Every now and then, I come across a story, sometimes fictional and sometimes non-fictional, that resonates with me in an unexpected way. Sometimes it’s a movie. Sometimes it’s a comic book. Sometimes it’s even a video game with a powerful story that actually gets me choked up at the end.
I don’t deny it. I’m human. I may be a heterosexual man, but I do get emotional at times. Sure, I’m not one to cry when Bambi’s mother dies in a Disney movie. Everybody responds differently to certain things. It’s part of what makes us such a diverse species and it’s part of what frustrates every single marketing department that ever lived.
With that in mind, try not to bust my balls too much when I say a recent sports documentary really struck a nerve with me. That alone might not surprise too many people. Sports fans can be an emotional bunch. Just ask any Eagles fan since 1960.
However, this particular documentary involved a guy by the name of Lawrence Phillips. Okay, now try even harder not to bust my balls.
Who is Lawrence Phillips and why should we give a damn? Well, anyone who has followed the NFL or college football over the past 25 years has probably heard his name at least once. He’s not so much an athlete or a football player anymore. He’s become the ultimate cautionary tale. Get football fan talking about him and they’ll usually talk about him with the kind of disdain they usually reserve for bullshit pass interference calls.
To be fair, Phillips earned that disdain in multiple ways. He was an insanely gifted athlete who helped the University of Nebraska go undefeated for two consecutive seasons and win two BCS National Championships in the process. After that, he was drafted 6th overall by the St. Louis Rams in 1996. This is the ultimate dream for a football player and Phillips, despite all his talents, proceeded to piss it all away.
It didn’t happen all at once, but in many ways, that just made it worst. This was a guy who seemed to get arrested every other week and kept finding excuses to beat up women. By the end, he was less respected by the NFL than Scott Norwood is by Buffalo Bills fans. He is now regularly cited as one of the greatest NFL Draft Busts of all time.
Now as a noted NFL fan, I fully admit that I saw Lawrence Phillips in this light. When I follow the NFL and I see someone get into serious legal trouble, a part of me rolls my eyes and things, “At the rate he’s going, he’ll be another Lawrence Phillips.”
That’s what happens when someone becomes a cautionary tale. They become a symbol for the flaws we see in others. As a result, that person ceases to be a person. We don’t even see the person anymore. We just see what he or she represents. It’s harsh, but it’s how we process certain concepts about ourselves.
Then, when we get a chance to actually learn about that person, we find out that just calling them a “cautionary tale” is kind of a dick move because it ignores a much bigger, much more complex picture.
That’s where this documentary comes in. It’s called “Running for His Life: The Lawrence Phillips Story.” Even if you’re not a football fan, I highly recommend this movie. It accomplishes something truly remarkable. It peels back the layers of the cautionary tale that is Lawrence Phillips and reveals the man.
This isn’t a documentary that tries to make excuses. It does not try to glorify Phillips or gloss over his egregious flaws. It just explores the whole of a complicated, volatile, yet gifted man.
It spends a lot of time exploring where he came form and this is important because where we come from has a huge impact on who we are. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but his mother moved him out to California. He was estranged from his father and did not have the best relationship with his biological mother. His home life, to put it mildly, was anything but stable.
The documentary tells stories about the abuse he suffered as a child. It even recounts a story where one of his mother’s boyfriends held him down an urinated on him. Sadly, it gets even more disturbing than that.
After running away from home, Phillips became a ward of the state and bounced around foster homes. Along the way, he lived in a few group homes with other kids. The way the documentary describes this place sounds like something that would make Charles Dickens himself cringe. These are places where things like love and innocence go to die.
Eventually, Phillips did end up in a foster home with a loving mother who tried to help him. However, the damage had been done. The boy had been scarred in ways that never truly healed. The documentary described these scars as demons that he struggled to deal with. A lot of people claim to have demons, but let’s not lie to ourselves. Some are more powerful than others.
Despite these demons, Phillips still had insane God-given talent. The documentary make sit a point to highlight just how talented this man was. By every measure, he had all the physical tools of a gifted athlete. He did try to use those tools as well. Football helped him escape the rough, abusive world he came from. He could’ve been a success story like John Randall or Randy Moss. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
The documentary eventually starts to reveal just how dark a turn this man’s life took after college. It described a man who was cold, unloved, and did not know how to show love to others. The women interviewed described a man who just could not control his emotions and when there was upheaval, violence was his first, second, and third reaction.
This fits perfectly with the mold of someone who has an abusive personality. When women’s centers list warning signs, Lawrence Phillips checks most every box. He came from a world of abuse. Naturally, that’s the kind of world he forges around him.
However, the women also took the time to emphasize how good he could be at times. That good cannot and should not be completely ignored. It’s still not an excuse, but it does make clear that this man had other aspects to his personality. He wasn’t just the scary ex-football player who abused women.
This, in my opinion, is the most important message of this documentary. It’s also the most important lesson we can glean from the story of Lawrence Phillips. I’ve talked a lot about evil on this blog. There are plenty of people who would rightly call Phillips evil for the crimes he committed, one of which may have been the murder of his cell mate in prison. However, he was still a human being.
No matter what anyone thinks about Lawrence Phillips, whether he’s a cautionary tale or a violent abuser, it doesn’t change the fact that he was a person. He was a child once. He had a life and he tried to live it. We like to think about evil people as nothing more than monsters. It’s easy to just think of them as wannabe Biff Tannen’s from “Back to the Future.” That still ignores the person and the full story of their lives.
At the end of the documentary, there’s a haunting message about Lawrence Phillips that I think many of us can relate to. It talks of a man who was so physically gifted that he could outrun anybody, but he could not outrun his demons. At one point, an old friend of his said he was always running from his demons, but in the end, the demons caught him.
Whether you’re an aspiring erotica/romance writer, a football fan, or just a decent human being trying to make sense of this crazy world, it’s a message that’s worth hearing. It’s a message we shouldn’t forget. There may very well be another Lawrence Phillips-type story in the future, but let’s not make light of that story. In the end, they’re still people. As soon as we forget that, we cease heeding the lessons of that story.