"Call your mother," the hotel operator said with a chirp. "She says it's urgent." I gulped. Urgent? Mother of eight, jaded veteran of countless emergency room visits, Pat Murphy was not one to use that word loosely. As I dialed my parents' home, my thoughts ran the gamut of possible catastrophes.
And, alas, the news was not trifling: My younger brother Mark had been cut by the Detroit Lions.
A free agent, Mark had been a long shot to make the club. We, his family, knew that. Still, when the ax fell, we were shocked. In his 23 years Mark had conditioned us for athletic successes only. He is one of our family's more accomplished pugilists and its best dancer. A three-sport star at Bishop Egan High, Mark had been the scourge of the Philadelphia Catholic League. In his senior year he made all-state at both offensive tackle and defensive end.
In poured the scholarship offers. After visiting five schools (and nursing at least that many epic hangovers), he settled on Boston College. He looked forward to burnishing the Eagles' tradition of fielding great linemen. Five years later—last season—Mark was one of BC's cocaptains.
December 25, 1989
That no NFL team deigned to spend a selection on Mark in last spring's NFL draft, the family dismissed as one of those titanic oversights that would have pro scouts feeling sheepish for years to come. Mark would become a beacon of hope for free agents thereafter, we felt sure. Not to worry. Biff. Mark Murphy wasn't drafted either, and he just started in his ninth Pro Bowl.
I should have seen it coming. Toward the end of his time at the Lions' training camp, the cheerfulness Mark had exuded throughout two-a-days had given way to fatalism and black humor. As he got fewer and fewer reps in practice, and even a spot on the developmental squad faded from his grasp, our daily phone conversations went more and more like this:
AM (inanely): So, how's it going?
MM: It's hard to tell, Aus. The coaches don't say much to me. I did get pancaked by some third-string fullback this morning. The guy blindsided me—a complete zoo hit. Everyone went, "Ooooh!" like they were watching fireworks or something.
AM: Don't sugarcoat it for me, bro. If you're struggling, I want to know about that, too. You keeping your weight up?
MM: Actually, it's falling off me like dandruff. I'm eating till I sweat at every meal, and I'm under 260. Whatever you do, don't tell Dad.
AM: Well, uhh, do you still think you have a shot? Is there any good news?
MM: If I stick, I could be the worst player in the league. Imagine it. The Kwitcher would go nuts.
Let me explain. Jim Kwitchoff was a teammate of Mark's at BC. Every fall, it was their custom to identify the player they thought was the worst in the NBA and to spend the season rooting for him. "It was Granville Waiters of the Pacers and the Bulls for a while there," says Mark. "Then, in Manute Bol's first year with the Bullets, it had to be Manute." Tim Kempton, when he was with the Hornets, carried the ignominious mantle for a season, says Mark, 'but right now, I'd have to go with Frank Brickowski [of the Spurs]."
If the Lions were the worst team in the NFL and they kept him, Mark figured, "then by the transitive property, I'd be the worst player in the NFL. Pretty neat, huh?"
That distinction eluded you, Mark—it belongs to some anonymous Dallas Cowboy—but at least you dared to dream. During dinner at camp on Aug. 18, just as Mark was polishing off his training-table Tater Tots, the Turk heaved into view. Serving as Detroit's Turk, or designated doom-messenger, was Joe Bushofsky, a kindly longtime apparatchik in the front office. Bushofsky made a lousy Turk, in Mark's increasingly expert opinion. "Too nice," he says. "The way he just stood there watching me eat, you could tell he was nervous as hell about something."
"Uh, Murph, Coach wants to see you in 15 minutes," Bushofsky finally blurted out. "And bring your playbook."
Thus tolled the death knell of Mark's five-week NFL career. As it turned out, Mark wasn't cut so much as he just disappeared. Most NFL releases are listed in the back of your newspaper's sports section under Transactions, where they look like tiny obituaries for deceased hopes, set in agate type. "Detroit Lions: Waived: Mark Murphy, defensive tackle," Mark's would have read. The problem was, most cuts are announced on Sunday and Monday. Mark's Friday sacking was a sneak play, which the wire services muffed. They never picked it up, robbing Mark of a million flashes of sympathy from a million coffee-sipping, sports-page-browsing Americans.
