Showtime announced this week the scheduled premiere of “Running for His Life,” a 90-minute documentary on the life of former Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips.
New York Times best-selling author, Bleacher Report senior writer and Lincoln native Lars Anderson, who co-wrote and associate produced the film, spoke with Chris Schmidt of Hail Varsity Radio on Tuesday to share some insight into what viewers can expect from the documentary. (The following interview has been edited for length. Listen to the full interview here.)
CS: Can you describe in a word or two what folks will see?
LA: We document all of Lawrence’s problems, of course, but we want to dig deeper and address the why. Why did Lawrence act the way he did? To do that, we investigated his background, his childhood, where he grew up, the group homes he was in, the state facilities he was in, and try then to extrapolate from there why he acted the way he did when he was put in stressful situations, especially with women. I think on multiple levels it’s very powerful. I’m proud of the final result.
I was there mainly as someone who was with Lawrence through the last 20 years of his life. I wrote about him. The first cover story of mine at Sports Illustrated was on him. I wrote about him in my second book when he was in NFL Europe. I wrote two long pieces on Lawrence for Bleacher Report in the last couple of years. They leaned on me for contacts, writing and where we should go for our reporting. We spent a lot of time out in Los Angeles. I interviewed Dick Vermeil. I interviewed Nick Saban on camera for about 20 minutes in Tuscaloosa. We really just sort of blanketed the country.
CS: What were you expecting going into this?
LA: I learned a lot. I’m a writer, a magazine writer and a book writer, so this was a whole new genre for me. I learned sort of how to put together a documentary. What I wanted to always keep our eye on was the question of why, not so much what because that’s well documented, but why, why, why. I think we got to the core of that and we also wanted to investigate the final hours, the final day of Lawrence’s life and we did that to the best of our ability. We lay out everything we’ve found and let people draw their own conclusions. Hopefully we won’t get sued.
We lay out everything we’ve found and let people draw their own conclusions. Hopefully we won’t get sued.
With Lawrence, everything is complicated and nothing is as it seems. I was surprised that so many of the people who claim they were Lawrence’s friend, life-long guys, and I’m not going to give you names, but they wouldn’t come on camera and they wouldn’t talk about Lawrence, they wouldn’t be the voice that I thought Lawrence needed to have in this documentary and that was really surprising to me and disappointing, frankly, because I’ve known a lot of these people for a long time and they wouldn’t step up.
Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty of the people we did get. Even Nebraska fans will learn a lot about Lawrence, not all good. I think it’s an important documentary because, as Tom Osborne says in the film, there are literally thousands of Lawrence Phillips’s out there and they need to be helped at a very young age. If I could distill what the core issue was with Lawrence, it’s that he wasn’t loved as a kid. That’s it, that simple. He wasn’t loved as a child and because of that it caused so many problems.
CS: Coach Osborne had dedicated his life to mentoring. Do you think Coach Osborne and Dick Vermeil both still beat themselves up over how things ended for Lawrence?
LA: Coach Vermeil told me that the biggest regret he has as a coach is cutting Lawrence. He was in his first year at St. Louis, Lawrence was in his second year. Coach Vermeil just had a pretty quick trigger with Lawrence. He was trying to set an example. In retrospect, he wishes he hadn’t done that because that was really what sent Lawrence on this spiraling trajectory downward.
I don’t think Coach Vermeil did the wrong thing. It was Coach Vermeil working the back scene, working the phones getting Lawrence a chance at Miami and then a chance at San Francisco.
CS: What was the most chilling part of an interview you did for this documentary?
LA: The last day of Lawrence’s life sticks out to me. We have someone who was with Lawrence after the preliminary hearing in which the judge ruled to move forward with death-penalty charges. What Lawrence was dealing with internally, his demeanor and also how he was treated by a certain prison guard that was viewed by someone else is extremely troubling.
“Running for His Life: The Lawrence Phillips Story” premieres on Friday, Dec. 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime. Follow Lars Anderson on Twitter at @LarsAnderson71.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.