Lawrence Phillips, the former star tailback whose University of Nebraska teams won the national championship in 1994 and 1995, was found dead earlier today at Kern Valley State Prison in California. According to a press release from the California Department of Corrections, his death is being investigated as a suspected suicide.
Phillips, 40, was facing the death penalty in the strangulation murder of his former cellmate Damion Soward, who happened to be the cousin of former USC Trojan and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward.
Phillips was a first-round pick pick, the sixth overall, in the 1996 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He played for three seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.
One of the most talented college players of his era, Phillips’ career was overshadowed by his constant off the field troubles.
As a Cornhusker freshman, he came off the bench to rush for 137 yards and a touchdown in the Huskers’ 14-13 win against UCLA in his hometown of Los Angeles.
As a sophomore, he tied a school record by rushing for 100 yards or more in 11 straight games while putting up 1,722 yards. As a junior in 1995, he was a Heisman Trophy favorite.
Against Michigan State in Nebraska’s second game of the year, Phillips rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. He was suspended for a number of games after being arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and dragging her down a flight of steps.
He was controversially reinstated by Cornhusker head coach Tom Osborne as the starting running back when No. 1 Nebraska met No. 2 Florida for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl, where he rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, and scored a touchdown on a 16-yard reception in the Cornhuskers’ 62-24 victory.
The off-field problems that plagued him in college followed him into the pros.
When the St. Louis Rams cut him because of inability to stay out of trouble, head coach Dick Vermeil cried at the news conference, calling Phillips potentially the most talented running back he’d ever coached. He played two games for the Dolphins before being cut after an arrest for assaulting a woman at a Florida nightclub.
In 2009, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison for two separate incidents driving his car into three teenagers and assaulting an ex-girlfriend.