The mother of former Nebraska and NFL running back Lawrence Phillips wants answers after her son was found dead last week in the same single cell at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California, that he had occupied since being accused of murdering his cellmate last April. He was found unresponsive on Wednesday and transported to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead in what the county coroner ruled a suicide.
Juanita Phillips has agreed to donate her son’s brain to researchers at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Program, where they have identified CTE in the brain tissue of 88 of 92 former NFL players they’ve examined posthumously.
CTE, an Alzheimer’s-like disease, is the focus of the latest Will Smith film Concussion, which is the true story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who discovered the neurological deterioration and named it chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Dan Chamberlain, an attorney representing the Phillips family, told USA TODAY Sports that Juanita “wanted an explanation about what happened, and I told her, ‘Look, the only way you can really explain it is by examining his brain.”
“I told her, ‘You owe it to your son, you owe it to every other NFL, college and pee wee and high school and middle school player that played football,” he added.
Chamberlain also detailed the $5 million settlement the family could see from the NFL players concussion settlement.
“I just want to make sure that we take care of him, his estate and his mom,” Chamberlain said.
— USA TODAY Sports (@USATODAYsports) January 16, 2016
As New York Daily News notes, Phillips had been kept in “single-cell status since April 11, 2015,” after he was suspected of choking to death his cellmate, Damion Soward, the cousin of former USC Trojan and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward. Damion was serving a sentence of 82-to-life for the execution of a gang rival.
Last September, Phillips was charged with first-degree murder in Soward’s death. He was awaiting trial when he was found unresponsive in his cell by correctional officers around midnight on January 12, 2016, and pronounced dead at 1:30 AM. The day before, a judge had ruled that there was enough evidence to proceed with Phillips’ murder trial. He was facing the death penalty if convicted.
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) January 14, 2016
According to a TMZ report, Tonissa Murdock, a relative of Lawrence, said she didn’t believe Phillips took his own life.
“I know him well enough to know he wouldn’t commit suicide,” Murdock told TMZ.
Phillips played as a running back for the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, and St. Louis Rams, as well as spending time in the NFL Europe and Canadian Football League. He was serving a 31-year, four-month sentence for domestic violence, false imprisonment and vehicle theft. He was also convicted for driving his car into a group of teenagers.
Lawrence was a star running back for Nebraska before off field issues ended his career – including failing multiple drug tests, accruing multiple fines and engaging in behavior that was detrimental to his team. Former Rams coach Dick Vermei told the Daily News Wednesday that his former player “obviously had issues that no one could really help him with.”
“It’s sad. It disappoints you, and hurts a little bit. He was such a troubled kid, and a troubled man,” Vermeil said. “I kept in touch with (Phillips) when I was coaching the Chiefs. He was a friend of Eric Warfield. They played together at Nebraska. He came by a few times and I got to see him, before he got into his last problem.
“I really thought we could save him when I was a coach. You always think you can. I ended up letting him go. I had been out of coaching for 14 years and I had a new coaching staff. We didn’t know each other well enough to know to communicate. They knew some things about him I didn’t know. It prevented me from intervening early. There were some good qualities about the kid, but he had issues he couldn’t overcome. And I don’t know if he could ever really trust you.”
Lawrence Phillips last played in the NFL in 1999 for the Niners. Family members are starting to release details of the dozens, if not hundreds, of letters that Phillips wrote during his incarceration over the last decade. Many include details of prison life such as stashed weapons, stabbings and murder, per USA TODAY Sports.
[Images courtesy Joe Cavaretta/AP Photo/Twitter]