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Death, Lawrence Phillips, and the Cornhuskers Team That No One Could Beat

Former college football superstar Lawrence Phillips stands accused of a prison murder. It's the latest bit of legacy for the 1995 Cornhuskers, the team no one could stop.
April 27, 2015, 2:05pm
Art by Joseph Applegate

Twenty years ago, Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to Lincoln, Nebraska to profile Lawrence Phillips. The story, and the photo of Phillips on the magazine's cover, reflected the Cornhusker running back's ascendant stardom. In 1994, he was the Huskers' primary offensive weapon as they won their first national title in the Tom Osborne era. As a junior in 1995, he was a preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. There's probably never been a good time to be Lawrence Phillips, but 1995 was as close as it got.

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The SI article recounted how Phillips chose to play at Nebraska in part because of its distance from Los Angeles, where he had been abandoned by his father, allegedly abused by his mother's boyfriend, made a ward of the state at age 12, and in spite of it all, became a star athlete at Baldwin Park High School. It included a quote from Ty Pagone, an assistant principal at Baldwin Park who was a kind of father figure to Phillips. "I don't know where Lawrence would be today if it were not for athletics," said Pagone. "He could be dead. He could be in jail. It's just a blessing that sports entered his life."

That blessing proved temporary. Phillips has been incarcerated for almost 10 years, and now death has followed him to prison. Last week, officials at California's Kern Valley State Prison announced that Phillips is suspected of having killed his cellmate. (The deceased cellmate, Damian Soward, was the cousin of former USC and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver R. Jay Soward.) As Phillips was already serving a 31-year sentence for multiple violent crimes, it seems a good bet he will die behind bars.

Over the years, there have been many college football superpowers that combined on-field domination with an air of off-the-field menace. The Barry Switzer-era Oklahoma Sooners, for instance, featured players freebasing cocaine on gamedays and firing Uzis to break up snowball fights. And thanks to a pair of excellent "30-for-30" documentaries, we're in a period of nostalgia for the outlaw mystique of "The U." The USC Trojans under Pete Carroll, while generally steering clear of law-enforcement encounters, got up to enough mischief to draw the NCAA's punitive wrath. Even in this distinguished field, however, the mid-90s Cornhuskers, and in particular the legendary 1995 team, stand out for laying waste to competitors while stacking up criminal charges.

Lawrence Phillips dives for a touchdown against Michigan State. Image via RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

It all began with Tom Osborne's first 20 seasons as Cornhusker head coach, which were tremendous but unsatisfying. In 1973 he took over the program from Bob Devaney, whose 1970 and 1971 teams won national titles and gave Husker fans a delicious taste of life at the top. Osborne was Devaney's protégé, his second coming, but struggled to match the peaks of the Devaney era. Every year— every year—Osborne's teams won at least nine games, and they were a near-constant presence in the top 10, but for two decades a national championship eluded him. Early on it was Switzer who bedeviled him, but starting in the late 1980s a series of faster, more athletic teams out of Florida and Georgia began pounding Nebraska annually in bowl games. The Nebraska system—its dependence on beefy, farm-raised linemen and an option-based running game—began to seem obsolete.

But in the early 1990s, Osborne started to adapt. The option attack stayed, but a new type of player arrived in Lincoln to execute it. Osborne reached into Florida and Southern California to recruit a higher caliber of athlete, the kind who powered the rise of Miami and Florida State in the 1980s. In Phillips, Osborne landed an extraordinary talent. In quarterback Tommie Frazier, out of Bradenton, Florida, he got the guy who changed everything.

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Among teammates, Frazier was not well liked. But his transcendent talent and competitive will transformed Nebraska football. "Tommie was a polarizing figure, to say the least," recalls defensive lineman Jason Peter. "He didn't have a lot of friends on the team, but that wasn't what he was there for. He was there to win championships." ESPN reporter Mitch Sherman, who in the mid-90s covered Husker football for the Daily Nebraskan, the university's student newspaper, says "At that time, Nebraska teams were looked at as athletically inferior to Miami and Florida State. Tommie Frazier refused to give into that."

Nebraska almost broke through in 1993, Frazier's sophomore year. They went undefeated in the regular season and would have won the national title but for a missed field goal as time expired against FSU in the Orange Bowl. In 1994, the Huskers ran the table again in the regular season, and behind Phillips and Frazier slayed their Miami demons with an Orange Bowl win that finally brought Osborne his first national championship. In 1995, Nebraska became a dynasty.

