PITTSFORD — Somehow, Trent Murphy had to compete, had to do better at something than someone else. Blown-out anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee might have crushed his ability to do so on the field in 2017. It might have left the defensive end too hobbled to show his athletic superiority over an offensive tackle looking to prevent him from getting to the quarterback or putting a running back on the ground.
But it couldn’t kill that constant urge to outperform the next guy, to show he had the edge.
Murphy found a way to feed that fix with “the list.” It consisted of the names and teams of more than 40 other NFL players who, like Murphy, had suffered season-ending knee injuries during the summer of ’17. By searching through Twitter feeds and various websites, he was able to get a good enough handle on their progress to compare with his own.
“I was like, ‘OK, I still have to beat somebody. There are still people that I’m competing against to get better than,’ ” Murphy said in a conversation with The Buffalo News after his first training-camp practice with the Bills at St. John Fisher College. “Guys post videos and updates, so you kind of get a little bearing sometimes where you're at. It was just enough to keep a fire lit and keep moving.”
At the time, Murphy was a member of the Washington Redskins, but he also had the feeling of being lost in the wilderness. He wasn’t going to be able to play a down last season, after which he was due to become a free agent. He knew he had nothing to offer the Redskins and probably had other NFL teams wondering what he’d be able to give them in 2018.
Murphy had a breakout year with 47 tackles and nine sacks in 2016. Big things were expected the following season from the Redskins’ 2014 second-round draft pick from Stanford. Then came Washington’s 2017 preseason-opener against Baltimore when, as he was engaged with a Ravens offensive lineman on a running play, another Baltimore blocker fell into his left leg. That caused it to bend awkwardly, tearing his ACL and MCL in the process.
Murphy was devastated. He was heartbroken. But it wasn’t until the reality of what he was missing during the season set in that the Scottsdale, Ariz., native reached his lowest point.
“Those weeks on Sunday where you're not dressed and you're not getting on the bus,” Murphy said. “You don't have pads in the locker, you're watching on TV or go to the stadium. You're watching everybody prepare in the locker room and you're just like, 'Man, what am I doing?' That's the toughest when you've got nobody to report to, nobody's checking on you. Nobody knows where you're at. You're living in a state you're not from, and that's tough.
"I've got a lot respect for all the guys that have gone through injuries before me and have fought through it, because it is a lonely journey. You're still part of a team, but it's a lonely journey. It's tough. I don't overlook anybody that's gone through it. … some of those guys, unfortunately, didn't make rosters. I hope they're doing well.”
For Murphy, who the Bills signed to a three-year, $22.5-million contract in March, the journey reached an important milestone Thursday night. He was lined up as the starting left defensive end for the opening practice of camp in place of incumbent Shaq Lawson, the disappointing first-round choice from 2016.
There was a session in which the defense practiced blitzing. Although it was a padless, noncontact workout, Murphy put on an amazing display that would have easily resulted in multiple sacks if it had been a game.
“He blew every expectation I had out of the water,” rookie defensive tackle Harrison Phillips told The News. “You could see in that blitz period. I think he had two or three sacks just coming off untouched, sprinting to the ball. I mean, you can tell everything that's happened in the last two years has just been fuel and he's finally been waiting for something to spark it. And here it is."
During offseason practices in May and June, the Bills’ medical staff limited Murphy’s participation. The idea was to err on the side of caution and be certain he was fully healed before turning him loose.
The Bills were being additionally careful to protect their interests by structuring Murphy's contract so that he receives a lower base salary of $2.6 million in the first year of the deal and per-game roster bonuses up to $500,000 in each of the three years, according to Spotrac.
On Thursday night, Murphy was turned loose. He moved without the slightest bit of hesitation or apprehension. He trusted his knee would hold up, that the surgery he had undergone and his intensive rehabilitation would allow his knee to function every bit as well as it did before the injury, if not better.
“It’s like riding a bike,” Murphy said. “Just get back to football basics.”
Getting back to basics was a major theme during his rehabilitation.
'You just drag the sled'
Murphy had long been obsessive about weight-lifting, thanks to his father, a plumbing contractor who did bodybuilding on the side and installed a 1,200-square-foot weight room behind the family home in Arizona. According to a Sports Illustrated piece on Murphy about his final season at Stanford, he and his five siblings began working out when they were as young as 4 years old.
Murphy's dedication to weight-lifting has continued with a massive gym in his Virginia home. When he first signed with the Bills, he suggested he might need a warehouse to accommodate all the equipment, including one piece that stands nearly 10 feet tall. He has yet to move the items to Buffalo and said he hopes to add an infrared light therapy machine and a hyperbaric chamber.
But the natural place for Murphy to do the most intensive work to rehabilitate his knee was Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio, regarded in some circles as the most hardcore powerlifting gym in the world. It has become a haven for world recordholders and NFL players. You don’t choose to work out at Westside. It is invitation only.
Murphy was there on a daily basis through the offseason, anywhere from two to five hours per day, working with renowned powerlifter and strength coach Louie Simmons and Tom Barry, the gym’s general manager.
“It’s nothing flashy,” Murphy said. “The first couple of weeks I was there, you’d just hook up a belt, hook up a sled, put four, five or six (45-pound) plates on it. It’s snowing and you just go out on the concrete and you just drag the sled. And drag it for almost an hour and a half. You just walk and drag it. It was great, but it was tough when you first start doing it.”
All along, Murphy kept searching for reasons to keep pushing himself while relishing the fact others, such as Simmons and Barry and the rest of the Westside staff, were pushing him. The goal wasn’t just to get healthy. It was to convince another NFL team to give him a job.
"Probably the beginning of the offseason, I kind of took a good look in the mirror,” Murphy said. “I was like, 'All right, I'm going into free agency. What do I do now? What work do I put on the table? How do I represent myself? Who would still want me to be part of their cause, part of their team, go help them to win games? And how do I do that and have people push me and take me through workouts and keep telling me how far ahead I was, how good I look, how much better I look than people that they have seen go through this?’ That was the motivation I needed.”
The Bills provided the opportunity he wanted. Their defense needed help, especially with putting more pressure on the quarterback. He saw himself as a perfect fit for their 4-3 scheme and the overall environment created by coach Sean McDermott, who said he views Murphy as a three-down player and not just a pass-rush specialist.
Murphy was so eager to get to Buffalo after agreeing to his contract in March that he drove from Ohio through the snow in the middle of the night.
'Nothing can stop me'
“Every day we have an opportunity to prove something to ourselves, to our family, to the staff here,” Murphy said. “They're evaluating us every day and we want to get better. If we can go 1-0 today and every day until the season ends and focus on the now, focus on the process, we'll be extremely happy by the end of the season.”
He has formed a bond with his fellow defensive linemen and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. They communicate at a level that goes much deeper than Xs and Os. The message Murphy hears goes to the very heart of that long, difficult journey he has traveled.
“Coach Leslie Frazier talks about it all the time: Never take a play for granted,” Murphy said. “(Outside linebacker) Lorenzo (Alexander) talks about it. You never know. He's been doing this for years now and been doing it at a high level, hard. I mean, he inspires everybody the way he plays, so I just hope to live up to the standard that's been set and keep going.
“Nothing can stop me. (The knee injury was) an obstacle. I've got my family, I've got a lot of supporters. A lot of people helped me get healthy. The staff here has been tremendous, so just keep working and keep my head down and know that when I look up, I'll be in a good place.”