lawrence-phillips-prison-letters-e1433259470429Former Nebraska Cornhusker football star Lawrence Phillips’ apparent suicide in prison has been lodged in my mind as few celebrity (speaking broadly) deaths ever have. To be clear, I’ve never been a fan of Phillips, and I hadn’t thought about him enough to follow his post-Nebraska life. The story touches so much of who I am, though, that I can’t quite make sense of it.

A bit of background: Phillips was the star running back on the 1994 National Champion Huskers team, and he was a leading favorite for the Heisman Trophy at the beginning of the 1995 season. That ended when he was arrested for choking his girlfriend, which led to a misdemeanor charge and a 6-game suspension. The punishment infuriated the press and many fans. Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Tom Shatel described the ensuing events as follows:

I’ll always believe [Nebraska Head Coach Tom] Osborne was trying to do right by the young man. He didn’t need Phillips to win. I don’t think the coach was being stubborn with the media that was ripping him constantly. I believe he was trying to help Phillips….

Critics who claimed Osborne was winning at all costs didn’t know the man. And didn’t understand what he was risking.

At stake was the reputation of his best team. The 1995 season was overshadowed by the Phillips story and I believe the negative feelings toward NU cost Tommie Frazier [the team’s quarterback] the Heisman.

This was a real “Us against the World” struggle for Nebraska, and the resentment and rage the players felt toward the national media made for jet fuel. A great team raised its level to unreal heights.

For Osborne’s case, the day after winning his second national title in emphatic form, he acted depressed and exhausted — and looked like he had aged 10 years.

The coach had brought it on himself and his team, but such was the conviction that Osborne believed he was helping Phillips.

History showed that he couldn’t do that. But history also showed that Osborne’s intentions were real. Osborne and Phillips maintained a relationship. They corresponded while Phillips was in prison — even in recent months. Osborne never turned his back on Phillips.

But eventually, as Osborne entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999, he admitted, “You can’t save everyone.”

I remember the Phillips scandal only vaguely, as I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was a teenager without 24-hour news channel/web updates. To tell the truth, I didn’t even understand football all that well. I only really remember going to the 1995 games with my dad, seeing one of the greatest college football teams of all time in action. I remember Tommie Frazier’s epic TD run in the Fiesta Bowl, not the press event wherein Shatel observed Osborne’s malaise. The 1995 Nebraska season and the following three that I watched in person represent the best times I ever spent with my dad and at home with my family, watching the away and bowl games. Nebraska football, despite my frequent inattention to it, remains a source of family joy, e.g., going to the 2014 Holiday Bowl with my oldest daughter, where we saw the Huskers almost beat USC.

Phillips’ death now leads me to wonder whether I could have enjoyed the season with a little more life experience. I was horrified by the Ray Rice scandal, which further affirmed my complete lack of interest in the NFL. Yet the 1995 Huskers, the team I hold in highest esteem, included an abuser who later ran his car into a crowd, abused yet again, was sentenced to more than 30 years of prison, and killed his cell mate. His suicide followed a hearing in which the latter case was cleared to proceed to trial. My best memories from childhood stand alongside the reality of who Phillips was and how significant he was to the team (unbeknownst, mostly, to me).

Another reason that Phillips is stuck in my head and heart is the grace shown by Osborne in first recruiting, then maintaining contact with him. Recruiting a young man with so much trauma was an act of courageous grace, and Osborne apparently never gave up on Phillips. This fills me with gratitude for good leaders who are willing to place themselves at risk to help another. It also aggrieves me that beautiful grace and worldly success could not overcome the brokenness in Phillips that led him to violent acts.

Finally, I grieve for Phillips himself, who as a child was failed by his parents and the foster system that raised him. My wife and I are foster parents, and we just completed our first placement. When we tell people about this, they compliment us like we are Mother Teresa, only more holy. There is, sincerely, much joy in fostering children—the day to day of getting to know a child in need, the satisfaction of meeting present needs and possibly influencing his future. But fostering children has also alerted us to the brokenness of the world and ourselves. There is so much—individually, systemically, economically—that we cannot do for children who deserve so much more. We can give no guarantees; we can model prosocial behavior, but we may not succeed in altering the direction of a foster child’s life away from violence. At the same time, the experience has magnified my judgmental and very often erroneous attitude toward other people (especially those who do not adhere to the law of upper-middle-class ‘success’). I have made an ass of myself so many times over the past few months both in private and public. What side of me will the foster children who pass through my home model? Can what I am doing make a difference when I truly am so haughty and brittle? Regardless, will anything I do make a difference?

amaliya-weisler-Lawrence-phillips-picsThis is the hard rejoinder to the cliché, “Pay it forward.” Osborne paid forward his solid upbringing, faith, doctorate in education, and experience as a hall of fame coach, but Phillips could not escape the anger inside him. He couldn’t pay forward anything like what he was given. We often give grace through charity, helpfulness, and compassion to hurting people, and we hope or expect to see positive follow-on results. We want to see the fruits of our spiritual growth. The risk of extending grace, though, is that the recipient stays the same or gets worse.

I know that I can’t get back the innocence of my happy memories of Nebraska football games from 1995-1998. Phillips’ criminality and suicide casts a shadow on the past, and I expect it to be permanent. Moreover, the news reminds me that my present efforts at foster care may not yield the results I pray for. We may be able to turn around a young life, but we may not. Grace can be painful and risky, both when it is given and after it has been received. But grace is still worth giving.

Grace is definitively not a results-based practice. It is not an emotional investment in someone else; it is humbling oneself to be a servant or a leader or a coach or a parent at that moment, with no guarantees. The recipient can cherish, ridicule, discard, or lose our gift, and we cannot (nor should we try to) manipulate people into changing as we wish. Grace has its own beauty in the moment it is given, regardless of how it is received or perceived. Thank God for the grace that brings us comfort in the moments where we know we can do nothing but pray and mourn.

From the Book of Common Prayer: O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother Lawrence…Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.