Lawrence Phillips, the talented but troubled running back who starred at Nebraska in the 1990s before running into a number of legal troubles that derailed his professional career, was found dead early Wednesday at Kern Valley State Prison in California.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is investigating the death as a suicide, according to a press release. Phillips was 40 years old and facing the possibility of the death penalty after cellmate Damion Soward was found dead in their shared cell in April, allegedly murdered by Phillips.
According to the press release, Phillips was found unresponsive in his solitary-confinement cell at 12:05 a.m. Wednesday by guards performing a security check at the prison, located between Fresno and Bakersfield in Central California. He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:27 a.m.
Phillips had been incarcerated at Kern Valley since 2008, when he was convicted of assault after he drove his car into a group of teenagers following a dispute during a pick-up football game in Los Angeles. Before that sentence even began, however, he was arrested on domestic-abuse charges involving an attack on his girlfriend and, in 2009, was convicted of inflicting great bodily injury involving domestic violence, corporal injury to a spouse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft. The judge in that case combined his previous assault sentence with the domestic violence sentence, handing down a nearly 31-year prison sentence.
Phillips’s legal troubles began in March 1994, before he helped lead Nebraska to that year’s national championship by rushing for 1,722 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore. He was charged with misdemeanor assault, disturbing the peace and two counts of vandalism over an incident involving a fellow student. He initially entered a pre-trial diversion program to avoid formal charges but failed to meet the program’s requirements.
Then, shortly after the start of the 1995 season, Phillips was arrested for assault after allegedly dragging his girlfriend down three flights of stairs by her hair. Cornhuskers Coach Tom Osborne initially kicked Phillips off the team before reversing course to say he was only indefinitely suspended, drawing fire for his assumed coddling of his top star. Phillips sat out six games before returning to help lead Nebraska to another national championship, after which he announced he would forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
Phillips played just three seasons in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams – who drafted him with the sixth overall pick of the 1996 NFL draft – the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers. In 19 months with the Rams, Phillips was arrested three times and spent 23 days in jail before he was released midway through the 1997 season. The Dolphins then released Phillips after he was charged with hitting a woman at a Florida nightclub, receiving probation after a no-contest plea. After a successful season playing in Europe, Phillips signed with San Francisco before the 1999 season and played in eight games before the team released him over his refusal to practice.
He never played in the NFL again.
A month before his cellmate’s death in April, Phillips wrote a letter to his mother in which he confessed that his anger might lead to either his downfall or that of someone else.
“I feel myself very close to snapping,” Phillips wrote in the letter, which was obtained by USA Today. “My anger grows daily as I have become fed up with prison. I feel my anger is near bursting and that will result in my death or the death of someone else.”
Prison officials believe Phillips strangled Soward to death. The two had shared the cell for just that one night as Soward was supposed to be transferred to another part of the prison, his uncle told USA Today. Phillips’s murder trial was in its opening stages when he was found dead Wednesday.