Shortly after noon today, I saw a headline that went something like this: “Phillips was explosive on the field, troubled off it.”

It would have been entirely appropriate to consider Lawrence Phillips explosive wherever he went.

If you wanted a case study for a “talented but troubled” sports figure, Phillips was your man. When Phillips took to a football field wearing Nebraska’s scarlet and cream, you knew he would deliver. Need six yards to move the chains? He’d weave through the line. Third down, 18 inches, tight game? He’d bowl you over. Screen pass as a change of pace? Not his forte, but he’d get the job done.

Off the field, he was a mess. And that was before college. But man, could he run. Power, grace, fluidity, and anger all in one sculpted, 220-pound package.

But nothing could uproot that anger. Not the national championship at Nebraska. Not an NFL career. And not even prison.

A lot of us wondered if death in prison would be where the Lawrence Phillips story would end, especially as the physical violence incidents continued and escalated. That’s what I thought. But it’s hard to imagine the immediate subplots leading to today. Phillips faced death row — death row — for allegedly killing another inmate. 

From the cheers of 77,000 people to death row. And then to possibly suicide.

I’m having a very hard time wrapping my mind around what I saw at Memorial Stadium 20 years ago and what I’ve been reading today. It’s mind-boggling that one character trait that can make you great in one arena — in Phillips’ case, his deep-seated anger — could eventually kill you.

  

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