Next Generation: Why Caleb Murphy is the Perfect Tom Allen Recruit

Tom Brew

SALEM, Ind. — It was Old Oaken Bucket Saturday, and there was a lot on the line for Indiana football coach Tom Allen. There was an iconic trophy to win at Purdue for a rare eighth victory of the season and, if all went well, a multi-million-dollar contract extension was waiting for him as well.

None of that really mattered, though, when he picked up the phone just a few hours before kickoff and dialed a number.

In this small, sleepy town in southern Indiana, it was the worst Saturday of the worst week of Caleb Murphy’s life. The West Washington High School senior had been choking back tears all morning as he waited to leave for the funeral of his beloved high school football coach. Phillip Bowsman, only 43 years old, had passed away earlier that week after complications from a stroke, dying far too young and ripping the guts, hearts and tear-ducts out of this close-knit community.

When Murphy’s phone rang, it was his future football coach, Tom Allen, on the other side. Murphy, an Indiana commit who would sign his letter of intent three weeks later, answered his phone. The two of them talked, both trying hard to muster the right words without crying.

“I just wanted to tell him that we loved him, and that we were thinking about him,’’ Allen said in a one-on-one interview this week when looking back on that Nov. 30 phone call. “For me, there was nothing more important that morning than knowing he was OK, and that he knew his family up here loved him and was thinking about him.’’

Even several weeks later, when talking about that morning phone call from Allen, Murphy gets choked up in telling the story over breakfast at a small Salem diner. 

Softly and quietly, he said 12 simple words:

“How could you not want to play for a man like that?’’

A small-town dream come true

Caleb Murphy is the perfect Tom Allen recruit. He is the son of a preacher and he has an endless motor on the football field. He also loves Indiana University and has dreamed of playing his college football there since he was a little boy.

In Tom Allen’s faith-based world, that’s the perfect combination.

Murphy is 6-foot-4 and about 260 pounds. He played football and wrestled at West Washington, a tiny Class 1A school just west of Salem that has only 375 students. He laughs when he says he was recruited as a “heavy athlete,’’ which doesn’t sound as nice as the “dual-threat’’ label that skinny quarterbacks get. But that’s only because the Indiana coaches who recruited him love what they’ve got in Murphy, and they don’t know if they want him to be a dominating defensive end — where he was ranked in the top-40s nationally as a high 3-star recruit — or a future offensive lineman someday.

“We have no idea yet, but we know he’s going to help us,’’ said Allen of Murphy, who was ranked the No. 6 player in Indiana in the 247Sports composite rankings. “If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll start out at defensive end, but he’s got a lot of talent and he can do a lot of different things. We’ll figure it out now that he’s here. We’re very excited that he’s part of this recruiting class.’’

So is Murphy, who enrolled at IU in January to get a jump on spring practice and top-level conditioning. The youngest of four children to Troy and Donna Murphy — “the baby with all the perks,’’ he says with a wink — he is living his dream, one that took years of blood, sweat and, even at the end, tears to accomplish.

His father Todd is a preacher, and the family moved often when he was a little boy. “He’d go to a church where the numbers were low and build it up, and then we’d move on to another town. I think I went to a different elementary school just about every year. We’ve been in Salem since 2010, since sixth grade. It's been nice to be in one spot, especially here.’’

He always had big plans. “He’s been very goal-oriented and determined since he was 3 years old and took off his training wheels because his older brother did,’’ his mother, Donna, said. And because you could play tackle football in Virginia starting at age 6, Murphy dove right in. It was love at first sight.

Murphy has lived a small-town life, but he had big-time football dreams, and those two things often don't go hand in hand. He wanted to play major college football, and living an hour or so south of Bloomington, he quickly became an Indiana fan as a kid, even though his parents were diehard Tennessee fans after growing up there.

He expressed his dreams to his football coaches when he got to West Washington, guys he had already come to know in a small town, rural high school. It’s hard — often really hard — to get seen at such an out-of-the-way place. But that wasn’t going to stop Murphy.

And, frankly, it wasn’t going to stop his coaches, either.

