Joe Theismann dubbed him the best player in the 1996 NFL Draft. Dick Vermeil once judged him the most talented running back he had ever coached. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) now calls him a murder suspect.
Lawrence Phillips, star running back on the 1995 national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers, has been named as the prime suspect in a prison murder.
Guards at Kern Valley State Prison found Damion Soward, a convicted murderer, unresponsive in the first hour of Saturday in a prison cell he shared with Lawrence Phillips. Soward died from his injuries the following day.
“Prison officials have named Soward’s cellmate, Lawrence Phillips, 39, as a suspect in the case,” announced the CDCR. “Phillips was received by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on Oct. 16, 2008, from San Diego County to serve a 31-year, four-month sentence for inflicting great bodily injury involving domestic violence, corporal injury to spouse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft. Phillips played in the National Football League prior to his incarceration in state prison.”
The new allegation shocks few.
Suspended for six games after pleading guilty to dragging his girlfriend down several flights of stairs by her hair at Nebraska, Phillips controversially played, and played quite well, in the Cornhusker Fiesta Bowl rout of Florida after the 1995 season. His girlfriend, a college basketball player, saw her athletic scholarship taken away by Nebraska.
Despite Phillips playing the starring role on a cast many describe as the best college football team in history, he slipped to the sixth spot in the NFL Draft because of character concerns.
“If it helps our team, that’s all I care about,” then-Rams owner Georgia Frontiere remarked in 1996. “The thing that counts is the future.”
In his tumultuous tenure in St. Louis, Phillips spent more days in jail (23) than as a starter (19). The Miami Dolphins released him in 1997 after he pleaded guilty to an assault on a woman in a nightclub and in 1999 the San Francisco 49ers ended his stint as a result of conduct issues.
Though he would later win a Grey Cup in the Canadian Football League after previously setting records in NFL Europe, Lawrence Phillips would never play another NFL game after San Francisco sent him packing. He finished his 35-game career averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry and scoring 14 touchdowns.
Things degenerated further for the former foster kid after his football career ended. In 2005, Phillips twice choked a girlfriend, allegedly assaulted another woman, and used his car to run down three youths who had infuriated him during a pick-up football game. A California court sentenced him to 31 years for the 2005 crime spree. But as a dying bunkmate in a locked cell suggests, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had neither corrected nor rehabilitated Phillips.
“I just want everybody to know that I have a great character, that I’ll be fine for St. Louis on and off the field,” the convicted batterer maintained after his draft selection by the only NFL team then owned by a woman. “I’ve been around those teams who’ve been a little bit afraid of the incident. They had a lot of reasons to be fearful of picking me, but I want to prove that I’m a great person and that they might’ve missed a good thing.”