banks said he never saw Phillips become violent. When he read about incidents in the paper, he would think, “The Lawrence that is written about is not the Lawrence I know.”

Phillips did have tremendous pride, however.

Penegar said Phillips believed that the only running back who was better than he was Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.

Phillips “was a phenomenal talent, and he wanted to be treated that way,” Banks said. “He felt he deserved a certain amount of respect when he hadn’t necessarily earned it.”

In 1999, there were signs that Phillips was turning his life around.

He went to NFL Europe to show that he could still play, winning offensive player of the year with the Barcelona Dragons.

He transformed himself, losing 30 pounds, becoming a vegetarian, giving up alcohol and committing himself to religion.

Impressed, the San Francisco 49ers signed him to a two-year, multimillion-dollar deal.

“What it boils down to: The NFL is a business,” said former Miami Dolphin receiver Yatil Green, who grew close to Phillips when they were recovering from knee injuries together. “They don’t go on charm.... They go on talent and potential.”

Phillips showed some flashes of his former brilliance, but lasted just five months with the 49ers.

He reportedly ignored instruction from running backs coach Tom Rathman, a former Cornhusker himself, and refused to run practice plays as his playing time dwindled. And he missed a key block in a game that resulted in a sack that ended quarterback Steve Young’s career.

Costly Problems

Phillips had reveled in his initial taste of NFL wealth, but financial security proved elusive.

According to Penegar, Phillips lent money to friends and bought a house and car for his mother. He tipped big at restaurants and handed $20 bills to homeless people. He bought fine suits, his name sewn in the pockets, and plenty of shoes.

His behavior problems, however, were costly.

A legal settlement with his Nebraska girlfriend, as well as fines and a $1-million bonus he forfeited after being dumped by the 49ers, cut into his earnings.

By 2000, Phillips was at loose ends.

He moved to a Beverly Hills apartment with a girlfriend he had met in San Francisco. He told Penegar that she refused to move out after they broke up, that he removed her belongings from the apartment and that she became hysterical.

Phillips pleaded no contest to felony charges of assault and making a terrorist threat and was sentenced to six months in jail and three years’ probation.

Even so, he again found work in his sport, playing two seasons in the Canadian Football League.

Although he became one of the league’s premier running backs, he was released by Montreal for failing to meet “minimum behavioral standards” and cut by Calgary for disrupting practice and arguing with a coach.

“When we talk, it always seems like he’s turning the corner,” Banks said. “In Canada, it seemed like he turned the corner. He told me, ‘I’m more a company man, a “yes sir, no sir” man, and then I’d read about something in the paper.’ ”

Friend Appalled

By the time Phillips sold his Nebraska championship ring, he was living in Las Vegas, working out and vowing to make another run at the NFL, Penegar said.

Last fall, Phillips joined the coaching staff at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., as a volunteer assistant.

Green last saw Phillips at a party in San Diego in March and was struck anew by how much he enjoyed his presence.

“Very witty, lot of street sense, and that’s why, to me, it’s appalling that these incidents keep occurring,” Green said.

Phillips was living in San Diego at least part time, staying with a girlfriend. He attacked her twice within two weeks in August, punching and choking her hard enough to leave bruises around her neck, said San Diego Police Sgt. Dan Cerar, leading to assault and other charges. Phillips has not entered a plea.

A week after the second alleged attack, he showed up at the park outside the Coliseum. At some point during the pickup football game with local teens, Phillips realized that his wallet and possibly his necklace were missing, according to Anthony Byooe, 14, who said he was there.

Phillips accused the boys of taking it. “He was cool till that happened,” Byooe said. “My friends are kind of crafty, and they can get in your pockets without you knowing it.”

Phillips became incensed. He retrieved his car from the lot next door, drove it up over the curb and straight for two of the youths, witnesses said.

After hitting them, the witnesses said, he drove straight for another, hitting him too. One of the teenagers was thrown onto the car’s hood.

Terrified parents rounded up boys in a youth league playing nearby, fearful that Phillips was coming after them. Instead, he did a U-turn, drove straight back down the field and roared off.

Though the boys escaped major injury, Phillips’ behavior has left his friends shaking their heads. “I definitely think he needs some help at this point.” Zane said. “I don’t know if it’s anger or frustration, but he needs some help.”

Pagone said he’s so upset that he doesn’t know if he’ll visit Phillips in jail. “In my heart, it’s going to be hard, because I don’t condone what he did,” Pagone said. “Are we going to keep making excuses for the guy or say this is where you’re going to have to be for the next several years?”

Penegar, who works in construction in Las Vegas, has put aside $3,000 for Phillips’ legal defense and is asking other friends to contribute.

Phillips could face more than 13 years in prison if convicted in the Los Angeles case; he could face an additional 15 years on the San Diego charges. He appeared in court Aug. 23 in a prison-issue shirt and denim shorts, his hands shackled to his sides, and is being held in lieu of $350,000 bail. He is being represented by a public defender, because he apparently has no money for an attorney.

“He got all the chances a person could get,” Penegar lamented. “But at the same time, he couldn’t change who he was and his reactions to a situation. He wouldn’t just walk away. You couldn’t pay that man to walk away. That’s the part that makes me cry.”

Times staff writers Martin Henderson, Ann Simmons, Ben Bolch and Sam Farmer contributed to this report.