“In life, either you did or you didn’t.” – Lawrence Phillips
The program for Phillips’ service. You can see it in full here.
The decision to attend the funeral service for Lawrence Phillips was an easy one, based in a sense of belief and obligation.
Belief in that I sincerely feel there’s a higher power at work behind the curtain those dozen or so Saturdays a year when the Huskers take the field and a million people around the world wear red and soar or languish with every snap. As someone who is not openly spiritual or religious, going to church has been relegated to weddings, funerals, and baptisms. If you know where to look, the solace, guidance, and inspiration sought within the walls of a church can be found all around you.
And the obligation was to those who wanted to attend but couldn’t. I felt it was my turn to help be the glue that sticks Husker fans together in all kinds of weather.
Honestly, the most difficult part of deciding to go was hunting down the right tie to wear. There’s no question that it had to be red but finding one in the proper shade and style turned out to be a quandary in itself. Part of Friday night was spent at Macy’s carefully examining every single red hued tie on display. In the end, a deep red one that wasn’t quite into Oklahoma territory won out over a tie in the proper shade of scarlet but had silver stripes that were definitive enough to make an impartial college football fan think Ohio State.
Thanks to the unpredictable nature of LA traffic, I allotted an hour and a half to make the 37 mile drive to the service in San Dimas, an eastern suburb just a few miles from the football field at Baldwin Park High that was the launching pad to send Phillips’ life on a much different trajectory than what anyone would ever have predicted if they had to guess his future when he was 12-years-old and living alone on the streets of South LA.
I arrived in under an hour and didn’t know what to expect. By local standards, it was a dreary winter day. The San Gabriel Mountains that would normally serve as an impressive backdrop for Christ’s Church of the Valley were muted by a cold grey sky. Snow covered peaks slicing through the low clouds were a stark contrast to the palm trees dotting the immediate landscape.
After signing the guest book, I entered the nave and found a crowd of a few dozen of his friends, family, and teammates grouped around the casket that was front and center. Those of us who didn’t fit into any of those categories gravitated towards seats a respectful distance away.
Many of the former Huskers I spotted looked like they could still challenge for the top of the depth chart today. Others had become regular guys who’d blend in with the dads at a neighborhood barbecue, their imposing statures becoming more approachable over the years but their stories would always remain more impressive than yours.
As the service drew closer to starting, the crowd steadily swelled to well over 150. At one moment the silence was broken by a small burst of hushed chatter and turning heads when Tom Osborne and George Darlington entered.
That was as grand as their arrival would get. There was no fanfare or elaborate introduction for two legendary coaches who flew in that morning to pay their final respects to one of the best players they ever coached. They selected seats directly across the aisle from me far from where any VIP section would be. One of the most significant figures in Nebraska’s entire history was now sitting less than three yards and a cloud of dust away from a rank and file member of Husker Nation.
I instantly sat up even straighter.
(And I couldn’t help but notice the silver stripes that crossed Darlington’s tie, settling that protocol question.)
Tom Osborne can have that kind of effect on a person. It’s a measure of respect on an entirely different plane than being a starstuck, adoring fan.
The last time I was in the same room as Coach was when he announced his retirement on December 10, 1997. He still looked the same. Just a little older like we all do. Even if I didn’t have a beard that was bracketed in swaths of grey, I doubt he’d recognize me as the budding sports reporter from KRNU who’d be posted up at the back of the room grazing over the spread that was a staple at his weekly press conferences.
Like the players he coached, I have always found him to be a great role model in the way he quietly persevered and carried himself in his conviction for doing what he thought was the right thing. I learned a lot from him just by covering his press conferences as a student. He will never get enough credit for his wit or his ability to effortlessly work a room.
The service was a two hour celebration and remembrance of the life that Lawrence lived as wide range of speakers took to the lectern to share their favorite memories. He packed a lot into his 40 years.
While those who are avid readers of scandalous headlines might try to argue that Lawrence failed, there is absolutely no question that he was someone who lived his life as someone who did.
A person just don’t go from being a homeless middle school dropout to earning a college scholarship en route to becoming a top ten pick in the NFL draft without overcoming very long odds.
The legacy Lawrence Phillips leaves behind will always be conflicted and complicated but if there’s one thing everyone can rally behind, it’s the idea of staying true to your friends and doing all you can to give real help to those who need it most. When others are giving up, it’s time to dig in.
Not long after the service ended, I headed back home. The familiar voice of Kent Pavelka kept me company for the ninety minute drive drive west as he called the action of a Husker basketball game. Even during this very low moment, the pulse of Husker Nation continued to beat strong.
It was such a comfort that I listened all the way through the post-game interviews.
Many of those closest to Lawrence Phillips spoke at his service and shared their favorite memories and stories. What follows are fresh insights into his life and quotes from those who spoke.
HE SCARRED OPPOSING COACHES FOR LIFE.
Pastor Dane Johnson, service officiant: Johnson is also a football coach and during Phillips’ time at Baldwin Park High, he was the head coach at a rival school and reminisced about the first time he coached against Phillips.
