Phillips carries talent, risk Off-field problems dog 'big-time back'

April 19, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips has yet to carry the ball in the NFL, but his impact is being felt around the league.

About six teams are considering Phillips as one of the top five picks in tomorrow's draft. At least four others are interested in using him as trade bait to improve their draft position.

The NFL has conducted an intense investigation into Phillips' off-the-field problems, and he has become the media focus in almost every city he has visited in the past 14 days.

Is he that extraordinary?

"Franchise player," said Dwight Adams, Buffalo Bills director of player personnel.

"He's a big-time back," said Houston Oilers general manager Floyd Reese. "He's got great feet, can run inside or outside, and he runs big. There are other backs who run big, but not like Phillips.

"You can't really appreciate his talent unless you're on the sidelines and he goes by you. You just say, 'God, how can a man that big run so fast?' And then your jaw just drops.

"If he wasn't carrying the extra baggage, he might be the consensus No. 1 pick."

Phillips was charged last fall with assaulting his ex-girlfriend, which included dragging her down a flight of steps. He pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor and has gone to counseling, paid for his victim's counseling and publicly apologized.

But the NFL has labeled him as high risk. The Baltimore Ravens have expressed interest and are considering trading up from their No. 4 overall pick to get Phillips.

Ravens director of football operations Ozzie Newsome has been impressed with Phillips during interviews, and the team's final evaluation will be determined today.

Those close to Phillips remember him as a hard-working, self-made teen-ager; one who took care of a handicapped 68-year-old instructional aide and gave lectures to kids in Nebraska in his free time.

"No one here is excusing Lawrence for what he has done," said Ty Pagone, an assistant principal at Baldwin Park, the West Covina, Calif., high school that Phillips attended. "But he has accepted the consequences of being suspendeded from school, from the team and punishment through the judicial system. He has shown remorse and is still embarrassed."

Maybe no one knows Phillips better than Pagone. He tutored Phillips as a youngster and still has him over for dinner. Pagone and his wife have traveled to Florida and Arizona to watch Phillips play in the Orange and Fiesta bowls.

They first met when Phillips was in the fifth grade, and already in trouble. Not with the law, but the school system. He was too busy walking the streets of West Covina, near Los Angeles, and was put in a boys home at the age of 11.

"There was no mother in the picture, no father. No grandmother, no grandfather," said Pagone. "Was he angry? Damn right. He should have been. But this kid wasn't having problems with the law. He just didn't go to school."

Pagone said one of the first things he did was make Phillips aware that he was deficient in school. He also noticed that Phillips had a gift for playing football, which he used to motivate him.

"We explained to him about the SAT process, and we were with him through the recruiting process as well," said Pagone. "As a senior, Lawrence had to get up at 6: 50 in the morning and wouldn't leave school until 4: 50 in the afternoon because he had to take eight classes to qualify for a scholarship."

Nebraska running backs coach Frank Solich noticed the same work ethic. "Most of the people enjoyed being around Lawrence," he said. "He's well-liked by the players, an easygoing type. He has always been very unselfish."

But there were times when Phillips' temper flared. He drew a one-game suspension for a fight with a teammate in 1993. There were misdemeanor charges when he allegedly grabbed a male student from another college around the neck in 1994, charges that were dropped after he agreed to pay $400 for a necklace the student said was damaged.

And then the incident last Sept. 10 involving his girlfriend.

"I would say not having parents around impacted his life," said Jack Stark, a psychologist who handles motivational techniques for the team. "He has done some things that he regrets, but I think this counseling has been the best thing to ever happen to him."

Pagone says Phillips has nothing to hide despite turning down numerous interview requests.

"Lawrence never did a lot of interviews before the incident," said Pagone. "But from what I've heard, a lot of NFL teams are satisfied with their investigations."

The Bills' Adams said, "A lot of teams feel comfortable with his background. I know we do. The problem is that the media will probably hurt him wherever he goes."

Said Pagone: "This was an isolated incident. He needs to go on in life."

NOTE: The Ravens will hold a draft day party for fans from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. Admission is $2, and proceeds benefit the Ravens' Charitable Foundation. Several players will attend, including defensive tackle Larry Webster and safety Bennie Thompson.

The Phillips file

Name: Lawrence Phillips

Position: Running back

Size: 6 feet, 220 pounds

School: Nebraska

Hometown: West Covina, Calif.

Career statistics: Rushed for 2,777 yards and 30 touchdowns on 449 carries, finishing fifth on the Cornhuskers' all-time list. Had 13 100-yard games, fourth-best in Nebraska history. Scored in 14 of his last 18 games.

1995 season: Ran for 568 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing six games. Rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.

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