Posted by: marcmwm | October 28, 2008

A Special (teams) story

A special Hawkeye story

By Marc Morehouse
Photo

(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive back Jayme Murphy attempts to block the punt of Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman during a Big Ten football game Oct. 18 in Iowa City. Special teams MVP for Iowa last season, the walk-in is again providing a spark for the team in that role.

IOWA CITY — On the last day of fall camp. a police officer knocked on Jayme Murphy’s door at 6 a.m.

This is never good.

Murphy learned of the sudden death of his sister, Cassy, 24. She was staying at her parents’ home in Dubuque. She went to bed the night of Aug. 24 and didn’t wake up the next morning. She died of cardiomyopathy, a serious heart disease in which the muscle becomes inflamed and doesn’t work as well as it should. When you hear of athletes dying suddenly, it’s often cardiomyopathy.

This is how Murphy, Iowa’s special teams MVP in ’07, began his sophomore season.

From Cassy’s obituary in the Aug. 27 Dubuque Telegraph Herald:

“She was (Jayme’s) biggest fan, going to all his junior and high school sporting events. She was so proud when she wore his football button and showed it to anyone who would listen.”

The immediate grief kept Murphy out for Iowa’s opener against Maine.

“It was really hard for my family,” Murphy said Tuesday. “The most important thing was to go home and be there for my family. When it came down to it, I had the option to play that week. I just didn’t think I could do it. I wanted to stay home with my family. It’s a hard thing. No parent should ever watch one of their children pass away.”

Then, Murphy, a burly 5-foot-11, 207-pounder who spent the bye week time off with his parents, went through tests on his heart, checking for the disease, which can be genetic. He said he’s lucky enough not to have it.

“It’s just kind of speaks to the kind of person he is to go through something that big and that important in your life to bounce back the way he did,” linebacker A.J. Edds said. “I can’t imagine losing a sibling (that young). It shows you the kind of person, the perseverance he has.”

Murphy made a name for himself last season by playing with reckless abandon. He knocked himself out while making a tackle on a kickoff last season at Wisconsin. He’s kind of famous for that one. And now here he is, balancing one of life’s big topics as a 20-year-old student-athlete.

“For me, football has always been an escape,” said Murphy, who has 11 special teams tackles this season. “It’s a great place to not think about anything going on and just go out there and give everything you have.”

The Murphy family carries a name in Dubuque.

Jayme’s parents, Bill and Laura, own Murph’s South End Tap, a popular Dubuque watering hole. Jayme’s uncle, Pat, coached football in the city for 30 years, including 15 years as head coach at Dubuque Senior High School. He’s spent the last three seasons coaching running backs at Loras College.

Jayme made a name for himself at Senior. He holds Mississippi Valley Conference game records for rushing yards (384), TDs (seven) and points (44). As a senior, injuries limited him to seven games but he still rushed for 1,150 yards and 10 TDs. But even as the star tailback, Murphy found his way to special teams. He holds MVC records for season kickoff return average (44.3 yards) and kickoff return TDs (five).

When Murphy graduated in 2006, he had a partial scholarship offer at Northern Iowa and a walk-on offer at Wisconsin. He took the walk-on at Iowa because, “I was just an Iowa fan, just a die-hard Iowa fan.”

Murphy knew, realistically, his best shot to see the field would be special teams. Sure, he desperately wants more touches at running back — he has seven carries for 7 yards this season — but he’s a walk-on and embraces the role he’s carved out for himself.

“He gives you a spark,” Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s one of those guys who energizes and ignites the team, particularly our special teams. But big plays on special teams ignite everybody, creates enthusiasm on our entire sideline. Jayme has done that time and time again. He loves doing it. He’s got a knack for it and loves doing it.”

Murphy isn’t making every tackle on kick coverage, it only feels like it. His 11 tackles make up 23 percent of the stops on kickoffs and give him as many as a lot of second-team defensive players. He’s one ahead of linebacker Jeff Tarpinian and one behind defensive end Broderick Binns.

The Hawkeyes’ kick coverage unit is second in the Big Ten, allowing just 19.0 yards a return. Murphy is a gunner, so his job is to find the ball. He doesn’t have to worry about lane responsibility. His job is find ball, tackle ball.

“You have to be fearless and you have to be a full-throttle player,” Ferentz said. “In my career, I’ve seen guys, particularly on the kickoff team, who weren’t the fastest guys in the 40s (40-yard dash), but for some reason they have a way of getting ahead of everybody else on kickoff coverage.

“I think that’s neck up. That’s certainly Jayme. He was like that the day he walked in here. We didn’t create it. He’s had that ability, knack, and when you have guys like that, it’s rare.”

Get ready for the complexity of Murphy’s explanation for his special special teams gift. It’s graduate-level football.

“Tackle the guy with the ball,” he said. “It’s that simple. It’s a really easy concept. You see the guy catch the ball, you’ve just got to be the one to put a hit on him.”

This brings us to Murphy’s nickname, “Irish car bomb.”

No, it’s not because he drinks “Irish car bombs.” It was given to him last season by former assistant strength coach Pat Dobson, now the strength coach at Nebraska. Last year, the Hawkeyes had four running backs with Irish names, Murphy, Paki O’Meara, Jordan McLaughlin and Tom Busch.

“I think it’s great, it’s fun,” Murphy said. “My family plays off it. My dad owns a bar back home, so they think that’s great. Just don’t make me look like an alcoholic or anything.”

He’s joking, somehow.

Murphy spent about 10 minutes with the media Tuesday. The arc started with his arrival in Iowa City, it covered the details of his sister’s death and then finished with a joke about his nickname.

Fearless doesn’t begin to describe Jayme Murphy.

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