Jim Murphy: A Nebraskan, a Walk-On, a Soldier
By Randy York
Saturday’s Kansas State football game is not only a special day for 29 Nebraska seniors, but also an important opportunity for more than 400 Nebraska-based active troops who have recently returned from overseas duty and are special guests of the University of Nebraska.
Lt. Col. Jim Murphy, who oversees recruiting and retention for the Nebraska Army National Guard, is a double source of pride as the Huskers brace to salute all soldiers the day before Veterans Day.
First, in pregame ceremonies, Murphy will help present Major General Roger P. Lemke with a civilian Nebraska football jersey. Lemke commanded our state’s military forces and directed the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency until he retired just a week ago.
Secondly, even though the 48-year-old Murphy will watch the game in his military uniform, he can take particular pleasure in watching the pads pop on the field. Before he ever decided to become a career soldier, Murphy was one of the biggest long shots ever to start at Nebraska as a walk-on player.
|Lt. Col. Jim Murphy|
“Mitch Krenk and I defied the odds together,” says Murphy, whose dad (Big Jim) captained Nebraska’s 1956 football team and whose uncle, Monte Kiffin, is the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Mitch ended up going all the way to making the Chicago Bears Super Bowl team (in 1984), but we were both on the seventh or eighth-team when we started out.”
Murphy and Krenk, the president of Nebraska’s Letterman’s Club, decided to take a winter conditioning class together as freshmen. “I think we were the only two non-football players in the class,” Murphy recalls. “We worked as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the class, and we were surprised when Coach (Tom) Osborne invited us to come out for spring football. Then, after that, he invited us to come out for fall camp.”
The two long shots made a pact with each other. “Mitch said we were the lowest of the walk-ons, so we couldn’t just be low maintenance; we had to be no maintenance. That meant we couldn’t get hurt, and if we did, we had to pretend like we weren’t hurt. We had to make grades, stay out of trouble, show up every day, never miss a practice, never be late to a meeting and never give any of the coaches any reason to think we didn’t belong there.”
Murphy laughs about having what he calls an electric shoulder. “I had a pinched nerve in my neck, and once in a while, it would incapacitate me,” Murphy said. “It’d take about 30 seconds before the pain would go away, then I’d jump right back up.”
He says attrition was the best way to jump through the depth chart. “When I was eighth team, two of the defensive backs ahead of me didn’t make their grades and two more quit the team. All of a sudden, I was fourth team, and I started to realize why the Nebraska players would say, ‘You stay; you play.’ Jeff Krejci came over to me one day and said: ‘Geez, Murph, you keep working hard, and you’ll be right there with the rest of us. You’re just as good as some of these other guys. Keep your nose to the grindstone, and you never know what might happen.’”
Lt. Col. Murphy never once let up for anything or anybody. In his first three years as a Husker (1978-79-80), Murphy flew under everyone’s radar. As a junior, he lettered. As a senior, in 1982, he found himself No. 1 on the depth chart at spring practice. He started a couple of games that fall before getting pneumonia after a big win at Auburn. Although he never worked his way back into the starting lineup, he never missed a kickoff on special teams.
“You hear about walk-ons being the heart and soul of Nebraska football,” Murphy said. “All of the superstars on that ’82 team know how true that is. They know how hard we worked just to get on the field, and it helped them work hard themselves. We pushed them to heights they never even imagined.”
Nebraska All-Americans Mike Rozier and Irving Fryer remember laughing at the skinny walk-ons they saw report as freshmen. By the time they were seniors and preparing for their last home game, they weren’t laughing anymore. “Irving and I watched how hard those guys worked,” the Heisman Trophy-winning Rozier said. “We figured if we worked as hard as they did, how much better would we be? Walk-ons set the tone for everyone, including me.”
Murphy smiles when he hears the story. “I remember a story about Irving,” he recalls. “One time in practice, Tim Holbrook, another walk-on from my hometown (Lexington), fought through a crack-back block and just decked Irving in practice. Irving looked at our receivers coach (Gene Huey) for sympathy, and Coach Huey looked back at him and said: ‘Irving, welcome to the Big Eight!’”
For Jim Murphy, the journey from winter conditioning to the playing field was a long and winding road. But there are hundreds of other stories just like his, and they're all part of Nebraska's rich football history.