In a dimly lit lounge at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.,
Lawrence Phillips sits alone in a corner. His eyes look downward
at the scarlet carpet and his head rests on his right hand, like
Rodin's Thinker. For Phillips this is a strategic pose, because
as the rest of his teammates are talking into microphones and
tape recorders, he is able to maintain his solitude simply by
appearing to be lost in the land of his thoughts. After 10
uninterrupted minutes, Phillips rises quietly and walks toward
the door. Alone.
This is an article from the Aug. 5, 1995 issue
"I try to avoid interviews at all cost," Phillips later said in
his quiet voice. "I'm not comfortable talking about myself, but
the coaches are getting on me to stop ducking out when people
want to talk to me. I'm just a shy person who doesn't like extra
Perhaps that reticence is the main reason why Phillips remains
curiously in the shadow of many of his teammates. The story line
coming from Lincoln last season went from Tommie Frazier's blood
clots to Brook Berringer's collapsed lung to the jaw-dropping
performance of the offensive line. Even at the Orange Bowl, in
which Phillips ignited Nebraska's fourth-quarter comeback with a
twisting 25-yard dash, it was Frazier who was awash in the
spotlight after the game. But consider the season Phillips had:
He rushed for more yards than any other sophomore in Big Eight
history (1,722), he finished third in the nation in rushing
average and yards per carry (143.5 yards a game, 6.0 yards per
carry), and he received more Heisman Trophy votes than any other
player who returns this season.
"I honestly don't mind not getting the recognition that some
people think I deserve," says Phillips, a 20-year-old junior
from West Covina, Calif. "I don't have any personal goals. It's
all team with me."
And the Heisman Trophy? "Sure, winning the Heisman would be
nice," he says. "But I really don't think about it. The biggest
thing on my mind is getting to the Fiesta Bowl."
Like Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins last season,
Phillips and Frazier may unintentionally undermine each other's
bids for the Heisman this season. Two players with award-winning
credentials in the same backfield almost always diminish each
other's star power. But that may be a blessing for Phillips.
Ever since he was 12 years old, when he moved out of his home
and became a ward of the state, Phillips has been on his own. He
has had the support of a social worker named Barbara Thomas, but
he has essentially been without a family since the seventh
grade. His past has made him fiercely independent, and he is
something of an aberration among athletes: He quite honestly
disdains the attention that goes along with being the tailback
at the most prodigious rushing school in the country.
"I try my best to maintain a low profile," says Phillips. "I
stay home a lot and watch movies, because in Lincoln everything
a football player does catches attention and is usually blown
out of proportion. So I stay home like an average guy."
It was in 1987, while he was living in Inglewood with his
mother, Juanita, that Lawrence's home life began to
disintegrate, even as he started to habitually skip school. When
his mother tried to discipline him, Lawrence merely drifted
further away. The truancies continued until finally, when his
mother could no longer control his roiling temper, school and
state officials intervened and placed Lawrence in a foster home.
After living there for two tempestuous weeks, he was transferred
to Maclaren Hall, a juvenile detention center in El Monte.
At Maclaren Hall, Lawrence might have drowned in the system had
he not been rescued by Thomas, who supervises a state-supported
group home located in West Covina, a small city in the San
Gabriel foothills east of Pasadena. "When I first saw Lawrence,
he looked very athletic, but he was smoking cigarettes," says
Thomas. "I knew sports would give him a chance, so I took him
into our home and immediately enrolled him in sports leagues."
Phillips, who had previously played only street basketball,
excelled in football, baseball and basketball. He approached
athletics with a ferocity and a passion that belied his age,
which was only 12. The rage that was his adversary off the
field--"Lawrence had a behavior problem and got into multiple
fights at the group home," says Thomas--became his ally on the
field. And it quickly became apparent that his passion for
sports could be Phillips's ticket out of the streets.
"I don't know where Lawrence would be today if it were not for
athletics," says Ty Pagone, the assistant principal at Baldwin
Park High, where Phillips attended school. "He could be dead. He
could be in jail. It's just a blessing that sports entered his
Says Phillips, "I'll always be thankful to the group home for
getting me into sports."
Though he rarely opened a book to study while at the home,
standardized tests in the eighth grade revealed Phillips to be
intellectually gifted. But it wasn't until the beginning of the
11th grade that his attitude toward school underwent a
transformation. It was Pagone who was largely responsible for
inspiring Phillips to improve his study habits and begin making
up required courses. Pagone helped Phillips understand that
while athletics might be his calling, he would not be allowed to
play in college if he did not take the requisite classes.
"After I saw Lawrence play football, I told him that God gave
him stuff he didn't give my kids," says Pagone. "He didn't
understand he was blessed. We worked with him, counseled him,
did everything we could to keep him from wasting his talent."
Because of his fractured past, Phillips had missed a number of
courses, so to make up for lost time, he attended school from
6:50 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during part of his senior year. "It was a
tough time," he says. "But I owe my school a lot. They stuck
But when Phillips arrived in Nebraska--which was attractive in
part because it was far from Los Angeles--some of his old
problems went with him. He was suspended for the first game of
the '93 season for fighting. Last March, a student from Doane
College accused Phillips of damaging his vehicle and a necklace
during a confrontation on a city street. Phillips paid the
student $400, and all charges were dropped. Then, in June,
Phillips was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace after
a late-night party in Lincoln, a charge for which he was still
awaiting a court date at press time.
"I'm still working on controlling myself and my temper," says
Phillips. "Lincoln has been a great city for me to grow up and
mature in, and I'm learning to stay out of situations where I
could get in trouble."
The Huskers are counting on that. Phillips was, after all, a
catalyst of the run to the national title last season. Despite
playing at various times with sore ankles, a pulled groin, a
turf toe and a severely sprained left thumb, Phillips became the
mainstay of the offense after Frazier went out in the third game
of the fall. Even though he often faced eight-man lines keyed to
stop him, Phillips ran for more than 100 yards in 11 straight
games last season, a Nebraska record.
"Lawrence has got the complete package," says coach Tom Osborne.
"He's got speed, he's tough, he catches the ball well, he gets
yards after contact and he can go the distance."
In what could be his last season as a Husker--"I'll look at my
options after the season is over," he says--Phillips carries with
him the hopes of a state. But as he walks out of the Memorial
Stadium lounge, Lawrence Phillips is alone. He has been that way
for a long time and has no plans to change.