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Posted: Tuesday January 6, 2009 4:22PM; Updated: Wednesday January 7, 2009 2:27PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Reaching to the sky, Florida's Murphy pays tribute to mother

Story Highlights

Gators coach Urban Meyer almost gave up on Murphy and his knucklehead ways

After his mom's first fight with cancer, Murphy swore he would ensure her comfort

Murphy has become a team captain and a "role model" to teammates

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Louis Murphy
Florida wide receiver Louis Murphy points to the sky every time he scores a touchdown to pay tribute to his mother.
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Some days, when the elementary school tour groups had wound their way through, when the budget meetings had wrapped, Louis Murphy would stand in the man-made rainforest on the southwest corner of the University of Florida campus and watch the butterflies. Others favored the Blue Morphos, but Murphy preferred the Emerald Swallowtails, the peacocks of the insect world.

Mostly, Murphy liked the tranquility. The trickling water and the flutter of emerald wings brought him peace on days when the grief roared, when he remembered again that the best woman he'd ever known wouldn't be there to answer the phone if he called and needed a little motherly advice. The Florida senior receiver's fall-semester internship -- the final piece necessary for the sports event management degree he received in December -- at the Lepidoptera research facility at Florida's Museum of Natural History occasionally allowed him moments when he could stand surrounded by tiny, flying miracles and remind himself that there is a God, there is a heaven, and Filomena Murphy is there, flying with wings of her own.

They lost her on Valentine's Day. The preacher's wife and mother of two whom everyone called Mina had spent two years fighting off the breast cancer that attacked in 2004, but the disease crept back in her bones in 2007. It finally took her life after reaching her pancreas.

For Mina's son, her death was the cruelest lesson in a college career filled with harsh truths. Louis had overcome a wild streak and become the type of son any mother would beam over and the type of player any coach would name a captain, but, for a while, this phase of his journey into adulthood seemed too much to bear.

Now, he can talk about it.

He can talk about the day in September 2007 when he went home to St. Petersburg, Fla., bearing balloons and flowers, and he learned that chemotherapy had made Mina too sick to attend his upcoming game against Auburn. So he asked her how he might send her a message during the game. "Just point to the sky," she told him. "I'll know you're talking to me."

He can talk about the moment he decided to turn his life and football around. After his sophomore season ended in early 2007, he looked at her, so strong after fighting off cancer the first time, and he realized all his knucklehead moves -- which included a marijuana possession charge in spring 2006 -- only made her worry. He resolved that instead of making her worry, he'd make her proud.

He can talk about the dream he had not long ago, when he spoke to her. She told him if she had a chance to return to earth, she wouldn't. She's having too much fun in heaven.

She certainly made her mark in her 47 years on earth.

*****

There might not be a Louis Murphy Jr., star wide receiver, if not for the genius of Earth, Wind and Fire. On Dec. 31, 1981, four U.S. Marines stationed in Hawaii went to a Waikiki bar to ring in the new year. They happened upon four young ladies. A young Marine named Louis Murphy immediately found himself drawn to the native Samoan, who, like him, was a student at nearby Chaminade University. "She was classy looking," Louis Murphy Sr. remembers. "She was stylish. She was a lot of fun. She was also the best dancer. So I picked her."

Earth, Wind and Fire's Reasons pulsed through the nightclub. Dancers paired off. The Marine asked the Samoan beauty to dance. "The rest, as they say, is history," Louis Sr. says.

Later, after the couple settled in St. Petersburg, they began attending Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. In 1999, the pastor quit and members left during a financial crisis. Louis Sr. told Mina he intended to leave as well. Mina, who generally sided with her husband on every major family decision, minced no words. "You go ahead," he remembers her saying. "I'm staying." Shortly after, Louis Sr. became the pastor of the church, which today has a congregation of more than 4,000.

Mina spent much of her life working with the worst children in society. For several years, she was a juvenile probation officer. For a while, she taught at a juvenile detention center, swiping her son's CDs from his car so she could play music while her students ate the candy she smuggled in for them. When she came home stressed about the plight of one of her students, Louis Jr. would tell her that one day she wouldn't have to work there anymore. He would make the NFL, and she wouldn't have to teach punks who didn't respect her. She would only smile. "They need love, too," Louis Jr. remembers his mother saying. "If I don't help them, nobody else will help them."

"She was always helping and loving," Louis Jr. says. "That's all she did. In my eyes, she was flawless."

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