“When he got here and talked about his goals, we told him that we would do everything we could for him, but that this is a small school and there’s going to be some things you need to do on your own, too. He’s done that. All of that,’’ said Keith Nance, who wears a lot of hats in Murphy’s life. He’s an assistant football coach, the school superintendent and the father of Murphy’s long-time girlfriend, Samantha.

“He’s been to all sorts of camps, and he did the USA Football thing for a couple of years. He and his dad went to four colleges in four days one time, just sharing the driving and going from one place to the next. He knew what he wanted, and he was going to do everything possible to get it.’’

Nance had no doubt that he would.

““I’ve always had a lot of respect for Caleb. He’s always impressed me,’’ Nance said. “He’s a true competitor, and he never backs down from even the toughest competition. He may be a big fish in a small pond, but don’t ever let that fool you, because he won’t back down to anybody.’'

Murphy, an all-state selection as a junior, wanted to go to Indiana in the worst way. The Hoosiers were recruiting him for a while, but no offer had been forthcoming. He got offers from several Mid-American Conference schools, and several Big Ten schools, most notably Iowa and Minnesota, were interested as well. He did whatever he could to impress Indiana’s coaches.

“I even went to a Purdue camp, hoping they would offer me so then Indiana would,’’ Murphy said with a smile. “And I’d try to be around the Indiana coaches whenever I could. I basically took any chance I could to see them so they wouldn’t forget about me. I was at Indiana all the time. I was at team camp, solo camp, junior day, the spring game.

“That was always where I wanted to go. Since I was old enough to really be a fan of a college team, I was a fan of Indiana. The first time I went to Bloomington, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. The culture there really appeals to me, too.’’

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Caleb Murphy was an All-State performer at West Washington as a junior, but missed almost all of his senior year with a collarbone injury. He is the No. 6-ranked recruit in the state of Indiana. (Photos courtesy of Samantha Nance)

A go-getter from the start

Need a good example of how Murphy gets things done? When he got to West Washington, he also wanted to wrestle. The problem was the school didn’t have a wrestling team.

So Murphy took it upon himself to start one. Just like that.

“The wrestling coach at Salem High School actually teaches here at West Washington, so I asked him about starting a program here and he told me all about what I would need. So I did that, and then went to the school board to get it approved,’’ he said. “Anything that can help football players get better here is a big deal, so they said yes.

“And then I went back to him and said, ‘Hey, if I get this program started, would you stay here and coach us?’

“He said yes, so I guess he was my first hire.’'

Murphy wanted to use wrestling to be a better athlete, and he put in the work there, too.

“My sophomore year, I was probably 235 and was still tubby, had all my baby fat on me still,’’ Murphy said. “And I was probably down to 208 when I talked to my dad about cutting all the way down to 195 to be more competitive in that weight class, and he didn’t want anything to do with that, but I did it.

“It taught me a lot of mental toughness to get down to 195 and give up some things like Thanksgiving dinner. but it worked out great. When I started building myself back up after the wrestling season, I was up to a leaner and stronger 220 in a hurry. That baby fat was long gone after that.''

By his senior year, he was back up to 250 and ready for a huge final season on the football field and as a heavyweight on the wrestling mat. He had worked hard all summer, but then broke his collarbone during a camp at, of all places, Indiana.

“It was unbelievable that it happened there, but Coach Allen came over and talked to me and told me not to worry, because they would be offering me anyway,’’ Murphy said. “I was attending another camp a little later and Coach (Nick) Sheridan was there to see me. He handed me the phone and it was Coach Allen. He offered me a scholarship, and I accepted right on the spot. That’s all I wanted. I called all the other coaches and shut it all down after that.’’

He rehabbed and was ready to go for West Washington’s season opener, which was a huge deal because Phillip Bowsman’s team was loaded and the Senators had Class 1A state championship aspirations. The town was abuzz with excitement.

Murphy was “dominant and relentless’’ as a defensive end, Nance said. And on offense, he was a force, too.

“On offense, we had plenty of good linemen so we lined Caleb up at tight end. We ran outside zone runs all the time, and he just mauled people out there. He’s a great blocker, and very quick for his size. He could always set the edge for us.’’

