The greatest athlete ever to emerge from Clarence High School told a gym filled with young dreamers that he once was a shy, skinny 15-year-old who walked the same hallways they do.
Mark Murphy stood behind a lectern Monday, in a jacket and tie, and shared the story of a 45-year journey that took him from starring in football, basketball, and baseball for the Red Devils to running one of the most iconic teams in NFL history, the Green Bay Packers. On a table to his right, flanked by Clarence High and Packer helmets, were the two Super Bowl rings he won as a safety for the Washington Redskins and as president and CEO of the Packers, and an NFC Championship ring he also won with the Redskins.
Behind the rings was the reason for Murphy’s visit: a golden NFL football that he was presenting to his alma mater as part of a league initiative to have former Super Bowl players throughout the country give a ball commemorating the game’s 50th anniversary to their high schools.
The ceremony provided an opportunity for the audience comprised mainly of jersey-wearing varsity, junior varsity and youth football players to see and hear what the game can do for someone who literally had walked in their shoes. Murphy readily acknowledged that it’s a “difficult time for the sport,” with safety concerns on the rise and participation at the youth level declining, even as television ratings spike and attendance remains strong for the NFL.
But he made no bones about the fact he was there to deliver the message on the other side of the coin – to emphasize the “values and benefits” of football.
“It’s a tremendous game,” Murphy said. “In terms of the lessons learned, there’s not another game like football.”
When Murphy was a youngster, his family moved around a lot. His father, Hugh, was a labor negotiator in the steel industry, and wound up taking a job as director of labor relations for Roblin Steel in Western New York when Murphy was in tenth grade. Murphy was a rabid fan of the Buffalo Bills, now his “second-favorite team,” and even worked security at Rich Stadium. His favorite player growing up? “It’s embarrassing,” Murphy said. “O.J. Simpson.” As the crowd laughed, he added, “He was a good player.”
For most of his life, Murphy was known as “Little Murph” to his father’s “Big Murph.” But after arriving in Clarence from Houston, Murphy gained another nickname befitting his long, slender frame: “Tex.”
“Big Murph” would always share what he called “pearls of wisdom” with his son. Through his teenage years, “Tex” usually responded with an eye roll when he heard his father say things like: “No pain, no gain … You’re going to meet the same people on the way up that you meet on the way down … If you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“I thought, ‘My father’s so corny. Why does he keep saying those things?’” Murphy recalled. “But as I got older, and I started to experience things, I found that those pearls of wisdom really make some sense.”
In fact, he credits them with helping him to forge a successful career on the business side of the game after his playing days came to a bitter end. Among the biggest that continue to be part of the roadmap for his life: “Build bridges, don’t burn them.”
Murphy learned the eternal value of this during his time as the NFL Players Association representative of the Redskins during one of the most difficult labor periods in league history. As vice president of the NFLPA and a member of its bargaining committee, he was part of the union’s decision to call a strike that wiped out seven games of the 1982 season.
To say Murphy was unpopular with NFL management would be a gross understatement. Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Redskins at the time, called him a “communist.” Quoting Cook, Murphy said, “Mark Murphy is fine young man, but I wouldn’t want him as a bargainer.” Murphy also said he believed his role with the NFLPA “shortened his career,” accusing the Redskins of using an injury he suffered early in the 1983 season as an excuse to release him after the year and effectively have him blackballed by the rest of the league.
“I was bitter for many years,” he said, the hard feeling lingering as he pursued a law degree at Georgetown.
However, it was during those highly contentious meetings in ’82 that Murphy formed a friendship with a “young attorney” actually sitting on the opposite side of the negotiating table: Paul Tagliabue, who seven years later would become commissioner of the NFL. In 1992, after Murphy became athletic director at Colgate University – from where the Redskins signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1977 – Tagliabue asked him to join the league’s player-advisory and youth football committees. Murphy accepted.
“And I am convinced that I would not be in the position I am in now were it not for my relationship with Paul Tagliabue,” Murphy said.
He offered another example involving a current Packer player, wide receiver James Jones. After seven seasons in Green Bay (2007-2013), Jones signed with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent. But after being released by the Raiders and New York Giants, the Packers, desperate for a replacement for injured Jordy Nelson, welcomed Jones back in 2015, because, as Murphy told him, “You did not burn any bridges here.” Jones finished as Green Bay’s leader in receiving yards (890) and touchdowns (eight).
Yet another “Big Murph” pearl that has served him well is: “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep things in perspective.”
Murphy cited two examples, as a player and an executive, of how that advice came in handy.
He remembered performing his best in the Redskins’ victory against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII because he didn’t forget that the keys for success “on a large stage” were no different than those for a smaller one: hard work and preparation.
Murphy also didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed when, not long after leaving his post as athletic director at Northwestern to join the Packers in 2007, he was faced with Brett Favre, the franchise’s all-time best player, deciding to retire … then choosing to unretire. By then, however, the organization had committed to going with Aaron Rodgers as its quarterback, resulting in a trade that sent Favre to the New York Jets.
“The Packers are a very unique organization. We don’t have a single owner; we’re owned by the community and have 370,000 shareholders, and I hear from these shareholders quite a bit,” Murphy said. “So after we traded Brett Favre, I get a letter from James from Milwaukee. And he says, ‘Dear, Mark Murphy, you, sir, are a complete and total idiot. Only an idiot would trade the greatest player in the history of the Green Bay Packers. I will never again support the Green Bay Packers.’”
It was around the same time that Murphy received some devastating news. “Big Murph” was dying of cancer.
“So,” Murphy said, “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Keep it in perspective. This is what happens when players’ careers end. You’re going to move past this, you’re going to get through it.’ And eventually we did make it through (winning a Super Bowl with Rodgers, who would become a top-flight quarterback himself).
“It was a difficult time,” Murphy added. But he didn’t allow it to get the better of him “because of my father’s sayings and (recognizing that) the things that he was dealing with were much more important than the end of a career of a player.”
On Monday, a bunch of young dreamers at Clarence High School got a first-hand look at where their hallways can lead.