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Packers CEO Mark Murphy on WNY memories, NFL playing career, running iconic franchise

Since childhood, Mark Murphy has been on the move.

But of the many stops between Fulton, N.Y., where he was born 63 years ago, and Green Bay, Wis., where he serves as president and CEO of the Packers, none left a more lasting connection than Western New York.

Murphy was a sophomore in high school when his family moved to Clarence in 1970, yet he still has many friends in the area. How many?

"I think we've got 30-40 people coming out," he said of the Buffalo-area contingent he hooked up with tickets for Sunday's Bills-Packers game at Lambeau Field.

The son of a corporate executive, Murphy bounced from Fulton to Hoboken, N.J., to Houston to Buffalo, where his father, Hugh, a former standout football player at St. Bonaventure University, became director of labor relations for Roblin Steel.

"Most of my life, he was 'Big Murph' and I was 'Little Murph,' " Murphy said. And thanks to the Southern accent he picked up during eight years in Houston, he had a second nickname, "Tex," through his first year as a standout athlete at Clarence High School.

Murphy went on to star at Colgate University, from where the Washington Redskins signed him in 1977 as an undrafted free-agent safety. He helped the Redskins reach two Super Bowls and win one.

Murphy later became athletic director at Colgate and then filled the same post at Northwestern University before joining the Packers in 2007. Thanks largely to having arguably the game's greatest quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, he was able to collect a second Super Bowl ring.

Now, Murphy is overseeing the franchise's celebration of its 100th season.

"I've been very fortunate," he said. "We've had great success. You always want more, but the culture in the organization is pretty special in that everybody wants what's best for the team, what's best for the organization. It's really refreshing to see that."

In this week's "One-on-One Coverage," Murphy spent some time on the phone with The Buffalo News sharing memories from his time in WNY, his playing days, and what it's like to run one of sports' most iconic franchises.

Buffalo News: What were your best memories from living in Western New York?

Mark Murphy: It was kind of the perfect timing. In Texas, I was kind of slow maturing. I wasn't real big, I was kind of skinny. And I got to Buffalo, I had some success (as an athlete) and I had a lot of confidence.

I became a Bills fan very quickly. My father got season tickets in the upper deck, first row, right around the 50-yard line at what was Rich Stadium. We actually went to the very first game played there, a preseason game against the Redskins. It took us three hours to get there and we didn't arrive until halftime. People were still figuring out the different ways to get the stadium, so there was just a huge (traffic jam).

Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, a 1973 Clarence High School graduate, addresses student athletes and community members in the Clarence High School gym in 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

BN: How did you end up at Colgate?

MM: I had my heart set on going to Boston College. I had a scholarship offer, I visited the campus, really loved it. And then they pulled the offer and ended up giving a scholarship to somebody else. Then I had a visit to Syracuse and I remember Ben Schwartzwalder, the coach at the time, came over and squeezed my calf. He must have not like the size of my calves, because I didn't get an offer from Syracuse.

I was interested in going to Yale, but I was declined, so it came down to Colgate and Brown. I really loved the Colgate campus. One of the other benefits of Colgate, compared to the Ivy League schools, was they played a really challenging schedule. When I was at Colgate, our biggest rival was Rutgers. I also wanted to play both football and basketball and Colgate said I could do both (although because) I played on the varsity (football team by) December I got so far behind in basketball, I just played on the freshman team.

My last three years, I played baseball. I was an outfielder and I had opportunities to play professional baseball. It's funny, as a football player, my speed was considered average, but I was viewed as a physical specimen for baseball because they timed you more in what you do in a game – home to first or home to second. I can't remember what the numbers were, but I did better on that than I did on the 40-yard dash.

BN: The story of how you wound up with the Redskins is pretty wild, to say the least.

MM: The first day of the (1977) draft, I get a call from George Allen, the Redskins' coach at the time, and he says, "Mark, we really like you and we want to draft you, so we're going to fly you down and have a press conference." Now, you have to remember back then, the Redskins didn't have a lot of draft picks because George would rather have veterans so he traded all his draft picks for veterans.

The draft was 12 rounds over two days. I wasn't picked the first day, but the Redskins put me up at the Marriott Hotel out by Dulles Airport. The next morning, I got up early thinking, "I'm going to head over the facility, this is going to be great, we'll have that press conference." There are about five or six (college prospects at the hotel) and they got us all together and put us in a van and took us downtown and gave us a tour of Washington, D.C. They showed us a bunch of sites and the person driving the van kept pulling over. There weren't cell phones then; he'd go to a pay phone and he'd make a call at each stop. Then we had lunch downtown and we came back to the Redskins' practice facility, which was right by Dulles Airport. None of us had any idea what was going on.

