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Lawrence Phillips

In this Aug. 23, 2005, file photo, former National Football League running back Lawrence Phillips is shown in Superior Court in Los Angeles. Phillips was found dead in his California prison cell early Wednesday, and officials said they suspect suicide. (Anne Cusack/LA Times via AP, Pool, File)

Paul Koch knew Lawrence Phillips very well. Better than most.

They frequently exchanged letters in recent years. Koch says he received 40-some letters from Phillips while Phillips was incarcerated (no e-mails allowed from prison).

Koch, a former Nebraska strength and conditioning coach (1987-95), visited Phillips four times in prisons, most recently in 2012 -- the year Nebraska came back to defeat Michigan State 28-24 in East Lansing, Michigan.

"I remember afterward getting a letter from Lawrence saying, 'Hey, isn't that great. I got a visit and the Huskers won on the same day,'" Koch recalled. "That was a pretty good day for him."

Phillips always remained a Husker football fan, according to his friends, which is interesting in part because he felt betrayed by NU fans who he felt turned on him after his assault on a girlfriend in 1995.

The 47-year-old Koch, of San Diego, is among the few who visited Phillips at Kern Valley State Prison in California, where Phillips was found dead of a suspected suicide early Wednesday. Koch was joined on the 2012 visit by another former Husker strength coach, Bryan Bailey.

Phillips was 37 at the time.

"To me, it seems like prison ages a man a little bit," Koch said. "But I'll tell you what, Bryan and I were sitting there at a table and next thing you know, a door opens and a guard walks out with Lawrence, and he looks like the picture of fitness. He looked like the same 19-year-old kid who walked in the weight-room doors at Nebraska. Clean shaven. Big smile on his face. There was a sparkle in his eyes.

"That's the funny thing," Koch continued. "You see his photos on the news or Internet, they weren't the same as when you saw him in person. He would have a sparkle in his eyes -- the kind of sparkle where you'd say, 'Man, where did you get that? Can you bottle that up?'

"Despite some of the stuff that happened to him as a kid, and despite the troubles he had with the law and relationships and dealing with his anger, the kid always had a certain aura about him that made you want to befriend him, that made you want the best for him.

"He had a certain life spark that's hard to put into words."

And let's face it, plenty of folks don't want to hear kind words about Phillips, for obvious reasons. Don't celebrate the guy's life, those folks will say, and I agree to a certain extent. In discussing Phillips and his complex story, we're essentially trying to make sense of it all.

Koch really helps in that regard.

"I know most people see this ogre, this bully," Koch said, his voice trailing.

Koch didn't see that part. He saw a flawed man, a man who committed wrongs, but a man who was thoughtful and a man who lived by his own unique code of honor. To wit: Phillips generally preferred to be segregated from the rest of the inmate population because he didn't want any part of the gang scene.

"Lawrence just outright refused to play by those rules," Koch said. "He said, 'Hey, you know what, here's the deal: Outside, in society, we're told we're a bunch of diverse races and creeds and colors, but we're all one. And in prison, it's just the opposite. But you know what, I won't play that game.'

"Rather than joining in a gang, he just said, 'You know what, I'm my own gang. If that means I have to have eyes in the back of my head and I have to be a little more cautious about what I think, about what I do and where I go, so be it.'" 

Koch encouraged Phillips "to keep fighting the good fight." The fight ended too soon -- Phillips was 40 -- and a lot of people are trying to make sense of a complex situation.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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