He bore up bravely. Within a day of being waived, Mark was straining a foldout beach chair at the surfs edge in Rhode Island as Sabrina, his girlfriend, applied Coppertone to his back and shoulders. We, his family, offered our condolences, casting dutiful, if insincere, slurs on the Lions for allowing a talent of his caliber to get away. Finally, Mark put an end to it. "Hey, it's not like I was having fun up there," he said.
Only Ethel, our 84-year-old grandmother, was insensitive. "Out of college three months, and he's already lost his first job," she muttered between belts of sherry. "I believe that's a record even in this family."
She was bitter; actually, we all were. Camp had started with such promise. For the first three weeks of two-a-days, Mark handled the Lions' long-snapping duties. As it turned out, however, he was first-string only because Eric Sanders, Detroit's deep snapper for the previous three seasons, was holding out. The instant Sanders reported, Mark was back on the scout team. "Stay in shape," Lion head coach Wayne Fontes told Mark after relieving him of his playbook. "You never know when someone's going to need a long snapper."
That long snapping helped earn Mark an NFL shot was a vindication of one of Rex's lifelong tenets. Rex is our father; his belief was that special-teams play is next to godliness. In the late 1940s Rex played center for a single-wing offense at St. Joseph's high school in Buffalo. "In three years, I never had a bad snap," he often reminds us, unprompted. Later, at Colgate, he played end and long-snapped for punts and extra points, in addition to pulling straight C's. On countless autumn afternoons throughout my youth, our yard became the site of Rex's special-teams clinics. "If it comes down to you and another kid for the last place on the traveling squad," he would say, "they're going to take the one who can do more on special teams." The clinic invariably ended with Rex shanking a punt onto the roof. Cursing and clutching at some freshly pulled muscle in his right leg, he would hobble indoors, calling it a day.
Is long-snapping prowess hereditary? At Boston College, Mark supplied conclusive evidence that it is not. Like few other long snappers in the country, he could bring a crowd to its feet. Mark was the Mitch Williams of his craft, coupling exceptional velocity with how-the-hell-should-I-know location. By his count, Mark hiked half a dozen balls in his college career that the punter had no prayer of catching on the fly. "Two highs and three or four lows," he estimates.
And there was that unforgettable outside. It came late in the game against Penn State in 1988, with the score 20-20. Punter Brian Lowe caught the snap easily, but some State linebacker sailed in untouched and got a hand on the kick. The Lions won the game with a field goal moments later. Afterward, as my parents commiserated with Mark outside Beaver Stadium, a local reporter—who will know better next time—interrupted them, asking Mark to recount the game's key play. Rex's nostrils flared and began quivering, portending—as any of us, his offspring, could tell you—imminent and complete loss of temper.
Jabbing an index finger in the scribe's chest and snarling, Rex said, "Why doesn't anyone ask him about his defensive-line play! He played the whole——game on defense!" Flecks of saliva flew from his mouth; his eyes glazed over. Bitter losses have long induced in Rex such volcanic eruptions. Pat has toyed with the idea of keeping 16 or so milligrams of phenobarbital in her pocket-book for such emergencies. This day, Mark restrained our father, and the reporter slunk away. The crisis passed.
Not so for Boston College. Mired in a post-Doug Flutie malaise, the '88 Eagles went 3-8. The meatier postseason honors somehow eluding him, Mark was appointed alternate to the Japan Bowl. Worse, he did not receive an invitation from the NFL scouting combines, a strong indication that he would not be drafted. He was unperturbed. "I'll get a bunch of phone calls right after the draft," he said. "I'll catch on somewhere as a free agent. Don't worry."
Was Rex willing to sit by idly as talent-blind scouts ignored his pride and joy? Take a wild guess. CEO, captain of industry, mover and shaker, incorrigible meddler, he would seize the initiative; would take the bull by the horns. To Mark's mortification, Rex commenced marketing his son. He sent a form letter to every team in the league "to assure that Mark's name is registered with your player personnel management." The letter included a pithy sum of his son's football accomplishments: "Mark played defensive tackle in a 3-4, and frequently moved to middle linebacker in passing situations.... He played the 11-game season with no major injuries." It did not include any mention of their blood relationship. My favorite passage was Rex's opening salvo:
"This letter is written on behalf of Mark T. Murphy. Mark is currently a graduate student at Boston College.... He received his B.A. degree in June of 1988 and is scheduled to complete a master's program in 1989. His first-semester grade average is over 3.0. He wants the chance to play professional football very much."