Then, one by one, they started calling us in and George Allen said, "Mark, you weren't drafted, but we really like you. Here's a contract. Why don't you take a minute and look at it and sign it." And then he turned to his assistant and he said, "If Mark doesn't sign that, let's get that safety from Oklahoma on the phone that we like so much."

Meanwhile, I called back to my apartment and my girlfriend, who would be my wife, said, "What the hell's going on?" I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "We're getting all these calls (from NFL teams)." She was calling the hotel and the Redskins had given the hotel instructions to say there was no Mark Murphy staying there.

I don't know if I liked what the Redskins did, but at least they had an interest in me. I ended up signing with the Redskins. George Allen called me his "13th-round" draft choice. Those were the kinds of things he had to do to be competitive without any draft choices.

Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy signs an autograph prior to the Packers game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 14, 2014. The Bills upset the Packers, 21-13. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

BN: It worked out pretty well for you.

MM: A lot of success on the field, but probably the best thing that happened to me was when the Redskins hired Joe Gibbs (as coach). When the Packers hired Lombardi, Bart Starr said, 'We could tell right away things were different and we were going to get better pretty quickly.' And it was kind of the same way with Joe, although Joe's first year we went 0-5, with really close games, but then we won eight of our last 11 and the next season, 1982, we won the Super Bowl.

We started 2-0 and then we go on strike. As a union rep, I was up in New York for the negotiations. I was there for like a month and kept in shape by running in Central Park. There was a threat they were going to cancel the season, but we were able to get a deal done and still salvage the season, which ended up being nine games.

BN: Safe to say it's no coincidence that your dad's work in labor relations influenced you in becoming a union rep?

MM: Yeah, having been around him and the process, I had an interest in it. He encouraged me to get involved with the players' union, he thought it was good experience for me. But we used to say being a player rep is kind of like smoking cigarettes; it's dangerous for your health. There weren't a lot of people interested in serving as the player rep.

Looking back on it, it was probably the best thing I did in terms of my long-term career, the experience that I had. One of the very best connections that I made was with Paul Tagliabue, who was a young attorney at the time representing the NFL. When he became commissioner, I was the athletic director at Colgate and he got me involved in a couple of different things, youth football fund and kind of a player alumni committee he put together. I don't think I'd be in my position now if it were not for Paul.

BN: Considering that all of your administrative work was at the college level, how did you end up in your role with the Packers?

MM: When I was athletic director at Northwestern, Jed Hughes (a former NFL assistant coach who heads a search firm that helps teams find coaches and front-office executives) and I were on an NCAA committee to try to get more minorities as head coaches in the NCAA. We kind of struck up a friendship. In 2007, he was doing the search for the Packers. I had been at Northwestern about four years and he asked me if I would be interested.

I knew how unique the Packers were, but never thinking that I would be a strong candidate. But at the time, people saw that we were heading into what was really probably going to be a challenging situation with the Players Association and my background with them was helpful. And the fact I had stayed connected with Paul Tagliabue was a factor as well in getting the job.

As an athletic director, it's pretty good experience for building programs and working with coaches. Although it's not like working for an NFL team, there are some skills that you learned that are certainly applicable to the NFL.

BN: The iconic nature of the Packers had to be so appealing to you.

MM: Oh, absolutely. All the history and tradition. And also the ownership structure, the fact they're owned by the shareholders, by the community. My position is much different than that of a president for any other team in the NFL. Most other presidents report directly to the owner. I'm more like the president of a university in I report to a board of directors, specifically an executive committee. It gives you a little more autonomy.

There's nothing like it. With a population of 100,000, we're, by far, the smallest market in the league. My wife and I have loved it here, we really like small-town life. There's a lot of similarities I see between Green Bay and Buffalo. Buffalo has kind of the Midwestern values that you see here.

And, I'm a little biased, but (Lambeau) is the best stadium in the NFL. It's unbelievable the visitors we get from all over the world.

BN: That first year in Green Bay was pretty challenging, to say the least.

MM: That was the Summer of Favre, when Brett Favre retired, then he comes back (to play for the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings). This is my first six months on the job and I'm dealing with this. At one point, I had to go visit my father, who had brain cancer (from which he would die in 2008). And the media criticized me. They said, "Where's Murphy?" It was a blessing in the sense that it really put things in perspective for me to know, here is my father, fighting for his life, and the Brett Favre situation may seem really big and important, but you get through it.

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