Tommie Frazier (15), perhaps wondering why no one liked him. Image via RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

While the 2001 Miami Hurricanes have been mythologized for the vast number of players who went on to star in the NFL, no college football team annihilated its competition like the 1995 Nebraska team. With Frazier at the height of his powers, a typically outstanding offensive line, and a devastating I-back tandem of Phillips and freshman Ahman Green, the offense ripped up every opponent it faced, averaging more than 53 points a game. Husker quarterbacks were sacked exactly zero times. The Blackshirt defense was fast, savage, and ridiculously deep: 17 of its players would eventually get snaps in the NFL. The Huskers' season-long rampage concluded with an epic, 62-24 stomping of Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl. They beat four teams that finished in the top 10, by an average score of 49-18. Osborne would retire two years later after winning a third national title. In his final five seasons, Nebraska went a preposterous 60-3.

Coinciding with the Huskers' on-field renaissance, however, were increasingly frequent stories about players' off-the-field mayhem. In January 1992, a woman in Lincoln was viciously beaten by running back Scott Baldwin. A jury that summer found Baldwin not guilty by reason of insanity, but a few months later he was shot by Omaha police during an altercation and paralyzed from the chest down. In the fall of 1993, the Daily Nebraskan reported that cornerback Kenny Wilhite had been convicted of "careless and imprudent driving" in a car accident that killed an 11-year-old girl. In March 1994, cornerback Tyrone Williams was charged with two felonies for firing a gun into a car occupied by New York Jets safety Kevin Porter. A high school teammate of Frazier's in Bradenton, Florida, Williams was one of the new breed of Husker recruits.

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What began as an unsettling trend of player malfeasance blew up, in September 1995, into pure chaos. A deluge of player arrests, against the backdrop of a quest for a second straight national championship, turned Nebraska football into a lurid noir opera. As Jeff Zeleny, now a senior Washington correspondent for CNN and at the time a reporter and editor with the Daily Nebraskan, says, "It was one football mini-Watergate after another."

A span of less than 48 hours saw the following sequence of events:

  • On Friday, September 8, wide receiver Riley Washington was charged with attempted second-degree murder.
  • On the morning of Saturday, September 9, running back Damon Benning was arrested on charges of assaulting his ex-girlfriend.
  • That afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan, Phillips rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns as the Cornhuskers blasted Michigan State 50-10, handing Nick Saban what remains the worst loss of his coaching career.
  • On Sunday, September 10, hours after the team returned to Lincoln, police arrested Phillips after he entered the apartment of teammate Scott Frost and there assaulted ex-girlfriend Kate McEwen, dragging her by her hair down three flights of stairs.

The following week, recalls Zeleny, the Nebraska campus was "swarming with reporters." On top of the events of that astonishing weekend, the media tempest brought new attention to the ongoing saga of Christian Peter, the Huskers' volatile defensive captain. From 1991 to 1995, Peter was arrested eight times. Some of the charges against him—public urination, possession of alcohol as a minor—were innocuous. But in 1993 he had been convicted of sexual assault for grabbing a woman by the crotch in a crowded bar. And in the summer of 1995, a student named Kathy Redmond went public with accusations that, when she was a freshman at Nebraska in 1991, Christian Peter had raped her twice.

Christian Peter rushing the line against Michigan State. Image via RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The allegations were contained in a civil suit Redmond filed against the university. It was the first time Title IX had been used in sexual-assault litigation. Her lawyers created the template for the kind of lawsuit Florida State faced for its handling of the rape allegations against Jameis Winston. Redmond has since founded a nonprofit organization called the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes and is a frequently consulted media figure on issues of athlete violence.

In spite of the program's extensive rap sheet, among Nebraskans at least, Tom Osborne is revered as a saint. Part of it is what he achieved: winning an enormous number of games and three national titles in a state enthralled by football. Part of it is who he is: a kindly, stoic, paternal man who seems to personify the basic goodness of rural Midwestern life. Osborne's actions in response to the rolling wave of player arrests in 95 drew severe criticism at the time and still complicate his legacy. Two decades later, some of those actions appear justified, others less so.

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In the case of Riley Washington, Osborne publicly and steadfastly proclaimed the player's innocence. Lancaster County prosecutor Gary Lacey accused the coach of "using his influence to disrupt the criminal justice system." But Osborne was right. A jury eventually found Washington not-guilty of the second-degree murder charge. Washington said the incident has had a traumatic effect on his life and that he's "had to spend many years explaining to people" that he was innocent.

Lacey's criticisms of Osborne, though misplaced as specifically regards Riley Washington, had some basis in fact. After the Tyrone Williams shooting incident, Osborne and then-assistant coach Kevin Steele came into possession of Williams's 0.22-caliber revolver and, rather than handing it over to police, chose to lock it up in a cabinet. He also allowed Williams to play while the charges were pending, telling Sports Illustrated that the athletic department "had taken a parental role in raising" Williams.

Many of the people I spoke to who were around Nebraska football in the 1990s remembered Osborne as a parental figure to certain athletes.

