Sunday night and Rob Murphy is back in
town. The former Toronto Argonauts
left tackle is having a drink in a bar
in Mississauga. He is wearing a zip-up
sweater and cargo shorts and still
looks enormous. But he unzips his
sweater and somehow looks smaller in a
white T-shirt. “With cardio and
smoking, I’ve been losing weight like
a champ,” he says half-jokingly.
After a 14th knee operation last October, Murphy deemed himself 100% in February. But he is not here to play again. Murphy is retiring.
He plans to make the announcement Thursday, though he does not know where yet or what he will say. But he wanted his three-year-old triplets, Maddox, Grey and daughter Rowan, there. He does not say that, but as he looks at pictures on his iPhone of the little ones getting their hair cut — “They wanted fuzzy hair like Daddy,” he says — the dirtiest player in the CFL has a soft smile. Murphy’s hulking body is at the corner of the bar, but his mind is 1,800 kilometres south in Jacksonville, Fla., with them.
has spent the last 12 years playing
professional football, the last six in
the Canadian Football League, the last
three in Toronto. He is back to tie up
loose ends and to stand in front of
the media, although he already knows
the questions. Rob Murphy is still the
villain in his own story.
“Are you a pariah? Or are you one of the best linemen in the last 20 years?” he says, “I think I’m both. And I’m ashamed of nothing I’ve done on the field.”
Murphy is a free agent — and he might have rejoined the B.C. Lions in January had left tackle Jovan Olafioye not suddenly returned from the NFL — but he knows the reality: No CFL team will pay a 35-year-old $200,000 coming off knee surgery.
“Most important was having my kids at a game,” he says. “When I knew that was not going to happen, that was it. That is why I wanted to play the last couple of years. Football isn’t me, I’m not Rob Murphy the football player.”
That does not sound right. This is big, bad Rob Murphy, 6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds as a player: He straightens his massive shoulders when he talks about punching Winnipeg’s Doug Brown in the gut, or holding Saskatchewan’s John Chick down by the throat. And he happily remembers flattening Hall of Fame defensive end Joe Montford in Week 4 of the 2006 season. B.C. Lions offensive line coach Dan Dorazio gave Murphy the nominal eraser award that night and the outstanding lineman award, and a Grey Cup ring, followed in his first CFL season. There was another outstanding lineman award in 2007, and also the dirtiest player moniker.
“I totally think he was a dick on the field,” Brown says, “and I wish you could print that.”
“Am I dirty?” Murphy says. “To the lay people who tune in to watch me, yeah. But my vision of dirty is trying to intentionally hurt. I never did that. Would I be in piles and grab testicles, and pinch love handles? Is it going to kill anyone?”
Murphy’s father Bob, once a running back at the University of Miami, says his son drank in instructions about the game from the age of eight and never wanted to disappoint.
“Am I dirty?” says Murphy, who used to play for the Lions. “To the lay people who tune in to watch me, yeah. But my vision of dirty is trying to intentionally hurt. I never did that.'
“Rob always felt he wanted to beat you so bad you never played again,” Bob Murphy says. “You were so embarrassed, that was it.”
And in the CFL, Murphy’s intensity and pride grew like it did nowhere else. He was an all-American at Ohio State, and a NFL starter for a time, but when he arrived in Canada he was no one, seemingly another desperate import. But ruminating about failure fuelled him.
“I was never one of those guys that ran my mouth,” Murphy says. “Someone else would run theirs, and then I would tell them what I was going to do, and do it.”
The media savoured the belligerence, and Murphy energetically revealed his darker characteristics: more tattoos, black metal, and dressing room “heathen times” for religious cynics that made some teammates squirm. Through his sardonic Twitter account he called Quebec “Frenchland” and appeared to threaten other players. Murphy was fined eight times in six seasons, but never cared.
“I would have told him to stop the bull,” Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman says. “Stop it because it takes away from your greatness”
“That is what Rob Murphy did the best,” Brown says. “He got guys more concerned with trying to kick his ass.”
“Be The War” is Murphy’s latest tattoo, big and across his chest. “It means bring the fight to whatever it is you truly believe in,” he says.
But he stands up to go outside to smoke and has to drag his huge legs. Murphy says he can play, but his body is betraying him. He will need a partial knee replacement in five years. In many ways he is fragile.
“You’re talking about Rob Murphy, and the things he is doing,” Lions centre Angus Reid says, “You’re still never getting to know the guy.”
Underneath the pads, underneath the inked skin, family and loyalty are his bones. Murphy’s marriage to the mother of his children deteriorated in his first season in Toronto in 2009, and he has spent $30,000 over the last two years on flights to see his children. He now lives in Jacksonville, and is going through a divorce, and is reticent to talk about its effects on him. “I don’t trust anyone,” he says, and crosses his arms tight.
But that wide grin returns when Murphy speaks about his children being kicked out of ballet class. Maddox, the suave, future movie star, Grey, with his barrel chest, and Rowan, the sprite, already have their father’s dislike for authority.
“It was comical to watch [the ballet teacher] move his hands, and blah, blah, blah, and for some reason they did not respect a word this guy said,” Murphy says with a satisfied laugh.
He is negotiating media and real estate opportunities, but is not worried about money. And though Murphy grits his teeth talking about finding an outlet for his aggression, his children will now consume his energy. However he is portrayed in the ballyhoo later this week, Murphy is no longer a football player or a villain. In his story, he is now only a father. His children were born premature on Canada Day nearly four years ago, and they could easily sit in the palm of his huge hands then. Their opinions are all that matter.
“If I had my kids and that’s it, I could live as a hermit, bootlegging liquor in the hills of Kentucky,” he says.
“People ask all the time, ‘Are your kids going to play football?’ If they want to! If they want to be concert cellists, go ahead. Be yourself. The goal for me as a father is to raise three confident kids, because this is a harsh cruel world we live in, and people get taken advantage of all the time. If I can raise three confident children, I think that would be my legacy.”