“He ran down our sidelines and one of our players got a pretty good lick on him and he ended up down at my feet. As I reached down to pick him up I said ‘Welcome to the Sierra League.’ He started laughing and smiled and chuckled his way all the way back to the huddle and another 180 yards.”
HIS REASON FOR CHOOSING NEBRASKA WAS SIMPLE BUT LOGICAL.
Ty Pagone, Baldwin Park High assistant principal: Pagone was closely involved with the Baldwin Park High football program and helped Phillips through the college recruiting process, hosting visits for his top three schools (USC, Arizona State, and Nebraska) at his home.
“The quietest one was Coach Osborne. He sat there with his arms folded and Lawrence asked one question. ‘Who wears number one?’ and Coach Osborne said, ‘You will.’”
Not long after meeting with Osborne, Phillips made his decision to play for Nebraska.
“I asked Lawrence, ‘What made you choose Nebraska?’
“They had the right answer. I was going to wear number one, their linemen were gigantic, I’ve never seen anything like it, and the community was certainly dedicated to football in Lincoln, Nebraska. Plus, Tom Osborne said I didn’t have to go in to beat the man which was sensible. Coach Osborne says you’ll be fighting for second team. And our second team guys usually rush for 700 yards or so if they’re any good.”
HE WAS A RELENTLESS WORKER AND GREAT FRIEND TO OTHERS AT HIS GROUP HOME.
Thomas Penegar, Phillips’ best friend at the Tina Mac Group Home and a teammate at Baldwin Park High: “Lawrence was a person who’d get up early in the morning while everyone was asleep and head to the elementary school right down the street from the group home. He would do 100 yard sprints and pull ups before going to school. ‘That’s how you get good, Tom.’ I didn’t believe that was what he was doing. I just knew he was going to a girl’s house. One morning I waited for him to leave and I went to see if he was working out. And he was. Hard.”
“For myself being raised in Watts I didn’t attend school because of hunger, clothes, and shoes. I was pretty much illiterate when I arrived at the home. I remember, I asked Lawrence why he had a ‘P’ and not an ‘F’ in his last name. ‘He said p-h makes the f sound.‘ Not once did he laugh or make fun of me.”
HE NEVER BLAMED ANYONE FOR HIS ACTIONS.
Clinton Childs, fellow Nebraska running back: “Lawrence and I had a bond that will never be broken. I always had his back one hundred percent. The common denominator is misunderstood. He was misunderstood. Lawrence touched a lot of people. ”
“He never pointed the finger. No matter what the media said about him. He took every shot on the chin. He never pointed the finger. He absorbed a lot for 40 years. He absorbed it all. He took it on the chin and he rolled with it.”
HE WAS THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAYER AND WAS THRILLED FOR THE SUCCESS OF OTHERS.
George Darlington, defensive assistant coach for 30 seasons at Nebraska and the lead recruiter of Phillips: “One of the things that is going to be said all day is the tremendous consistency of Lawrence Phillips. The tremendous team player of Lawrence Phillips. I get so sick and tired of watching television and see these jokers pounding their fists and try to have the focus on them. Well, that’s diametrically opposite of Lawrence Phillips.”
“Lawrence Phillips is as fine of an example as we’ve ever had at the University of Nebraska as a team player. He cared about the team and wasn’t in it for him.”
Darlington closed his speech by telling a story about the 2014 reunion of the 1994 championship team. He regularly corresponded with Phillips and wrote to him asking if there was anything he’d want passed a long to his teammates.
“He wrote in a letter ‘It was so great that Schlesinger got to score those two touchdowns and I kind of got blasted carrying out the fake. Just think how much Cory and the other fullbacks blocked for us.’ He didn’t say blocked for me. He was just a tremendous, unbelievable model of the kind of guy you wanted on your team.”
HE LOVED HIS BIG FAMILY.
Arzelle Dupree, Uncle: “Lawrence was one of those kids who got along with everybody. I am so proud of my nephew.”
HE WAS A SUPPORTIVE AND GENEROUS TEAMMATE
Vershan Jackson, teammate at Nebraska: “We logged a lot of hours walking as freshman. We logged a lot of hours talking. And one day Lawrence said ‘Why are you always waking with your head down?’ And I said ‘I don’t know.’ He said ‘There ain’t nothing down but the ground.’ I call him my best friend and there are a lot of guys here who are his best friend too. He breathed confidence in me. He breathed strength in me.”
“LP was the most generous person I know. When he got drafted to go to St. Louis, he said ‘VJ you can have everything in my apartment and my car. You can have it all.’ I look back on my life and I ask myself, do I do that to other people? Would I do it? Can I do it?”
“When we get an opportunity to touch someone’s life, like Lawrence Phillips touched my life when I was an 18-year-old kid, and I’m 40 now, it’s truly amazing. Don’t miss your opportunity.”
EVERYONE COULD SEE THAT HE WAS SPECIAL ON THE FIELD.
