Dec. 28, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Perhaps no other state conjures up the Old West - its mysteries, its danger, and its promise - as much as Arizona.
Tombstone, the O.K. Corral, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley.
And no other player on the Stanford football team brings forth that outdoors spirit more than Arizona native Trent Murphy.
With the Cardinal embarking on its first practice session in the Valley of the Sun on Tuesday in preparation for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State on Jan. 2, Murphy was among nine Stanford players returning to their home state.
However, the 6-foot-6, 246-pound linebacker was almost assuredly the only one who ever wrestled a steer or skinned a rattlesnake.
Huh? Let Murphy explain.
"Steer are a little smaller than what you think," Murphy claims. "Only about 500 or 600 pounds."
The trick is "you try to use their momentum against them," he said. "As they're running, you get the right leverage and twist their head right around so they kind of fall over on their back."
Murphy had plenty of experience as one of seven children born to Jerry and Laurie Murphy while growing up in the rural Lehi area of Mesa, Ariz., just southeast of Phoenix. From a young age, Trent grew into the Western lifestyle. He got his first horse at age 8, and shortly after joined his father in activities such as team roping and, eventually, steer wrestling.
The family property included eight horses and four dogs, as well as an assortment of cows and chickens. It wasn't unusual, on butchering day, to see cow carcasses hanging outside the kitchen window.
This was the world Murphy introduced to some of his Brophy College Prep teammates, many of them from the inner-city, when they came to an outing at the Murphy home. In the family's backyard roping arena, Jerry unleashed a steer while the players tried "bulldogging," standing their ground and attempting to grab it by the horns.
Trent showed them how it was done.
"Trent grew up doing that so he just kind of grabbed it and threw it to the ground," Jerry recalled. "They all thought that was pretty cool."
Such skills, however, don't necessarily translate to the football field.
"You can use the same basic principles and use a guy's momentum against them essentially," Murphy said. "But outside of that, if I wrap my hand around somebody's head and twist it to the ground, I don't think the refs would be too happy."
Football replaced rodeo as the object of Murphy's attention and, as a defensive end, helped lead Brophy to a state Division 5A1 title as a junior and earned state Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior.
The defensive players at Brophy - the self-described "Junkyard Dogs" - were uncommonly close, perhaps because of the practices they endured together under defensive coordinator and strength coach Gary Galante.
"I'm not sure if he watched one too many Navy SEAL videos or what," Murphy said. "His whole thing was to make us tougher or break us."
Galante would challenge his charges not to let the scout team gain even one yard. To do so meant additional sprints in the blazing desert heat.
"It made us tougher and better men," said Murphy, who said the experience prepared him even for the tough conditioning regimen undertaken under Shannon Turley at Stanford.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. How Murphy got to Stanford is interesting as well.
A cracked tibia suffered as a junior stifled his recruiting for a time, but Stanford had already gotten wind of the player labeled as a "rangy intellectual," by a local newspaper, and arranged for a home visit.
It so happens that on the night then-head coach Jim Harbaugh and assistant D.J. Durkin were to arrive, Jerry and Laurie were in the hospital. Laurie, pregnant with their fifth daughter, Maddie, was having abdominal pains. From the hospital, they convinced her sister Amy to get to the house and entertain the coaches and buy some time before the Murphys could get home.
Amy, originally from Chicago, had no idea who Harbaugh was, and asked the former Chicago Bears quarterback, "Have you ever been to Chicago?"
Harbaugh never let on, and charmed Amy and the entire Murphy family.
Trent, whose sister Kayli was a basketball player at Arizona State, had the hometown Sun Devils in his sights, but was intrigued by the Cardinal, and had the conviction to reject an in-person ASU offer in hand from coach Dennis Erickson to take an official visit to Stanford.
Murphy arrived at Stanford well-conditioned, but at only 217 pounds. He took a redshirt year to gain strength, delaying an opportunity to throw the discus on the Stanford track and field team.
