That long snapping helped earn Mark an NFL shot was a vindication of one of Rex's lifelong tenets. Rex is our father; his belief was that special-teams play is next to godliness. In the late 1940s Rex played center for a single-wing offense at St. Joseph's high school in Buffalo. "In three years, I never had a bad snap," he often reminds us, unprompted. Later, at Colgate, he played end and long-snapped for punts and extra points, in addition to pulling straight C's. On countless autumn afternoons throughout my youth, our yard became the site of Rex's special-teams clinics. "If it comes down to you and another kid for the last place on the traveling squad," he would say, "they're going to take the one who can do more on special teams." The clinic invariably ended with Rex shanking a punt onto the roof. Cursing and clutching at some freshly pulled muscle in his right leg, he would hobble indoors, calling it a day.
Is long-snapping prowess hereditary? At Boston College, Mark supplied conclusive evidence that it is not. Like few other long snappers in the country, he could bring a crowd to its feet. Mark was the Mitch Williams of his craft, coupling exceptional velocity with how-the-hell-should-I-know location. By his count, Mark hiked half a dozen balls in his college career that the punter had no prayer of catching on the fly. "Two highs and three or four lows," he estimates.
And there was that unforgettable outside. It came late in the game against Penn State in 1988, with the score 20-20. Punter Brian Lowe caught the snap easily, but some State linebacker sailed in untouched and got a hand on the kick. The Lions won the game with a field goal moments later. Afterward, as my parents commiserated with Mark outside Beaver Stadium, a local reporter—who will know better next time—interrupted them, asking Mark to recount the game's key play. Rex's nostrils flared and began quivering, portending—as any of us, his offspring, could tell you—imminent and complete loss of temper.
Jabbing an index finger in the scribe's chest and snarling, Rex said, "Why doesn't anyone ask him about his defensive-line play! He played the whole——game on defense!" Flecks of saliva flew from his mouth; his eyes glazed over. Bitter losses have long induced in Rex such volcanic eruptions. Pat has toyed with the idea of keeping 16 or so milligrams of phenobarbital in her pocket-book for such emergencies. This day, Mark restrained our father, and the reporter slunk away. The crisis passed.
Not so for Boston College. Mired in a post-Doug Flutie malaise, the '88 Eagles went 3-8. The meatier postseason honors somehow eluding him, Mark was appointed alternate to the Japan Bowl. Worse, he did not receive an invitation from the NFL scouting combines, a strong indication that he would not be drafted. He was unperturbed. "I'll get a bunch of phone calls right after the draft," he said. "I'll catch on somewhere as a free agent. Don't worry."
Was Rex willing to sit by idly as talent-blind scouts ignored his pride and joy? Take a wild guess. CEO, captain of industry, mover and shaker, incorrigible meddler, he would seize the initiative; would take the bull by the horns. To Mark's mortification, Rex commenced marketing his son. He sent a form letter to every team in the league "to assure that Mark's name is registered with your player personnel management." The letter included a pithy sum of his son's football accomplishments: "Mark played defensive tackle in a 3-4, and frequently moved to middle linebacker in passing situations.... He played the 11-game season with no major injuries." It did not include any mention of their blood relationship. My favorite passage was Rex's opening salvo:
"This letter is written on behalf of Mark T. Murphy. Mark is currently a graduate student at Boston College.... He received his B.A. degree in June of 1988 and is scheduled to complete a master's program in 1989. His first-semester grade average is over 3.0. He wants the chance to play professional football very much."
What heartrending idealism! As if NFL meat brokers cared a whit whether or not Mark could so much as recite the alphabet, as long as he could bench-press economy cars and dismember quarterbacks. "The only thing that prevented me from being truly embarrassed," says Mark, "is that those letters are thrown away before they can get beyond a secretary, I'm pretty sure."
Mark was not drafted. As he had predicted, he was contacted by three teams within minutes of the conclusion of the draft. He signed with the Lions, the worst of the three, thinking his best chance was of making their roster. Many rookies plunk down portions of their signing bonuses on sleek cars. In keeping with the size of his bonus, Mark treated himself to a shopping spree at Waldenbooks. He had finished two Tom Clancys and was halfway through a Clive Cussler when his pro career was terminated.
Mark was hurt and disappointed by his release. "The organization did not level with me," he now says. "Knowing full well they intended to cut me, they let me practice twice that day, in 85-plus-degree heat and high humidity. On the other hand," he allows, "I was excused from that evening's meetings."