On June 14 at 11:30 AM, Latavius Murray paced the sidelines at Winter Park wearing No. 25, a subtle tribute to his best friend. At that moment, 1,400 miles away, a brawl broke out in the Onondaga County Courthouse.
Every police officer on the premises was called to the hallway outside Judge Thomas Miller’s courtroom. Three people were arrested, two ended up in the hospital.
Some of the participants in the scuffle were people close to Murray. Others were connected to Jonathan Diaz’s killer.
An elderly man in the passenger seat of a white Cadillac rolled his window down and asked whether the actual name of the bar on the corner of South Clinton and Walton Street was, “The Bar.” Yes, sir. The man shook his head and began pounding the address into his smartphone and grumbling directions to the woman of similar age in the driver’s seat.
The place where Jonathan Diaz was mortally wounded by a gunshot hardly comes across as dangerous. It’s more lonely than scary. All the foot traffic around The Bar is headed back toward downtown Syracuse’s more quaint streets – the ones lined with coffee shops and boutiques. There is a pizza shop next to The Bar with only one customer inside and pies that look like they’ve been there awhile. You can find parking spots in this part of Armory Square.
There’s no cross or memorial to Diaz at South Clinton and Walton. Lights are off inside The Bar, which appears to be every bit as plain inside as its name and black awning with block white letters. There’s a sign in the front window that says:
NO Flat Brim Hats
NO Head Covers
NO Oversize Clothes
NO Plain White Tees
NO Athletic Wear
NO Visible Chains
On the night before Thanksgiving last year, inside this bar, Diaz ran into a man named Sangsouriyanh Maniphonh, an army veteran who was carrying a legally-possessed handgun. The two got into an altercation over Diaz’s previous relationship with Maniphonh’s wife – though friends would later tell Syracuse.com that Diaz was not involved with the Maniphonh’s wife at that time.
It’s hard to say for sure, but normally bouncers at bars like this are pretty well trained in tossing people out of bars when there’s some type of dispute over a woman. They sent one man out of the side door near the pizza shop and the other out the front at South Clinton and Walton.
What happened after that was the crux of the case inside Judge Miller’s courtroom. The prosecution said the two men began fighting outside and Maniphonh pulled a gun and shot Diaz to death. Maniphonh’s side argued he ended Diaz’s life in self defense.
Murray only knows what he’s been told. He was in California on a massage table when his friend Tez called and said Jonathan had been shot.
“I called my mom and just told her to get to the hospital and find out what was going on,” Murray said.
After waiting up with his mind racing until nearly morning on the West Coast, Murray got another call. He didn’t have to ask. He knew from the pause on the other side, he knew from the crying in the background that Jonathan was dead.
There’s a friend or family member in everyone’s life who you worry about someday getting that late-night phone call. Murray never would have dreamed that Jonathan’s life would end this way.
“For somebody who wasn’t involved in the streets and was a good person and had a good heart… I never thought I’d have to miss him or think about not being with him again,” Murray said. “It was hard and it’s still hard every day. It doesn’t seem real. There are things in my life that happen now where I immediately I reach for my phone like, ‘Oh, let me text Jon and tell him what just happened,’ and then, boom, reality just kicks in.”
Murray still had to play for the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, though he couldn’t stop crying. The Raiders beat the Panthers, then he flew back to Central New York for his best friend’s funeral.
When he was three years old, Murray’s parents split up. His mother moved him and his brother from Titusville, Florida to Central New York, where they stayed with Latavius’s grandfather for over a year until finding a spot of their own in an apartment complex near Onondaga Community College.
Not that anybody could have known when he was three, but Murray had been shipped from one of America’s football hotbeds to a district where Division-I players are a rarity.
The town of Onondaga is a hilly, wooded space in between a pretty lake town called Skaneateles and the city of Syracuse. Two-lane roads rollercoaster through the ridges and slopes, giving drivers little sense of what’s coming next, especially when there’s a tractor sputtering down the highway. Near the high school, there is some semblance of a main street, but mostly any houses that aren’t surrounded by farmland are built back into the woods, many with broken down cars and long grass in the front yards. There is the occasional Confederate Flag.