Tina McElhannon, Tina Mac Group Home: “I went to one of the games. (My sister Barbara), she put the kids in everything she could put them in. We went to Baldwin Park and Lawrence was playing and I’m one of the people who when they watch I worry that the kids will get hurt. And Barbara said ‘Don’t worry about it. He’s going to be just fine.’ Then this kid goes racing down the field and I said ‘Who is that, Superman?’ and Barbara said ‘No, that’s Lawrence Phillips.’”
HIS COACH’S FAVORITE GAME WASN’T ONE THAT WON A CHAMPIONSHIP
Coach Tom Osborne: Coach still has his knack for working a room. He started off with a small quip (as always) that got a nice laugh from those in attendance. He thanked Ty Pagone for calling him an excellent recruiter and added, “I didn’t say anything. I just told Lawrence he could wear number one. Actually, I think I knew it was open that year.”
He went then through of list of those he reached out to to get a remark about Lawrence. The names included Boyd Epley, Frank Solich, Doak Ostergard, Dennis Leblanc, and Jack Stark. They each had something wonderful to say.
In his typical style, Coach was doing everything he could to not make his moment at the podium about him. His only game story about Lawrence didn’t involve any that resulted in a championship or featured anything particularly highlight worthy.
Kansas State. 1994. A downright miserable day in Manhattan, KS, and with Tommie Frazier out and Brook Berringer injured, it was up to Lawrence to shoulder the load.
“Our top two quarterbacks were hurt so we weren’t going to throw the ball much that day and K-State had 11 guys within about five yards of the line of scrimmage. We gave the ball to Lawrence 30 times. And it was tough going. Probably three, four yards at a crack. And he was playing with a thumb that was so swollen that he couldn’t grip the ball. It was about four or five times the normal size and very painful so he carried the ball with one hand and he kept hitting that line.”
He closed by speaking about the last time he he saw Phillips.
“Paul Koch and I visited Lawrence in prison. Spent about an hour with him and during that time Lawrence smiled for the whole hour.
He was very upbeat. Never did anything negative come out of his mouth. He didn’t put anyone down and blame anybody. I came away from that particular visit thinking maybe I’d lift his spirits and I have to say that, actually, Lawrence lifted my spirits more than I was able to lift his spirits.”
“There were a great number of people who cared about him and stood by him through thick and thin and that love will be endured forever.”
Pastor Daryl Sanders, a volunteer at the Tina Mac Group Home: “I met him when he was 12-years-old and had just come into the home. We were having a competition and I saw muscles come out of Lawrence that I had never seen before the age of 12. I said this man is really a specimen.”
HE WAS A VOLUNTEER FOOTBALL COACH.
Sharon Pritchett, Aunt: Lawrence’s Aunt told a story about how he visited her and her daughter in North Carolina. She didn’t specify the exact place or time but Lawrence spent that fall working as a volunteer coach at the nearby traditionally black college working with the running backs.
“Reach out and touch someone with you can. Make this world a better place.”
HIS STRONG WORK ETHIC CONTINUED TO THE NFL.
Toby Wright, teammate at Nebraska and St. Louis: “Lawrence’s work ethic was unbearable. To see Lawrence work was to to see Lawrence as the person he was today. Everything he did he went 100. He went 100 as a good friend. He went 100 as a football player. He went 100 to everything he loved.”
“I remember we were driving to one of the games He said one thing to me. He turned down the radio and said T-riggity. ‘You know what I found out. In life, either you did or your didn’t.‘ And then he turned up the music back up.”
HE PROTECTED HIS TEAMMATES.
Paul Koch, strength coach at Nebraska from 1987 – 1996: Koch was a frequent correspondent with Phillips and used his time to eulogize his friend by showing how his initials of LP could describe who he was as a person.
An example: “Lasting Protector. A young teammate blew out his knee and was on crutches in the team locker room. Some older teammates were hazing the freshman where they grab you and throw you in the wet showers and give you a rough time. Well, someone wanted to take the injured youngster’s crutches from him and toss them in the showers but Lawrence quickly stood between them and said no one’s touching him. That was the end of that. He had a soft spot for the weak and defenseless.”
KEEP BACKING HIM UP AND HE’LL STILL FIND A WAY TO SCORE.
Tony Zane, Head Coach at Baldwin Park High: Coach Zane told a story of coaching Lawrence in an all-star game in Hawaii. His next stop was Nebraska and Coach Zane said he’d promised George Darlington that he’d honor his request and not play Lawrence at running back to reduce the chance of injury. (In high school he was also a standout linebacker.) A series of fumbles (and Lawrence’s insistence) caused that promise to be broken by halftime. Midway through the third quarter, Lawrence became to only player Coach Zane ever heard of to make it to the end zone three times in a row on the same drive.
It’s first and 10 at their opponent’s 16 yard line, Lawrence runs left and goes right past a Samoan lineman (who went on to start at BYU) and scores.
But there’s a penalty flag.
They run the same play from the 26 and Lawrence jukes the same lineman before reaching the end zone again.
But there’s another flag.
From the 36 they run the same play for a third time and this time Lawrence runs straight over the lineman, his signature move when he was upset, and sprints to the end zone.
The same ref goes to throw a flag again but wasn’t in his pocket.
“One of my players probably picked it up,” said Coach Zane to big laughs.