"The Dark Side of Sports" by SportsBlog | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

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The Dark Side of Sports

Two former college-football stars ended up dead just over a year apart. Both former players ended up hanging themselves in their jail cells.

Former University of Nebraska star running back Lawrence Phillips didn’t have the best childhood, as he grew up in group homes in his youth. Football was a way for Phillips to escape his past and build a future.

The running back might have been able to outrun defenders on the football field, but he couldn’t outrun his anger off the field. He dragged a former girlfriend down a couple of flights of stairs while playing for Nebraska.

Then-Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne kicked Phillips off the team for just six games before reinstating him, saying he needed the structure of football in his life. Phillips helped Nebraska win back-to-back national championships.

Life in the NFL was not as great for the former college star. The St. Louis Rams drafted him sixth overall but cut him due to him showing up drunk for work and his inability to stay out of trouble.

Phillips spent time with the Miami Dolphins, NFL Europe, the San Francisco 49ers and the Canadian Football League. The running back ended up being released at nearly every stop for fighting with coaches, getting into legal trouble or failing to do the necessary work to be successful at the pro level.

After football, Phillips stayed in trouble and ended up in jail after running over three teenagers with car and nearly choking his girlfriend to death. He was no longer a football star and on Jan. 13, 2016, the former star hung himself.

Flash-forward to today, April 19, when former University of Florida and New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez was found dead from hanging in his jail cell. Hernandez was a high school star at Bristol, Conn., before he committed to play at Florida.

While at Florida, the coaches were worried about the people Hernandez was spending time with off the field. The coaches even tried to keep him in Gainesville, Fla., when school was out for breaks.

Some of the issues Hernandez dealt with while in college was a fight at a Florida bar, a double-shooting and rumors of spending time with the wrong people. There were also rumors of failed drug tests while playing for the Gators.

Those issues ended up dropping Hernandez to the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The New England Patriots gambled that the tight end would leave his past behind him and even rewarded him with a contract extension in 2012.

Hernandez didn’t leave his past behind and was still associated with the wrong people. He was convicted in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd and given a life sentence in 2015.

Last week the former NFL player was acquitted of double murder charges in Boston, Mass. He was still suspected of other crimes at the time of his death.

Both Hernandez and Phillips were extremely talented athletes, and both are now dead. Phillips’ troubled life only reached the age of 40, and Hernandez is dead at 27 years old.

There is no question that both players should have ended up in jail. They both couldn’t keep out of trouble, which kept escalating.

But what if instead of college coaches using them for their athletic talent, they got both players help with their demons? Hernandez’s coach, Urban Meyer, is now the head coach at Ohio State University. Osborne went on to become a member of Congress and is still a beloved figure in Nebraska.

Instead of worrying about who Hernandez was hanging out with, did the University of Florida do everything they could to help the star player? The Gators got a national championship, and Hernandez got to the NFL, but did the university give the talented player everything he needed to succeed in life?

Being a star player kept both players from major trouble, but it was only to keep them on the field. Once athletics couldn’t protect them, both players ended up in prison.

Not every football player is a bad guy, but many come from troubled backgrounds, and sports is a way to escape. Some of these players need more than tutoring or a playbook.

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