Note: The following feature appeared in the Arizona State game day program on Sept. 21, 2013.
It was so tempting, Trent Murphy could see himself wearing an Arizona State uniform. After starring at nearby Brophy College Prep, he was heavily recruited by the Sun Devils, and the transition would have been seamless. His older sister Kayli played volleyball at ASU, and his family lived five miles from the Tempe campus.
But that isn’t how Murphy is wired. Instead of taking the easy road, he stretched himself. Murphy passed up a sure-thing for a challenge, and hasn’t looked back.
“I’ll say it was a very comfortable decision to go to ASU,” said the fifth-year senior outside linebacker at Stanford. “I knew pretty much all the people there and my parents could have been more a part of the experience. But for me, fun and comfortable wasn’t really my mentality. I kind of wanted the hard decision and wanted to earn my stripes.”
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Murphy has done that and more. He started in all 27 games the last two seasons for the Cardinal, posting 63 tackles, 16.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. A year ago, Murphy was named an Associated Press third-team All-America, first-team all-Pac-12, and was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
This year, Murphy was nominated for four significant preseason national awards: the Bednarik Award for defensive player of the year; the Bronco Nagurski Trophy for most outstanding defensive player; the Lombardi Award for lineman of the year; and the Butkus Award for most outstanding linebacker.
“Trent and Shayne (Skov) are really kind of the heartbeat of the defense,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “They have so much energy and passion. Trent has that slow-burning desire that never diminishes and you can count on him to do whatever he can to help his defense make a play.”
Shaw relies on Murphy to push his teammates, especially the younger players.
“He’s a guy you don’t want to disappoint,” he said. “He’s almost had a big brother-type role to a lot of guys. He’s got so much respect on the team and guys look up to him.”
One of six children, ages four to 30, Murphy leads by example and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. His father Jerry is a plumber and his mother Laurie is a homemaker.
“I guess it’s something that kind of comes naturally to me,” said Murphy. “When we’re in real football, the position guys kind of handle their guys. But when we’re in off-season and it’s conditioning, weightlifting and you’re kind of going through that grind, that’s something I’m fairly good at is holding the team core and fighting through adversity with guys.”
Shannon Turley, the Kissick Family Director of Football Sport Performance, pushes players during summer workouts to help mentally and physically prepare them for the season.
“That’s all coach Turley is trying to do is plant adversity,” Murphy said. “He’s trying to act like the refs in games – we’re going to get bad calls and things we can’t control. He tries to be that guy. We just have to focus on what we can control. I like helping out the young guys or the guys who are struggling.”
After reaching BCS games for three-straight years, expectations are sky-high for Stanford in 2013. Murphy said the recent summer conditioning drills were especially tough.
“My best memories are probably all the dog days we’ve had,” he said. “The take-the-ropes, gator pushes, 6 a.m.’s. The last take-the-rope we did with the freshmen – I don’t think we were that much harder on them than the other ones – but for whatever reason, most of them had their fingers ripped up.”
Murphy smiled. Not exactly the lasting image he expected to leave The Farm with, but a sign of how far the program has progressed. He is grateful to former players who helped re-shape Stanford into a physical, smash-mouth team.
“Erik Lorig was the oldest guy my freshman year and a lot of people thought he was a little crazy,” said Murphy. “That guy had a motor. And Chase Thomas … you talk to anybody and they’ll tell you how grumpy and mean he is. Alex Debniak is right there with them. When you’re around guys like that, you don’t want to look like you’ll ever quit or are afraid of contact.”
Shaw said their nastiness rubbed off on Murphy.
“He plays with confidence and a touch of anger, which I think is great,” he said. “That edge he has really helps our defense.”
Murphy said it comes with the territory.
“Our first year we were called defensive ends and now we’re outside linebackers,” said Murphy, who lists steer wrestling as a hobby. “For whatever reason, whoever has been the lead of the group has always said, ‘This position group is the meanest on the field. We gotta play like junkyard dogs with a chip on our shoulder, hit the hardest, be the meanest.’ I definitely take pride in that, whether you play one play or you are tired. You grit your teeth and say you’re never going to quit and keep going. That’s how I play.”
Shaw estimates Murphy has a nine-foot wing span, reminding some of NFL Hall of Famer Ted Hendricks, who played 15 seasons and earned four Super Bowl rings. Last year, Murphy defensed five passes and returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown against Washington.
“I did have it measured when the (NFL) scouts came, but I don’t remember what the number is,” Murphy said. “It was significantly longer than everybody else’s. The offensive guys hate it. I used to bat quite a few of (Kevin) Hogan’s passes down in practice last year and he would be pretty upset about that.”
Hogan confirmed it.
“It’s probably the worst part of being on this team, going up against Murph and his long arms in practice,” said the Cardinal quarterback. “I have to throw over him, around him, and it’s a hard thing to do. It’s nice knowing he’s on our team.”
A science, technology and society major, Murphy spent the summer working as an intern for a start-up company. He can’t believe how quickly time has passed at Stanford and is making a concerted effort to savor his surroundings.
“I’ve blinked and now I’m a fifth-year senior with the guys I came in with,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy. I remember looking up to the fifth-year seniors and seeing how big they looked and couldn’t imagine being that old. I guess that’s us now.”
Murphy made a point of riding his bike around campus this summer, even when his legs ached from conditioning workouts and two-a-day practices.
“I noticed the sun was shining right over campus and passed a fountain in front of Hoover Tower and was like, ‘Oh man, this place is beautiful. I’m blessed to be here,’ ’’ said Murphy. “It gave me a better attitude going into meetings and practice.”
Murphy isn’t big on personal accomplishments. While his 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss – the latter the most at Stanford since 2000 – led the team last year, only one statistic matters to him.
“The most important thing for us is to win each game and go 1-0 throughout the season,” he said. “When you take care of that, those personal goals will take care of themselves. Most of the time, if I’m doing the right thing and just doing my job within the scheme of the defense, those plays will be made.
“I learned the hard way in high school: If you’re just thinking about sacks or a big hit, you almost never get a sack. But if you’re thinking about how you’re going to beat an offensive lineman, what your keys are, what you’re reading off the ball, you almost fall into the quarterback’s lap and take him down.”
Murphy still has friends on the ASU team. Place kicker Alex Garoutte was a high school teammate. And Murphy’s parents, whom he calls the “road warriors,” will make the 12-hour drive to watch him play. The Sun Devils and Cardinal last met in 2010 in Tempe, but Murphy was injured and redshirted.
“This is definitely a special game for me,” said Murphy. “I really wanted to be able to play in Sun Devil Stadium before my time was done here, but I didn’t get a chance to, which is too bad. It’s a big game for me.”
And Murphy was a big catch for Stanford.