But later in that first game, he fell funny making a tackle and broke the collarbone again in the same place. This time, the injury required surgery and his football season was over. So was his wrestling career.

“It was his last season, and when he got hurt, then I hurt, because I couldn’t fix it,’’ his mother Donna said. “That’s another part of what’s been so hard about his senior year, because he is such a goal-oriented kind. He had goals to achieve, and he couldn’t do that.'’

Even without Murphy, West Washington won every game but one during the regular season, posting five shutouts and losing only to crosstown rival Salem, which is a much-larger Class 3A school.

West Washington was 12-1 and on the verge of making the state finals. But Bowsman, so young at 43 with a wife and two kids, had a stroke during a playoff game and then died a few days later on Monday, Nov. 25 after complications with blood clots in his brain.

A town mourned. A state mourned, too. The lights were left on in hundreds of high school football stadiums across Indiana in honor of Bowsman.

Several days of agony for everyone

Bowsman had the stroke on Friday and there was little doctors could do all weekend. Players and coached huddled together all day and night, praying for the best but fearing the worst. It was a difficult time for Murphy and his friends.

“They did all they could to find strength in each other,’’ said Nance, who had known Bowsman for 20 years, coached with him and took family vacations together often. “Coach Bowsman used to say before every game that there are always hills and valleys, and it’s a lot better to get through the valleys when you do it together. Those kids, they were together.’’

Bowsman’s son Holden is one of Murphy’s best friends, and also the team’s starting quarterback. They all wanted to be there for their friend, and they all needed each other.

“Sometimes it’s hard in a small town where you know everybody and everybody knows your business, but at a time like that, it was actually very nice,’’ Murphy said. “The whole town came together.’’

Nance said Murphy and several other seniors kept everyone together, knowing the outcome was going to be painful.

“It was amazing to see the example they set for the adults, being so strong and so mature about all of this,’’ Nance said. “At the hospital the day before he died, there were about 15 kids there and they all went into Coach Bowsman’s room together and they had maybe 15 minutes alone with him to, you know, sort of say goodbye.

“They went around the room and shared some fond memories, and some great stories, and it was sort of their way to let the grieving start, by doing it together,. The door was open and us coaches were out in the hallway and, I tell you, that scene just ripped you apart. Those kids just absolutely loved Coach Bowsman. He was tough on them, but he loved them, too. And they made sure Holden was good. The whole Bowsman family, really. It was such an incredibly hard thing to go through for everyone.’’

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West Washington High School football coach Phillip Bowsman pictures with his son Holden, daughter Maddie and wife Beth earlier last year. (Photos courtesy of Samantha Nance.)

Relying on his faith, at all times

Murphy was grateful to have a strong connection to his faith and family. He wouldn’t have gotten through it all otherwise.

“It’s always hard in times of grief to ask why, but it’s appropriate to ask why,’’ Murphy said. “It’s part of the process of grief to be mad, but God understands. Afterward, you need to pray to God, because something good is going to come out of this. It’s all part of a bigger plan. At the end of the day, God is doing what’s right, and through Coach Bowsman, he’s done a lot for everyone.’’

That small-town atmosphere mattered, too. They all needed to get through it together.

“I like to think of our coaches as different, because here in this small town, we’re all family, really,’’ Murphy said. “After every Friday game, they’re all together at Coach Bowsman’s house watching film and eating and the wives are upstairs having fun. Everyone was always together, laughing and enjoying everyone.

“I got really close with Holden, so just to get to be there for him is really important to me. That week, we basically spent every night together at someone’s house. We’d always have 10-15 guys together, because none of us wanted to be alone, and we didn’t want Holden to be alone. We just loved on him as much as we could, and tried to help him through this tough time.’’

Bowsman was taken off his ventilator on Monday, Nov. 25, the week of the Indiana-Purdue game. For the visitation on Friday night, Indiana assistant coach Nick Sheridan, who was a key contact in Murphy’s recruitment, drove from Bloomington to Salem first to be there for Murphy, and then drove the other direction to get to West Lafayette.

The next day, before the funeral and just hours before the most important football game of Allen's life, was the morning Allen called Murphy.