Murray and Diaz met at Rockwell elementary school when they were six years old. They fought at first.
“I remember our parents both had to come in and meet with the principal,” Murray said. “They made us apologize and make up. Ever since then, the rest was history.”
Jonathan’s parents live in a quiet neighborhood in South Onondaga in a two story house with a basketball hoop in the driveway. After school, weekends, holidays, whatever, the Murrays and Diazes knew that the two boys would be hanging out together at one of their places.
“He would just say some of the funniest things, the wittiest things and I would be like, ‘Where did you hear that from? Did you come up with that yourself?’” Murray said.
On a football field that resembles stadiums Friday Night Lights about as much as your backyard rink looks like Xcel Energy Center, Murray and Diaz solidified their friendship. Jonathan played quarterback and Murray, as you might expect, was Onondaga High School’s star running back. The boys’ head football coach Bill Spicer realized when Latavius was a freshman that he had special talent.
“His freshman year, we’re playing in the Carrier Dome for a semifinal, Latavius is playing outside backer for us,” Spicer said, as excited as if the play had just happened. “He bit so hard on play-action, then when the quarterback dropped back, the fullback was wide open in the flat area and Latavius was up on the line of scrimmage like he’d be standing next to the defensive end. He ripped his elbow in the time when the quarterback could get the ball out, Latavius got out into the flat and picked the frickin’ ball off and took off the other way. Nobody else could have ever made that play.”
Murray was tall enough to play power forward, but had the speed and smarts of a point guard. He did well in school and understood football at an exceptional level, grasping schematic concepts and mastering angles and leverage – things you wouldn’t always expect from a high schooler.
By his senior year, Murray had more accolades than Central New York has trees. He earned Gatorade Football Player of the Year in New York by rushing for 2,194 yards, 28 touchdowns on offense while picking up 78 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles on defense. Class D Player of the Year. First-Team All-State. Three-star recruit. Offers from Boston College, Maryland, Syracuse and his eventual choice University of Central Florida.
Along Murray’s rise up the high school ranks, Spicer remembers Diaz always being by his side.
“When you have a running back like Latavius, you’re not worried about passing the ball too much,” Spicer said. “Him and Jon meshed together perfectly out there because of their friendship and because of their abilities to play and their competitiveness.”
Murray went on to star at UCF. Diaz decided to carry on his football career as well, at The College at Brockport, a Division-III Western New York school just outside of Rochester.
“Their friendship was very tight and it continued to be tight,” Spicer said. “Before all this happened, we were at another one of our friend’s houses…we’re playing bocce ball over there and it was hilarious to watch. The competitiveness between Latavius, Jonathan, myself and a couple other guys, we were talking trash and having fun. It was a fun time. You could see how tight they were through the years.”
When Murray and Diaz were leading Onondaga high school football, everyone wished they had Murray’s size, speed and strength. Before entering the NFL Draft, Murray ran an outrageous 4.38 40-yard dash – a rare feat for some a 6-foot-3, 230-pounds. But there was always something Murray admired about the way his best friend played football: Diaz was fearless.
Brockport football coach Jason Mangone remembers that, too.
“The thing that stood out for me with him was that he was small in stature, he wasn’t very thick, a little more slender, but he hit hard,” Mangone said over the phone. “When he was on the field, you wouldn’t think a guy of his weight and size would bring the wood like he did. He was fearless. He wouldn’t let his lack of size stop him from playing a physical game.”
Mangone was on the other side of the ball when Jonathan joined Brockport as a defensive back. As the offensive coordinator he was much closer with Jonathan’s brother Felipe, who was one of the three arrested in the courthouse brawl. Felipe, who was the team’s starting slot receiver, set Brockport’s catch record and played with an edge and competitive fire that the coaching staff loved.
