Reaching to the sky, Florida's Murphy pays tribute to mother (cont.)
When the cancer returned in 2007, Mina needed help. Still, she stayed strong, trying to keep the worst of the news from Louis Jr. and his older sister, Chiriga, until they absolutely needed to know. By the time Mina and Louis Sr. vacationed in Key West in July 2007, she knew she didn't have long. On one starlit night, the couple sat by the water. Louis Sr. finally mustered the nerve to ask her about the future.
"What?" she asked. "Dying? I'm not worried. I'm going to see the lord."
When he went to see Mina on her deathbed in February, Louis Jr. told her he loved her, and he made two vows. First, he would graduate college. Second, he would make the NFL.
When Louis Jr. chose in early 2007 to revamp his life, he did it with an eye on the NFL. After his mother's first fight with cancer, he swore to himself that he would ensure her comfort. She wouldn't have to work with the most difficult kids anymore. She would grow old with grace. She would spoil any future grandchildren.
So Louis Jr. decided to change everything. He needed to, because Gators coach Urban Meyer had almost given up on him. "He was a non-functional guy," Meyer says. "He would not have survived the way he was going. Academically, socially, football-wise. No chance." Murphy is an equally harsh critic of his former self. "I wasn't playing," he says. "Nobody really liked me around here."
In the spring of 2007, Meyer paired Murphy with rising senior Andre Caldwell, who taught his younger teammate how to study, how to work out and how to practice. With Mina's fight against cancer inspiring him every day, Murphy salvaged his classes and his relationships with his coaches and teammates. During the 2007 season, he grew into one of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow's most reliable targets, catching 37 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns.
By late 2007, Murphy knew he would lose his mother sooner rather than later. He didn't yet understand how that loss would change him.
Louis Sr. didn't see his son cry once in the month following Mina's death. The reverend worried all that bottled-up grief might eventually turn toxic and explode. It didn't. One day, it just poured out.
One March day, a headache -- the byproduct of a concussion suffered months earlier -- felt as if it would shatter the younger Murphy's skull. The pain dulled his focus during one spring practice. The coaches didn't know about the pain, so they rode Murphy hard. Frustrated after practice, he picked up the phone to call his mother and vent.
The realization slapped him in the face. She'd never be there to answer the phone again.
The tears flowed. That night, Louis Sr. received a call from Tebow's father, Bob. The elder Tebow told the elder Murphy to come to Gainesville. He did, and father and son cried together.
Slowly, Murphy emerged from the fog of grief. The 19 credit hours of class he took during the summer helped refocus his energy. Football helped, too. Murphy took a young receiver, sophomore Deonte Thompson, under his wing as Caldwell had done for him a year earlier. "For me, he's always telling me to stay patient like he had to," Thompson says. "He's a great guy, a great role model."
Murphy set an example on the field, as well. With a BCS title game against Oklahoma on the horizon, he leads the Gators in receiving with 36 catches for 611 yards. Six times, he's reached the end zone and pointed to the sky.
The most dramatic score came in the Gators' least dramatic game. In his final game at Florida Field, Murphy caught a 16-yard Tebow pass for the first touchdown of a 70-19 rout of The Citadel. Minutes earlier, Murphy had emerged from the south end zone tunnel to see his father waiting for him on the field. He wanted so badly for his mother to be there, too, and he couldn't block the tears. Meyer, the coach who had nearly run off Murphy, embraced his prodigal receiver. Meyer -- another son who lost his mother to cancer -- had hopped aboard the athletic department plane and flew to St. Petersburg the moment he learned of Mina's passing in February. Later, he named Mina's son a captain. In front of 90,000 fans on Nov. 22, Meyer offered his favorite reformed knucklehead a shoulder to cry on and a promise of everlasting friendship. "Louis and I are that close," Meyer says.
Ever the pastor's son, Murphy said his mother's death never shook his faith. Still, sometimes he couldn't understand why, with so much evil in the world, God would take someone so pure. "It seems like God takes the good ones," he says. After months of pondering the situation, however, Murphy reached another conclusion. "I know God doesn't make mistakes," he says. "She's closer with me now than she's ever been."
Now, when Murphy walks past a pile of dirty dishes in his sink, he'll hear a familiar voice in his head. "Wash those dishes," Mina will say. If sadness creeps in and drags him down, he'll hear her again, using the same words she used every time she saw him sulk. "Don't be a wimp," she'll say. "Suck it up."
For the rest of his football career, when he reaches the end zone, Murphy will point toward heaven. And when he does, if he listens hard enough, he'll hear the beating wings of his very own guardian angel.
"She's in a better place," Murphy says. "She's not suffering anymore. None of that chemo. None of the ports being put in. The radiation. All of that's done with. She's living fine now."