"If I had to guess, [Osborne] genuinely believed that he was the best person to address the problems a player was having—that with his strengths as a role model, as a disciplinarian, as a man with great moral turpitude, he could put these guys on the right path," said Paula Lavigne, a reporter for ESPN's "Outside the Lines" who was a reporter and editor for the Daily Nebraskan in the mid-90s. "The problem with that is that there's a criminal process that needed to play out. His mentality, that he wanted to be the one who decided right and wrong, wasn't necessarily conducive to police and investigators doing their job."

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Another line of criticism is that Osborne brought the chaos to Nebraska himself. That he lowered the program's recruiting standards to catch up with Miami and Florida State. Sherman believes there is some truth to this: "I think he realized he had to take some chances in recruiting. They went after athletes and they gambled on some kids." But that's a too-reductive explanation for Nebraska's climb to dominance. "There was just more talent that happened to show up at the high school level in Nebraska at the time," Sherman continued. "Guys like Ahman Green weren't walking around the high schools in the 1980s. In the mid 90s, there they were."

Tom Osborne leading one of his Cornhusker teams. Image via RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The Christian Peter case remains an open wound for many. The defensive tackle was the intense soul of the 95 Blackshirts. In Sherman's words, he was "a team leader who was always walking on the edge. There was no line that he was afraid to cross, on or off the field, to help his team succeed." Jason Peter, who started alongside Christian on the 95 D-line, calls his brother "the best leader Nebraska's ever had. He'd cut off his arm for the program."

Christian Peter has publicly confessed to certain crimes but has always maintained that Kathy Redmond's accusations against him are untrue. Despite the gravity of those accusations, Osborne never took serious disciplinary action against Christian. In an extensive interview, Jason Peter excoriated Redmond, saying, "The Kathy Redmond thing is an absolute joke. That girl has made an entire career out of a lie. You can't just wake up one day and say 'I'm a whore' and decide to ruin someone's life, but that's what she did." In a subsequent text message, Jason stated:

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I wanted to add something to the topic of Christian's troubles: who the fuck gets 'raped' TWICE by the same person and only settles for 15 or 20K (or whatever the # was). I would imagine that real rape victims want their attacker to be in jail. It's all bullshit! T.O. knew everything that happened in this town… if there was any truth or even the possibility of truth, he never lets Christian captain the '95 team.

Redmond settled her case against the university for $50,000 and an undisclosed payment, without an apology or admission from Christian. In 2008, according to a New York Times profile of her, she was invited to address the Nebraska football team, which she interpreted as a kind of apology from Osborne, who was serving as Athletic Director. (Neither Redmond nor Christian Peter responded to requests to comment for this piece.)

As for Lawrence Phillips, Osborne suspended him following his September 10, 1995 arrest, then reinstated him in early November. In the national title game against Florida, Phillips rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns and caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Frazier. Although the decision to reinstate Phillips was enormously controversial then, it has become less so over time. The 95 team was so dominant, so superior to every other team that season, that Nebraska plainly didn't need Lawrence Phillips to win a national championship. Not when they had Tommie Frazier and Ahman Green and a roster bristling with NFL talent.

Unlike Frazier, Phillips is remembered as a likeable teammate. Washington describes him as "a good guy. Always laughing." Jason Peter calls him "the ultimate teammate. Because of our last names I lockered right next to him and got to know him pretty well. He was a happy guy. But every once in a while he'd do something strange. Like, we'd be barbecuing, and he'd say he had to go pick something up from his apartment, and he'd end up in California. He'd have driven halfway across the country."

All who spoke to me for this piece agreed that in his handling of Lawrence Phillips, Tom Osborne acted in good faith. Even Zeleny, who clashed frequently with Osborne, says, "I do think Osborne was trying to help Lawrence." Mitch Sherman agrees: "I believe his intentions with Lawrence Phillips were genuine. He probably thought that Lawrence Phillips's only chance to live a productive life was to be part of that team." Jason Peter points out that the players themselves had a say in the Phillips decision: "The team voted as well. There was a Unity Council, with two players from each position group, that met every week to discuss off-the-field topics. We had input on everything. [Coach Osborne] knew how it would look, but he felt that if he cut Lawrence free, he would destroy any sense of family this kid had ever had."

After leaving Nebraska, Phillips's life traveled a steep downward path. He quickly washed out of the NFL, and since then has only remained a public figure due to news stories about his frequent crimes. In 2004, he sold one of his Big 8 championship rings to a Las Vegas pawn shop for 20 bucks. Tom Osborne visited him in prison in 2009 and has corresponded with him since then. Phillips has also kept in touch with Paul Koch, a former strength coach at Nebraska. He reportedly told Koch, of his life in prison, "Right now, I'd rather everybody forget about me."

There's no chance of that happening.