What heartrending idealism! As if NFL meat brokers cared a whit whether or not Mark could so much as recite the alphabet, as long as he could bench-press economy cars and dismember quarterbacks. "The only thing that prevented me from being truly embarrassed," says Mark, "is that those letters are thrown away before they can get beyond a secretary, I'm pretty sure."
Mark was not drafted. As he had predicted, he was contacted by three teams within minutes of the conclusion of the draft. He signed with the Lions, the worst of the three, thinking his best chance was of making their roster. Many rookies plunk down portions of their signing bonuses on sleek cars. In keeping with the size of his bonus, Mark treated himself to a shopping spree at Waldenbooks. He had finished two Tom Clancys and was halfway through a Clive Cussler when his pro career was terminated.
Mark was hurt and disappointed by his release. "The organization did not level with me," he now says. "Knowing full well they intended to cut me, they let me practice twice that day, in 85-plus-degree heat and high humidity. On the other hand," he allows, "I was excused from that evening's meetings."
Rex was less philosophical. Thirty-eight years earlier, he had been cut by the New York Yanks of the old NFL. It had been up to Mark to prove that the seed was not impoverished. That Mark had proved nothing of the kind was the Lions' fault, Rex concluded. They had placed too heavy an emphasis on such tired, predictable criteria as size, speed and strength, while remaining willfully blind to Mark's other qualities: firm grip; sound training-table manners; a flair for impersonations.
Memo to all NFL long snappers: Though you have done nothing to deserve it, you have at least one implacable enemy on this earth. To watch an NFL game with Rex is to endure his malicious tirades whenever you, the NFL long snapper, take the field. "Watch this!" Rex commands as you finger the football's seams and peer backward at your upside-down world. Whether your snap whistles back on a rope or rainbows lazily to the punter, my father's response is uniform: "Did you see that? Christ! Ethel could do better than that."
We have counseled Rex, my siblings and I. In soothing tones, we have explained that there are few purer meritocracies than the NFL. That Mark was cut early and not picked up by any other team indicates that he probably wasn't good enough for the NFL. Better that he find this out early and get on with his life, right, Dad? Rex nods in agreement, appearing to see the sense in these words. Mere minutes later he is saying, "Any day now, one of these guys could break a hand or something, and your brother might get The Call."
Mark has no such delusions. He's now back at Boston College, completing his master's in human development, marshaling his creative-writing skills to attempt to compose an impressive rèsumè. He is writing for BC's sports information office, playing a lot of hockey and, as he says, "explaining to six to 10 people a day why I am still in Chestnut Hill." I saw him a couple of weeks ago; he's down to 245 pounds. For the first time in five years, actual facial features are discernible on him. He's still pumping iron, but not as much. "You only go around once in life," he says. "You might as well have big arms."
From the start, uncommon grace marked Mark's transition to ex-jock. In the opening act of Macbeth, Malcolm describes the calm with which an enemy went to his death: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it." Likewise, nothing in Mark's fleeting pro career became him like the leaving it. Flash back, if you will, to Bushofsky, ruining Mark's dinner on Aug. 18. Once the Turk had uttered "...and bring your playbook," an uncomfortable silence fell on the table. Suddenly Mark was a ghost. His immediate response to his life's most major disappointment was this: "Bring my playbook? I guess he needs help with some of those illustrations, ehh Joe?"
Mark remembers only a couple of the guys who were at the table with him at the time: Keith Karpinski, a linebacker out of Penn State, who made the squad; Chris Parker, a fellow defensive tackle out of West Virginia, who didn't. Mark doesn't recall whether or not they laughed at his little jest. I wouldn't have, if I had been a rookie, sitting there, watching Mark bear up so splendidly. I would have been wondering, Will I be that calm when the Turk comes for me? Will I be able to crack a joke and keep on eating? I would have thought, Geez, this Murphy guy probably doesn't even need football.