This is in no way meant to belittle athletes. My point this
week, which ends with Mother's Day, is that Mark Carrier of the
Chicago Bears and Marshall Faulk of the Indianapolis Colts and
Greg Lloyd of the Pittsburgh Steelers and plenty of others I
have profiled for this magazine are, despite their athletic
brilliance, not the most exceptional people in their families.
That honorific belongs, from what those guys told me, to the
women who raised them--women of astounding stamina and resolve
who took public transportation to two or three jobs a week,
smothered their children with affection, whipped the kids' butts
when necessary and insulated their boys from the meanness of the
neighborhoods in which they were raised.
If Mark or Marshall or Greg had ever asked, I would have told
them, as I am about to tell you, about another remarkable woman.
Herewith, an appreciation of one of the country's most
accomplished, selfless and fecund sports mothers: mine. She
deserves the publicity for having devoted what might otherwise
have been an enriching life to getting me and my seven siblings
to practices, games, awards banquets and emergency rooms. She
deserves it because, while playing Good Samaritan after a
football game in 1988, she damn near got herself killed. She
deserves it because, on so many other Mother's Days, she
received from us the usual beyond-lame array of greeting cards
and panicked post-9:30 p.m. phone calls. Bet you thought I forgot!
She deserves it because, unlike the moms of the above-mentioned
millionaires, she is not about to receive from me a house or a
Beemer. Pat, this is as good as it gets.
May 4, 1997
Is this as good as it gets? Patricia Reeves Murphy, 61, has had
many an occasion to ask herself that question since meeting her
future husband, my father--although we share the same name, he
goes by Rex, Latin for "king"--at a tennis tournament in
Mountain Lake Park, Md., in 1955. She was playing in it; he was
freeloading at it. A problem arose when Rex was asked to be a
linesman. Unsure of whether a ball that landed on the line was
in or out, my old man alternated. His wretched calls infuriated
my mother, who confronted him over the punch bowl at that
evening's garden party. He asked her out.
She captained the tennis team and played field hockey at
Rosemont (Pa.) College 10 miles west of Philadelphia; he was a
former college football player attending Penn's Wharton School
of Business on the GI Bill. The athletic young couple married in
1958 and produced seven children in eight years. (An eighth kid
followed four years later.)
We moved 10 times; stop number 3 was Denver. While skiing in
1966, Pat broke her left ankle. The injury required a cast up to
her knee, which made it difficult, but not impossible, to shift
our bile-green, three-on-the-tree Ford van. Pat worked the brake
and accelerator with her right foot and depressed the clutch
pedal with a drum majorette's baton. It was resourceful, it was
illegal, it was Pat at her quintessential can-do best.
My siblings and I played 15 sports for 159 different teams. (How
do I know? Upon request, Pat sat down one recent evening and
counted them.) There hung, in the kitchen of whatever home we
lived in, a two-by-three-foot calendar. Each day was a box, each
box a logistical morass of teams, times, places and players. A
typical mid-1970s summer day, as described by Pat:
"Leslie and Lorin's swim meet is across town from Austin's Babe
Ruth baseball game, which is 45 minutes after and two miles
removed from Chris's Little League game, which starts
concurrently with Gibby's softball game, four fields from where
Matt and Mark compete in T-ball. Amy is in a playpen, ready to
attend any of the above. Mom just wants a nap."
The '80s were easier. "The first child to make a varsity team
signals a major domestic turnabout," says Pat. "The dirty
uniform no longer comes home, and the athlete who does is
already clean." Less laundry, however, means more travel. No
problem. "In the later years," says Pat, "a sports mother can
easily make a Bishop Egan High football game on a Friday night
(after coaching a grade school field hockey game at 4 p.m.),
then tear off to a Colgate University jayvee football game on
Saturday in central New York, 230 miles away, and be back in
Pennsylvania for a St. John the Evangelist Elementary School
soccer game on Sunday afternoon."
She coached, she carpooled, she cultivated relationships with
nurses and doctors in emergency rooms all over the country. "Our
last yard sale featured 24 pairs of used wooden crutches,"
reports Pat, who shepherded children through surgery on two
hernias, three feet and seven knees. There were casts and slings
for 14 different fractures. We suspect that in 1984, when Rex
left U.S. Steel, its medical insurance carrier threw a big bash.