It means a lot to Murphy that Bowsman and Allen are so much alike, that love and faith and family all come first.

“I told Coach Allen that morning on the phone that I was going from one great man to another, and that really meant a lot to me,’’ Murphy said. “To lose a man you had known for four years is hard, but it’s even harder when it’s someone who did everything he possibly could for you to live your dreams. There were a lot of things he did for me in recruiting that I never even knew about, that I heard about later.’’

Murphy cherishes one moment especially that will bond Bowsman to Allen for him forever.

“Coach Bowsman would always help with my recruitment, and really took it over for me, calling coaches all the time and texting them,’’ Murphy said. “He knew how important Indiana was to me, and one time he actually wrote a hand-written letter and mailed it to Coach Allen about why they should offer me.

“Coach Allen said that was the first time he had ever gotten a hand-written letter from a coach like that. But that was Coach Bowsman. He did everything he could for me, and I’ll never forget him. I love that man, and I always will.’’

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Indiana recruit Caleb Murphy is all smiles on the Brooklyn Bridge with his girlfriend Samantha Nance during their Christmas vacation trip to New York City. (Nance family photo)

Trying his best to move on

The seven weeks since Bowsman’s death have been a whirwind for Murphy and his family, and all those around him. Three weeks later, on Dec. 18, Murphy signed his letter of intent to attend Indiana during a ceremony at West Washington. He did that because he wanted everyone at his small school to share in the moment with him, teammates, students, coaches and staff. Family first.

A few days later, Nance’s family decided to go to New York City for Christmas, and Caleb went with them so he could be with Samantha, too.

“So much had gone on in that past month that we just felt like we needed to get away once school ended,’’ Nance said. “I think it would have been too hard to be home, so we went up there and had a great time. We made some wonderful new memories, and I think it really got everyone through the holidays.’’

Last weekend, Murphy said goodbye to his friends in and around Salem and packed up for Bloomington. He’s enrolled early and has started classes. Football conditioning workouts start on Thursday, and he can’t wait.

He’s an Indiana student/athlete now, a dream come true. He’s left a bit of his heart in Salem though, and he’s taken some of Coach Bowsman’s heart with him here.

“I know I need to be at IU sooner because I need to build my body and everything, but it’s tough to leave six months early and leave your friends behind and say you’ll see them at prom and graduation in a few months,’’ Murphy said. “But those are all little sacrifices you have to make to achieve your true goals in life.

“I feel like I’ve always been good at seeing an opportunity and taking it, and I have that here. That extra six months of being around the program, that’s really invaluable. And it also helps a lot that it’s only an hour away. If I want to pop home for a night, I’ll do that. That’s going to be nice.’’

His girlfriend is coming to IU in the fall, too, and Murphy is looking forward to sharing his college journey with everyone in his hometown. He’s a unique kid, on and off the field, and everyone knows it.

Nance, the coach, superintendent and father to Murphy’s girlfiend, sums it up best.

“I love all the kids on my football team, but it would have to take someone special for me to let them date my daughter,’’ Nance said. “Caleb is a real gentleman, he’s respectful and he always treats my daughter well, and all of us well, for that matter.’’

Murphy’s father, Todd, is proud of Caleb himself, of course. They’ve raised a good kid, and they know it. They can hand him off to Tom Allen now, and know he’s in good hands.

“That’s why LEO means so much to Caleb. He’s already lived that here, and he’s certainly lived that out these past few months with Holden and everyone here,’’ Todd Murphy said. “It’s LEO living out in every-day life, which is why we love IU so much. For that to be Indiana’s mantra is amazing and that’s special to us.

“Caleb has worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. Now I’m Caleb Murphy’s dad around town. He used to be Todd Murphy’s son, but now I’m definitely Caleb Murphy’s dad to everyone around here, which is fine. I’m very proud of him, obviously. This was his dream, and it just means so much to all of us to see his dreams come true.’’

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When Caleb Murphy signed his National Letter of Intent to go to Indiana, he did it at his high school so everyone could enjoy the moment with him. (Photos courtesy of Samantha Nance)

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