“I can’t remember what [Felipe] broke on his hand, but he had to wear a cast from around his elbow to his hand and never missed a snap,” Mangone said. “He made every catch, maybe dropped one ball and it was more because he was in a hurry than the cast. Felipe never made excuses, just went about his business. People often accuse coaches of having favorites, I’m one of those coaches that never deny it, every year I have favorites and Felipe was absolutely one of my favorites.”
When Jonathan finished high school and showed interest in following his brother to Brockport, Felipe adamantly stated Jonathan’s case to the coaching staff.
“When we were talking about Jonathan before he got here and asking Felipe what he was going to be like, he spoke of Jonathan with pride,” Mangone said. “You can brag about your brother and not have the same sense of pride in your eye. He had a prideful way of speaking about Jonathan.”
Things didn’t work out at Brockport for Jonathan the way they had for Felipe. He didn’t see the field much and stopped playing in his Sophomore year. His attention turned toward making a name for himself in other ways.
“He wanted to do something big, whether it was to change the world or just make a huge impact or create or invent something that was life changing,” Murray said. “He admired how brilliant some people were, whether they started Uber or whatever it might be. He lived for the next biggest invention.”
It appeared Murray and the Diaz boys, just some kids from Onondaga, were all making something of themselves in the world. Felipe became a U.S. Army cyber operations specialist based at Fort George G Meade, Maryland. Murray made his first Pro Bowl in 2015. Out of college, Jonathan worked with developmentally disabled adults in a group home in East Syracuse, then changed paths to work with children, eventually landing a position at the Redhouse Arts Center where he taught kids pre-K through fifth grade using film, art and dance. He was also working on his big invention called Drowsy Driver, a system designed to help truck drivers stay awake on long trips.
Jonathan could have looked to his successful NFL star pal for help becoming the next well-known inventor. Murray would have been willing, but Jonathan never did.
“Sometimes when people say, ‘Oh this is my best friend,’ they just throw that word out there, but in my case, he truly was my best friend, maybe more like brothers than anything,” Murray said. “I noticed when I got into the NFL that he never changed on me. Some people do that, sometimes because you have some success or just because of the distance. Relationships fall off, but ours never, ever did for a second.
“I hate that I realized this after he was gone, but you want to do so much for your family and friends and some of them you do. I realized if there was anyone who I would give money to or lend a hand, if there was somebody who deserved it, it was him. Family members and friends, let’s be honest, they ask me a lot of times. But he never asked. If there was somebody I’d do it for in a heartbeat, it would have been him, but he never asked. That’s what a friend is supposed to be like.”
Along the sidelines at Winter Park, the No. 25 blends in with 89 other white and purple jerseys just like an orange brick in an Armory Square building, but Murray is different. He is carrying Jonathan along with him.
“Fifteen and 25 Jonathan’s favorite numbers,” Murray said. “Whether it was an AOL user name, email, password, whatever. He wore the number 15 in high school and then 25 I knew it was one of his favorite numbers.”
When Murray signed a three-year, $15 million contract in Minnesota, it was clear that he couldn’t keep the No. 28, which he had worn as an Oakland Raider. Most people assumed he was switching to 25 simply to avoid disrespecting future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. That’s not wrong, but not quite accurate.
In journals discovered by Diaz’s girlfriend, Jonathan wrote about wanting to be remembered. That resonated with Murray.
“This was a way to allow him to live on,” Murray said. “I know he’s for sure up there and looking down and still wants to be a part of everything that I have going on just like he was before he passed away. It’s a way for me to allow him to be a part of that. And it’s for me too. That was my guy. At least I can still go out there and have him by my side.”
“He wanted to be a household name, so if the rest of the world sees me, I want them to see that he was a part of me,” Murray said.
On June 21, inside Judge Thomas’s courtroom, the jury asked to replay a police video at the corner of South Clinton and Walton Street that appeared to show Jonathan and others rushing toward Maniphonh. His defense argued that a reasonable person would have feared for their life enough to use force.
Shortly after seeing the video again, the jury acquitted Sangsouriyanh Maniphonh of second-degree murder.