WORTH THE RISK?

April 14, 1996

LOOKING AHEAD to next week's NFL draft, in which they have the
third overall pick, the Arizona Cardinals recently compiled a
50-play highlight tape of Nebraska running back Lawrence
Phillips. As the Phillips highlights lit up the screen in a
darkened room at the team's Tempe complex last week, Cardinals
scouts knew immediately who would be at the top of their
draft-day wish list. "Best football player in this draft," one
scout said in the darkness. "Is that Jim Brown up there?"
another scout asked.

Phillips has made a remarkable comeback as a draft prospect. He
seemed to have knocked himself out of high-first-round
contention last September, when he was kicked off the Nebraska
team after, according to police reports, knocking down a former
girlfriend and dragging her by the hair down three flights of
stairs as she screamed for help. Phillips pleaded no contest to
assault and trespassing, and in December the court put him on a
year's probation and ordered him to undergo counseling to learn
to control his anger.

But Phillips's draft stock has risen dramatically since he was
reinstated by the Cornhuskers in October. He gained 188 yards in
Nebraska's last three regular-season games and turned in a
stellar 165-yard effort in the Fiesta Bowl. Among NFL owners,
coaches and front-office people, Phillips's enormous talent and
the positive impression he has left in personal interviews
outweigh the gravity of his assault case. He is almost certain
to be taken among the top six picks. Gil Brandt, the former
Dallas personnel guru, is one of many who think he'll be the
first player selected.

The 5'11", 225-pound Phillips is a potentially stronger and
faster version of Emmitt Smith. If your NFL team needed a
running back, would you pass him up? "It's a classic case," said
New England owner Bob Kraft, whose Patriots will pick seventh
but won't have to make a politically difficult decision on
choosing Phillips because they already have rushing sensation
Curtis Martin in their backfield. "Do you sell your soul for a
mess of pottage?"

Last week, in his first interview in two months, Phillips told
reporters in St. Louis, where he met with Rams officials, "I
feel pretty comfortable about my anger and the way I'm going to
control myself right now." In fact, he has done such a good job
convincing NFL people of his improved temperament that SI
couldn't find one team with a pick in the top 10 that admits to
having eliminated him from consideration because of the assault.
The best guess is that Phillips will go to the Baltimore Ravens,
who pick fourth, or to St. Louis, which on Monday acquired the
sixth pick from the Washington Redskins for defensive lineman
Sean Gilbert.

Whoever drafts Phillips will face a public outcry. That would be
especially hard for Baltimore owner Art Modell. After being
widely vilified for uprooting his Cleveland Browns, Modell must
now win over fans in his new city as well as sell 100 luxury
boxes, 7,500 club seats and 50,000 seat licenses to fill a
stadium Baltimore is building for the 1998 season. Making
Phillips the franchise's first draft choice could be politically
explosive. "Whoever drafts him, there will be women out there
picketing," Ravens director of football operations Ozzie Newsome
told The Baltimore Sun. "But do we get paid to win games or have
nice people around?"

Four of the other teams drafting in the top 10--the Jacksonville
Jaguars at No. 2, the New York Giants at No. 5, New England at
No. 7 and the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 10--need too much help at
other positions to use their picks on Phillips. The Cardinals,
for all their drooling over his highlight film, probably won't
choose him, either; they had a bitter experience with their two
top picks of 1994, linebacker Jamir Miller and wide receiver
Chuck Levy, both of whom were suspended for substance abuse
within a year, and they may be scared off by Phillips's past.
That leaves the New York Jets (who have the first overall pick),
the Carolina Panthers (No. 8) and the Houston Oilers (No. 9) in
the running for Phillips, along with the Rams, the Ravens and
any other team that trades up to get a shot at him.

In scrutinizing Phillips, some teams may have set franchise
records for most homework done on a prospect. One team sent its
security officer to Phillips's hometown of West Covina, Calif.,
for three days to investigate the player's past, then sent the
official to Nebraska to do the same. Around the league, a
sympathetic profile seems to be emerging. After seeing Phillips
at the scouting combine in February, one team's personnel
director wrote, "Football is his life. He is environmentally
handicapped, but this is not a bad kid." The environmental
handicap? Phillips left his troubled family life behind at age
12 and spent much of his adolescence in a group home. "Lawrence
basically stands alone in the world," Rams general manager Steve
Ortmayer said after meeting with the 20-year-old Phillips last
week. "At his age that can't be easy."

Houston coach Jeff Fisher dined with Phillips last Thursday at a
restaurant near the Astrodome. "We talked at the scouting
combine," Fisher said, "but those interviews tend to be
rehearsed. I wanted to sit down and ask him different kinds of
questions." Phillips gave some answers that Fisher liked. When
the coach asked what he planned to do after his rookie year,
Phillips responded, "I want to take some of my money and build a
boys' home." When Fisher told him he would be hazed about the
assault, perhaps even by his teammates, Phillips said, "I'll
deal with it. I'll earn their respect off the field, and I'll
earn their respect on the field."

The next day Fisher took Phillips to his office and put on a
Nebraska videotape. In the middle of one running play, Phillips
asked Fisher to pause the tape. "I studied Barry Sanders,
Marshall Faulk and Emmitt Smith before last season to learn more
about rushing," Phillips said. "Now watch this move. I learned
it from Barry." Fisher rolled the tape, and it showed a
jitterbug, Sanders-type of move. Fisher noticed that Phillips
made more yardage than he should have on the play. "I am
convinced that this guy is going to have a marvelous pro
career," Fisher said later.

Before a team drafts Phillips, he'll probably have to agree to
continue to undergo anger-control counseling and do volunteer
work to repair his image. Whichever team does pick him will most
likely feel just as Tampa Bay Bucs general manager Rich McKay
did a year ago after selecting defensive lineman Warren Sapp,
who had tested positive for marijuana. "You look at the risk and
the reward, and you feel you've done the right thing," McKay
said last week. "But in the pit of your stomach, you know if
you're wrong, you've hurt yourself and you've hurt the
franchise."

--Peter King

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOPhillips is the draft's No. 1 talent, but teams must also weigh his history of violence. [Lawrence Phillips in game] COLOR PHOTO: TRAVIS HEYING/DAILY NEBRASKAN [See caption above--Lawrence Phillips surrounded by cameramen]

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