Thursday, 30 April 2015


Even if you're not an American football fan, the story of Lawrence Phillips, who's recently been accused of murdering his cellmate in prison, is a sad one. My experience with Lawrence, and a preview of the NFL Draft which takes place today, are in my Friday Monthly Tight End column at; you can find it here.

Or, six weeks later, I've posted the whole piece here, though I do recommend my pretty accurate NFL Draft preview too:


I was more saddened than shocked by the news this month that Lawrence Phillips had apparently killed his cellmate in prison, and will likely remain behind bars for the rest of his life. Trouble followed Phillips around throughout his career, but the season he played for the Barcelona Dragons in the World League of American Football belied his reputation. Still, in that short season I got to see up close just a hint of what lay smouldering beneath the surface of a troubled human being.

In March 1998 I was in Orlando for WLAF preseason, and supposed to interview Phillips for the International Herald Tribune one day after scrimmages. But first he had to do a sit-down with ESPN, and the league's PR people had agreed to that on condition they not ask Lawrence about his problems at the University of Nebraska, which included dragging an ex-girlfriend down three flights of stairs in a jealous rage. Of course the representatives of the Worldwide Leader ignored their promise to the mere World League, and immediately began the interview with just such a question, raising hackles all around. So when Phillips was then being escorted away from me, I started trying to persuade the league PR guys (who were and are friends) to let me do the interview I'd been promised. They said no, but Lawrence as he passed by heard and saw me, and stopped. 'It's OK,' he said, 'I'll do it, I know this guy.' 'You know me?' I said, thinking it unlikely my fame had reached that far. 'Yeah, you did a good interview with me at the Orange Bowl. Let's talk.'

So we talked, and I could not persuade him that I didn't know him, hadn't interviewed him, and had never been to Miami, much less the Orange Bowl. I didn't ask for details about the past, but he was frank about his getting a second chance. Indeed he went with that second chance, having a fine season with the Dragons, 1,021 yards rushing and 14 TDs in 10 games, leading them to the World Bowl, and being named the league's MVP. Whenever I went to Barcelona, he remained friendly, joking about the Orange Bowl. But in the season's final game, against Frankfurt, whom the Dragons would meet the next week in the World Bowl, Phillips suffered a severe sprain of his ankle as Barcelona won 28-26.

The next morning, with a Sky camera crew, I went to catch the Dragons' World Bowl train to Dusseldorf. I saw Lawrence standing alone at the end of another platform. Asking the cameraman to stay behind me until I needed him, I went over. As I got closer I could see Lawrence staring, seething, at the ground. I said hi, and something about the ankle, asked if he'd be ready for Saturday, and Phillips cold-eyed me. He cussed me out as he told me to get away. 'I don't know you,' he said. I tried to say something else, but he repeated the formula. So I stopped and just said 'Let me get this straight...when I say you don't know me, you say you know me. And now that you do know me, you say you don't?' I swear he almost broke the cold-eye, but then it snapped back and he turned away. I realised that the pain and disappointment of injury was translating itself into anger. In the World Bowl he tried to play with the injury, but he was ineffective, and the Galaxy won easily, 38-24.

One summer up in New Hamapshire, years later after Lawrence had been arrested for running over two guys after a touch football argument, I was talking with Jack Bicknell, his coach in Barcelona, about that. He told me how nice Phillips had been, that he'd called Jack's wife Lois 'mom', and how he'd done everything well. Jack thought that the relaxed atmosphere, the forced camaraderie of the league, where players lived together for three whole months, and the very anonymity of playing football in Barcelona, had lessened the pressure on Phillips. Because Lawrence lacked a kind of regulator for dealing with some adversities, and so he internalised pressure. You might say he needed to be coddled or protected, or you might say he just needed something more basic.

At any rate, his on-field success in Barcelona or Montreal of the CFL might be explained by that relative relaxation, though it could be explained just as easily by the extra split-second holes stayed open for him in those leagues. And it's ironic that a player so violent off the football field will be remembered in on-field NFL terms primarily for being the guy who missed a block and allowed the sack and concussion which ended Steve Young's career. But off-field, having seen face to face just a hint of the intensity of his anger, I'm not surprised by the rages that led him to where he is today.

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