Pat nicked herself up too. Her arthritic feet--she is
hammertoed--are a gnarled testament to a life of hard work and
play. There was that skiing mishap. While cycling one morning
(to church, during Lent), she took a spill and broke an arm.
There was never anything life-threatening until the fall of
1988. By then Mark was a senior defensive tackle and co-captain
of the Boston College football team. Pat and Rex visited scenic
Fort Worth for the Eagles' game against Texas Christian, which
Boston College lost 31-17. While driving away from Amon Carter
Stadium--Rex maintaining his trademark postdefeat sullen
silence; Pat looking on the bright side, noting Mark's nine
tackles--they were passed by two cars playing fender tag at 75
mph. One car rolled. A young woman, estimated by Pat to be 17 or
18 years old, was thrown clear of the vehicle. She was a bloody
mess. My parents stopped, and my mother cradled the girl in her
arms until paramedics arrived.
Four years later doctors concluded that this was how Pat had
contracted chronic active hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease
that, untreated, destroys the liver. She felt no self-pity after
the diagnosis, just relief to have found out why she had been
feeling lousy for so long. She threw herself into researching
the disease and began to produce her legendarily chipper Liver
Letters, in which she kept her loved ones abreast of her battle
with the virus. The letters were always signed, "Love, Pat (The
The only known treatment for the hepatitis C virus (HCV), our
queen informed us, is interferon, a biological agent that
appears in response to viral infection. For three months, three
times a week, Pat injected herself in the thigh with three
million units of Interferon Alpha 2B.
She bade us not to worry about the medication's side effects.
"The doctors assure me there are things that can ease them, with
one exception," she wrote. "Please collect interesting hats for
me to wear!"
It reflects poorly on my siblings and me that we were
disappointed by Pat's subsequent failure to lose her hair. Sure,
it would have been a grim reminder of her illness. But it would
have been good for a few yuks, too. Oh, excuse me, Sinead, I was
just looking for my mother.
Twice she appeared to have knocked the HCV over the leftfield
fence; both times it rebounded. "Back to the drawing board!" she
would burble. My wife, Laura, tendered this theory on her
mother-in-law's supernatural serenity. "Not that it wasn't a
pleasure raising eight of you," says Laura, "but I think your
mother looks upon death differently from most people. She
probably thinks, Hey, I'll be able to sit down."
The third time was the charm. After shooting up for another 18
months, a period that ended on Jan. 3, 1996--four years after
she first began to fight the disease--she tested clean and has
continued so for more than a year. Her doctors consider her cured.
She is playing tennis again, working out on the rowing machine
and going for long walks. She is already in better shape than
her husband, whose main sources of exercise are gardening and
turning the wheel of a golf cart.
It would give me pleasure to report that Pat's efforts as one of
our nation's leading sports moms have been richly rewarded. That
would also take us into the realm of fancy. Amy (volleyball,
Fordham) and Mark got college scholarships. Mark was cut by the
Detroit Lions and played briefly in the World League. I became a
When we turn to the truly meaningful dividends of sports
participation--understanding the importance of teamwork and
physical fitness, learning to set goals and to defer
gratification--we discover that Pat's kids again fall somewhat
short. Fitness? When I point out that three of my sisters smoke,
they cry out, in their own defense, "But only when we drink!"
Deferred gratification? This crowd? On any given summer Sunday
morning the group can be seen bidding my parents adieu; pulling
out of the driveway of our beach house, ostensibly churchbound;
then heading off in search of someplace, any place that serves
beer before noon.
As these and other transgressions are revealed, Rex seems
wounded and sulks. Pat smiles the beatific smile of a parent who
knows she has done her best.
Her children are reminded, in thanking her for her
effort--merely a life's work--of a photograph of Pat that ran in
the Rocky Mountain News, circa '68. She played goalie for a team
of Colorado field hockey all-stars. Their opponent this day was
the national team of New Zealand, which beat them 27-0. In the
picture Pat is scissoring her legs in an acrobatic and vain
attempt to kick-save the shot of a glowering opponent.
Allow me to second the sentiment that appears, in headline form,
beneath the image of my lunging mother: IT WAS A NICE TRY, MRS.