Lawrence Phillips, the NFL’s Tragic Icon

How did a star Nebraska running back end up dead in a California prison cell?
Lawrence Phillips of the San Francisco 49ers carries the ball during a game against the Tennessee Titans at 3Com Park in San Francisco, California on October 3, 1999.
03_31_LawrencePhillips_01 Source: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty

Long before he was a sad example of promise gone awry, before he was an inmate in a maximum-security prison in California, Lawrence Phillips was the kid from Los Angeles with the big smile and bigger muscles stepping for the first time on the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln to do the thing he was seemingly meant to do: take the handoff from his quarterback and run. Two years later, he left Lincoln as the best player on the best team in the nation; some said he was the best runner to ever play the game, a freakish combination of power and grace who could plow through a defensive tackle, then dance away from a cornerback, on his way to the end zone once again.

“One of the most beautiful runners I’ve ever seen,” a teammate says of him in Running for His Life, a new Showtime documentary about Phillips. Even more striking is frequent reference, in the documentary, to Phillips’s intellectual powers—striking because he became a brutish symbol of the inordinate privilege athletes enjoy on college campuses, the organized violence for which they are celebrated and another, darker violence, often toward women, for which they are rarely condemned.

That’s why, when the 1996 NFL draft came, many teams treated Phillips like a second-string punter. The year before, he’d dragged a girlfriend down three flights of stairs, resulting in a

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