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Despite his talent, the once promising NFL star entered into a downward spiral that resulted in a 31 year prison sentence, a murder charge, and his eventual death.

By Xandria James
January 13, 2016

Former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips was found dead in his Kern Valley State Prison cell on Wednesday at the age of 40. The once promising player struggled to make a name for himself in the NFL while battling behavioral issues and legal problems. Despite his talent, Phillips entered into a downward spiral that resulted in a 31–year prison sentence, a murder charge and an early death. 


Phillips grew up in California, where he entered the foster care system at the age of 11. Despite a troubled childhood, Phillips became a standout high school football player. He attended West Covina High School, where he started on the school’s varsity team as both a running back and an outside linebacker. He then transferred to Baldwin Park High School after his sophomore year, helping the team win two CIF championships. His high school performance attracted attention from the University of Nebraska, where he signed to play college football. 

Rise to stardom

At Nebraska, Phillips came off the bench during his freshman year to rush for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the Cornhuskers’ victory over UCLA, a team that would go on to win the Pac-10 title. The following season, he tied a Nebraska record by rushing for 100 yards for 11 straight games. He rushed for a total of 1,722 yards and had 16 touchdowns during that 1994 season, the second most in the Big Eight Conference and the third most in the NCAA. That year, Phillips finished eighth in Heisman voting. Over the course of three seasons as a Cornhusker, Phillips accumulated 2,777 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.

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However, things took a downward turn for Phillips during his junior year. After just two games that season, Phillips was arrested for a domestic violence incident involving his then-girlfriend. The running back pleaded no contest to charges of trespassing and misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to a year of probation in addition to mandatory anger-management counseling. Head coach Tom Osborne initially dismissed Phillips from the team following the incident, but later changed the punishment to a six-game suspension. Phillips started for the Cornhuskers that year in the 1995 national championship game, rushing for 165 yards and three touchdowns to lead his team to the win.

Pro football struggles

Phillips chose to declare early for the NFL draft, forgoing his senior season at Nebraska. The St. Louis Rams selected the running back in the first round of the 1996 draft. Some thought he has turned his life around despite a pre-draft psychological evaluation that questioned Phillips’s maturity level. After he was drafted, Phillips was arrested and charged with drunk driving after he was pulled over for speeding on the way home from a night club. The arrest violated his probation, and Phillips spent 23 days in jail. 

Amid tension between Phillips and Rams head coach Dick Vermeil, the running back entered free agency in 1997. Phillips signed with the Miami Dolphins, but shortly after joining the team, he was cut after he pleaded no contest to assaulting a woman in a Florida night club. He received six months probation. Phillips did not play in the NFL for the entire 1998 season.

Getty Images/Otto Greule Jr.

Phillips went on to play in the NFL Europe in 1999. He won offensive player of the year with the Barcelona Dragons and earned a contract with the San Francisco 49ers, but he only spent five months with the team despite a two-year contract.

He appeared in 35 NFL games over the course of his career, rushing for 1,445 years and 14 touchdowns.

Getty Images/Eliot J. Schechter

Phillips went on to play in the Canadian Football League. He first signed with the Montreal Allouettes, but was released in 2003 due to behavior issues. Phillips then signed with the Calgary Stampeders, but was cut from the team after arguing with a coach, bringing an end to his career as a running back.


In 2005, Phillips was arrested after hitting three teenagers with a car following a dispute at a pickup football game in Los Angeles. At the time of this arrest, Lawrence was also wanted by the San Diego Police Department for two domestic violence incidents involving his then–girlfriend.

In 2006, Phillips was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the Los Angeles incident. In 2008, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While Phillips was serving his time, he was convicted of assault in the San Diego incidents. He was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

While in Kern Valley State Prison, Phillips was accused of murdering his former cellmate, Damion Soward. Soward was found unresponsive in the cell on April 11, 2015, and later died in the hospital. According to the coroner’s report, Soward’s death was caused by strangulation. Phillips had asked to be put in solitary confinement on several occasions before the incident occurred, according to Bleacher Report. He entered a plea of not guilty to the first-degree murder charge in September 2015, claiming that he acted in self-defense. On Tuesday, a judge said there was enough evidence to move forward with a trial, in which Phillips would face the death penalty if convicted.

On Jan. 13, Phillips was found dead in his cell at Kern Valley. The cause of his death is suspected to be suicide.

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