THE MAN'S NAME IS MIKE MURPHY. HE'S AN ASSISTANT COACH WITH THE DETROIT LIONS. A FEW WEEKS AGO HE SPOKE IN A SMALL MEETING ROOM OF THE HOLIDAY INN-EAST IN ANN ARBOR, MICH., AND HIS AUDIENCE DID NOT MOVE. HE TOLD HIS STORY WITHOUT FRILLS: THE DEATH OF HIS WIFE, THE DEATH OF HIS FATHER, THE APPROACHING DEATH OF HIS MOTHER. THE WORDS CAME DIRECTLY FROM HIS HEART, AND HIS AUDIENCE DID NOT MOVE THE MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE WERE MOSTLY COLLEGE STUDENTS—FOOTBALL PLAYERS. THEY filled their chairs, big kids with their heads down in concentration. Who was this guy? They listened to every word he said.
Already there had been five hymns. The kids had sung Amazing Grace with an off-key male beauty, no accompaniment needed. They had listened to one of their teammates, Mark Smith, a red-faced offensive lineman, talk about his difficult relationship with his father before his father died of a stroke. Smith had spoken haltingly, respectfully. No one had even coughed. The next guy, Murphy, went further.
He told how his wife had died in August of cancer. How she had loved Jesus. He told how he had talked to his sick father and tried to convince him to embrace Christ and had failed. He said he had been embarrassed because someone else was in the hospital room, and he and his father hadn't witnessed together, and the next day the old man was dead. He told how with his mother he had succeeded. His mother is dying of cancer. He had talked to her on the phone, and she had accepted Christ as her savior. "I have learned," Murphy said in a New York accent. "I have learned from the past. I wasn't going to mess up this time."
A squadron of police cruisers, sirens screaming, could have arrived outside the hotel doors. No one would have noticed. This man stood in the midst of strangers and laid open his soul. He shared himself. He said at the end of his talk that he'd been afraid he was going to cry and was glad he hadn't. Heads stayed bowed. He looked straight at Smith, the young offensive lineman who had been so nervous about speaking.
"Mark," he said, "my wife didn't know anything about football. She didn't know if a football was stuffed or blown up. The other coaches' wives had to tell her why the markers were being moved for a first down. She is going to be at your game tomorrow; I know she is. And she is going to need help. A proud man is going to come down because his son is playing. He is going to watch the game and tell my wife what is happening. They are going to be there, together."
"I want all of you to do two things tomorrow," Murphy said. "After the introductions, after the national anthem, I want you to look up and say hello to the people who have come to watch you play, special people. Then I want you to reach down—Eastern Michigan is big, very big, a giant—I want you to reach down and pick up those five smooth stones. I want you to slay the giant."
Was he finished? Everyone was silent. Then the clapping began.
A wide receiver called for a prayer. The players around the room held hands, black hands and white hands, big hands and small hands, a ring of hands. Barriers did not exist. The Liberty University Flames clung to each other. Gladly. Hopefully.