Ex-NFL star Lawrence Phillips had a tough start in life, but he had one thing going for him — he was a talented athlete.
It could’ve been his way out, but instead, Phillips — who died of an apparent suicide Wednesday — spent his final years languishing in a prison cell, describing in letters to friends and family a slow descent into madness and violence.
Now, in light of his sudden passing at age 40, colleagues and advocates are questioning whether brain damage caused by the game, or the torturous cruelty of prison segregation, contributed to Lawrence’s apparent suicide.
According to the New York Times, Phillips never knew his father and lived with his mother in Los Angeles until entering the foster care system at age 11. He lived in a juvenile group home and began playing football in high school.
Phillips played football for the University of Nebraska and left for the NFL in his junior year. Lawrence’s pro career was spent playing for the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, and San Francisco 49ers. But his career was punctuated by violence, and by 2008, the former NFL star found himself in prison.
Lawrence’s crimes: punching his fiancée in a hotel elevator, assaulting a girlfriend by dragging her down three flights of stairs by her hair, and running over three teens who he thought stole his wallet. When he was found unresponsive in his prison cell Wednesday, Phillips was serving a 31-year sentence for domestic abuse and assault with a deadly weapon. He was also facing a murder charge in the choking death of his cellmate.
It’s that pending charge that may have caused Phillips to snap.
In March 2015, Lawrence told his mother in a letter that he felt himself “very close to snapping. 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,” the Guardian reported. A few weeks later, his cellmate, Damion Soward, had been choked to death.
Afterward, Lawrence was held in the prison’s segregation unit. Hours before his death in a local hospital, Phillips appeared at a preliminary hearing and learned from a superior court judge that there was “sufficient cause to believe” he murdered Soward. The possible punishment was the death penalty.
His lawyer, Jesse Whitten, described his client as confident he’d win his case and optimistic his appeals on prior cases would be successful. Whitten didn’t think Lawrence acted suicidal or depressed.
Now, some former NFL players want an autopsy performed to find signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which they think may have contributed to his behavior and suicide. Among them is former Super Bowl champion and CTE sufferer Dave Pear, 62.
“I’m not blaming everything on CTE but when you get hit in the head you don’t think like other people. His bursts of anger, the mood swings – those are all things that I go to doctors for.”
Another player who suffers from brain damage as a result of the game, George Visger, was hesitant to blame CTE, saying, “He seems to have been a criminal from the get-go. But it might have been a contributory factor.”
Months of isolation in a segregation unit may have contributed to Phillips’ apparent suicide as well. The UN has ruled that solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 days is torture, and activist Laura Magnani said long-term segregation is “a pretty serious formula for losing your mind.”
And yet, pro football’s tendency to create, or foster, aggressive male behavior may not have helped, either.
When Phillips’ Nebraska coach Tom Osborne learned of Lawrence’s apparent suicide, he was shocked. Lawrence’s letters, which arrived every couple months, had been upbeat lately. He told USA Today that the football star had a lot of potential, both as an athlete and a human being.
“There was a side of Lawrence that wasn’t as bad as some people think. Having said that, there’s no question that he made some mistakes in his life and some things that are regrettable. But he was talented, not just athletically, but intellectually, and had a lot of potential. It’s just very sad.”
[Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images]