Murphy, who sometimes received training from two-time Olympic medalist John Godina, won an Arizona state title and was one of the top high school discus throwers in the country. Though rusty, he competed for Stanford last season and will do so again in 2012.
Under Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator in 2010, Murphy switched to outside linebacker in the team's new 3-4 scheme, but broke his foot in the season's second game.
This year, after missing nearly two full seasons, Murphy earned the starting job opposite Chase Thomas and has had a strong year, with 5.5 sacks for the season and nine solo tackles against Oregon.
"Trent has the ability to be one scary football player," said coach David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "It's scary to think how good he's going to be when he has an off-season to not just rehab, but truly train and continue to get more explosive. We're really excited about his future."
So are his parents.
"Every time we go up to Stanford, we pinch ourselves, because of how lucky and blest we are to have Trent in such an unbelievable place," Laurie said.
But for Trent, now a redshirt sophomore majoring in science, technology, and society, Arizona remains part of his soul. He loves the outdoors. He hunts, fishes, hikes. Heck, this is a guy who even shot a rattlesnake, and presented the skin to his brother Connor, as a gift.
Can anyone be any more `Arizona' than that?
* * *
The Fiesta Bowl will mark the fourth time Murphy has played in University of Phoenix Stadium. He played in two state 5A1 title games there, splitting against Hamilton of Chandler, and had a big game in a 16-6 victory over Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas in a premier nonleague game.
However, it's the 17-10 loss to Hamilton in 2008 that remains with Murphy, in his final high school game.
"There's kind of a bitter taste from high school ball," Murphy said. "It would be nice to get a win in that stadium and get a little redemption."
Drew Terrell doesn't feel that way. The Stanford receiver played for Hamilton in that title game.
"In high school, we were bitter rivals we didn't talk to each other," Terrell said. "But now we're on the same team and it's all love. We look back at it and laugh now. But back in those days, it was war."
Terrell, like Murphy, was heavily recruited by hometown Arizona State.
"I started going to Sun Devils games when I was 2 years old with my grandfather," Terrell said. "Ever since I could talk, I told my family was I was going to Arizona State to play football. Arizona State was my first offer and Stanford was my second."
Terrell said the academics pulled him in, as well as the promise that Cardinal football was headed in the right direction.
* * *
"Arizona's been very good to us," Shaw said. "Very competitive football. Some very good schools. We've got a bunch of guys that are back here and excited to play in front of their families in a big game like this."
Terrell, a junior who is Stanford's top punt returner, said Arizona has been overlooked in the past by recruiters.
"Usually people wouldn't think of Arizona as a hotbed for talent, but I would say in the past few years it's really become one of the hotbeds for recruiting. My high school puts out Division I athletes every year. Going to that high school really helped me to get exposure to play at a high level.
"It's a pretty steady pipeline to Stanford and I think the schools are really starting to take note of the talent in the Phoenix area."
* * *
The Cardinal is training at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, the alma mater of Stanford's 2008 Pac-10 first-team offensive tackle Ben Muth. Ben's brother Aaron is on the Fiesta Bowl Committee.
* * *
There is no shortage of No. 81s on the Stanford practice field. In an effort to replicate Oklahoma State star receiver Justin Blackmon, Stanford has four scout team players wearing Blackmon's No. 81 and rotating in on each play.
"It's hard because we're trying to practice with some tempo for our team, but there's not many guys in college football who can run full speed eight plays in a row, on deep routes, and still come back and not even be out of breath," Shaw said. "We've been rotating guys in there because it's hard to emulate."
One of those is erstwhile No. 87 Jordan Pratt, a former minor-league baseball teammate of Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Wheeden. The players used to play catch with a football after games with the Class-A Columbus (Ga.) Catfish in 2005.
* * *
Compared to the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, Stanford's headquarters for the Orange Bow last year - with its nightclubs, parties, paparazzi, and celebrity sightings -- the team's hotel at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is far more low key.
"It was fun last year, but it's been good this year," Shaw said. "We feel like we're away a little bit. A little secluded. I think we appreciate that just as much."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics