Notebook > Sports

Parable of the talented

Sports | Enamored by 40-yard-dash times and juke moves, general managers can lose sight of the warts

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

For years, Lawrence Phillips has run from the law just like he ran from defenders as a star running back at Nebraska and in the NFL. Once again, the law caught up, and this time Mr. Phillips may have serious jail time in store.

Trapped inside all the bitterness and anger was an exceptionally talented running back. The St. Louis Rams made Mr. Phillips the No. 6 overall pick in 1996. But since then he's been booted off the Rams, Miami Dolphins, and San Francisco 49ers rosters. He couldn't make it in the CFL either.

So it seems strangely unsurprising that the former Cornhuskers star would sink so far. A fugitive from San Diego police for nearly a month, the 30-year-old former NFL player for some reason joined a pick-up football game on Aug. 21 with children nearly half his age in a Los Angeles park. On the lam and playing against high-schoolers-surely that must be bottom of the barrel.

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Even that would not end well. Mr. Phillips left the Los Angeles park after arguing with teens during the game. Police say he soon returned driving a stolen black Honda sedan. He drove onto the field and ran down three teenagers between ages 16 and 17 with whom he had been playing. All three went to the hospital with injuries, none apparently life-threatening.

He was finally arrested and held without bail for attempted murder, but for another case. Police also sought Mr. Phillips after he allegedly choked his girlfriend until she lost consciousness.

All of this is nothing new. While at Nebraska, Mr. Phillips famously dragged his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair and banged her head into a mailbox. Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne cut Mr. Phillips' suspension short, helping to ensure a national championship for Nebraska in Jan. 1996.

In making Mr. Phillips their top pick, the Rams too overlooked the man's character. Three arrests and 23 days of jail time marked his 25-game tenure with the Rams. St. Louis finally cut Mr. Phillips for insubordination. Then the Dolphins took a shot at him, but the team released him after he pleaded no contest to hitting a woman in a bar. The 49ers signed him, then cut him after he skipped a practice.

Through it all, Mr. Phillips has represented the siren song of the talented but troubled athlete. Enamored by 40-yard-dash times and juke moves, general managers can lose sight of the warts. Sometimes teams have to remember the talent can be worthless if the packaging is damaged.

Around the Horn

  • San Francisco 49er teammates say they'll remember Thomas Herrion for his smile. Herrion, an offensive lineman trying to nail down one of the team's last roster spots, collapsed and died moments after reciting the Lord's Prayer after an Aug. 20 preseason game. Medical examiners hadn't determined a cause of death, but the NFL said Herrion had not tested positive for steroids or for other illicit drugs. "He dreamed of being in the NFL, and his dream came true," said 49ers defensive back Arnold Parker, who also played with Herrion in college. "It's sad that it's over for him, but it's a testimony that dreams come true."
  • At least golfers not named Tiger are talking the talk. After losing by one stroke to Tiger Woods at the NEC Invitational, Chris DiMarco resisted the temptation to simply chalk up the loss to Mr. Woods' dominance: "Bridesmaid is getting old, I can promise you that, especially when I've played good enough to get there and not gotten it. This one really [ticks] me off. Maybe it'll light a fire under me." Then again, he does have Tiger Woods to beat.
  • Danica Patrick might not have won an Indy car race yet, but she's making a living. Since finishing fourth at the Indy 500-a finish that won her more than $375,000-Ms. Patrick has earned another $283,000. She even won pole position at a Kentucky Speedway race. But a mechanical breakdown caused her to finish 16th.

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