Somehow, you knew the Lawrence Phillips story would end badly, with him dying of something other than natural causes. From a national perspective, Phillips was the poster child of the coddled athlete who thought he could do no wrong, who's athletic greatness gave him some sort of free pass to do whatever he wanted.
Nobody made Lawrence Philips bad guy. But he was classic example of enabled athlete at Nebraska and in NFL.— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC) January 14, 2016
But Phillips' death left former teammates and coaches saddened. Despite the many convictions for the bad things he did, they still considered him a friend, even today.
Shouldn't respond, but I will. I couldv'e taken the day off, I didn't. I can love w/out condoning. Its called agape' https://t.co/X4CYYkVk1G— Damon Benning (@damonbenning) January 14, 2016
But why? It's complicated - because Phillips was complicated.
Phillips problems started in childhood: his father was not around, and his mother's boyfriend allegedly abused him. Feeling abandoned, he ran away from home and bounced from foster home to juvenile detention before finally finding a group home in West Covina, Calif., where a group home supervisor named Barbara Thomas found a way to channel Phillips' anger towards athletics. That made him an elite athlete coveted by Nebraska and the NFL.
But his upbringing didn't give him any foundation for handling relationships - especially when things weren't going so well. He reacted as he learned on the streets. An anonymous source from Phillips' days at Nebraska said this:
"LP found out early in life that he had to look out for himself and protect from dangers surrounding. Due to this, he held 'street justice' in higher regard than the typical citizen. Unfortunately the majority of our society holds the legal system in higher regard. He simply didn't take shit from anyone, especially those who looked down on him and those he cared about.
"This often got him in hot water and eventually led to his incarceration."
But then there was this:
"He was a leader, a hard worker, a decent friend. He led by example in practices and never bitched, never whined. He loved 'family'. That's what that team was: family."
Phillips' Husker family is now in mourning. None of them suggest that Phillips should not have been held accountable for his many mistakes: he ended up in prison for a reason. Phillips was paying the price for his many transgressions in life, and nobody minimizes those acts. In an interview on Omaha radio station KOZN (1620 AM), Benning and former secondary coach George Darlington talked about how positive the good side of Phillips was. At Nebraska and in Barcelona, Spain (in NFL Europe), Phillips was the first player on the field for practice and the last one to leave. He connected with kids, attempting to be a positive role model.
But wait, Phillips is also the guy who drove his car into a group of kids ... and assaulted two former girlfriends. How in the world could that be a positive role model for kids again?
That's the conundrum of Lawrence Phillips. He was capable of so much good...but when things went wrong, the only thing Phillips was able to do was make things worse. Outsiders to the program didn't see nearly as much of the good, but couldn't miss the police blotter and court cases. It's easy for them to say that LP was a thug, an out of control athlete, a menace to society. His teammates ended up torn: they see a friend struggling, and despite all that he has done wrong, still love him like a family member.
Family bonds can be strong enough to survive a lot of turmoil and a lot of wrongdoing. Lawrence Phillips biological family wasn't...but his Husker family tried to be. It wasn't condoning what he did that was wrong, it was encouragement and support. For those who profess a religious belief, it was akin to the difference between sin and the sinner. We hate the sin, but profess to love the sinner.
The Lawrence Phillips story has come to it's end. The legal system will likely attempt to clear up the final details, but it doesn't change the outcome. Phillips is gone, and is never coming back.
But Phillips story is part of a bigger story that still exists today. If the root of Phillips problems goes back to his broken family life, our nation is still creating entire generations of Lawrence Phillips. Maybe they won't become star football players, but they still will turn to the only justice they have been taught: the justice of the streets. Of survival of the fittest. And that's the biggest tragedy of all, because in the end, American society ends up as the true victim of it.