Looking back now, it’s funny to think that, at one point, the Minnesota Vikings’ season felt like it was falling apart.
But after a 26-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the team’s starting quarterback out indefinitely, another disappointing year seemed realistic. And nobody had more reason to be frustrated than running back Latavius Murray.
Not only had he signed in Minnesota with hopes of helping the team compete for an NFC North title, he also expected to be the Vikings’ starting running back. He didn’t expect the Vikings to draft Dalvin Cook with their first pick. A Pro Bowler in 2015 and scored 12 touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders the following season, Murray certainly didn’t expect to get three carries for six yards in a key early-season road loss in Pittsburgh.
Since the Vikings are 13-3 now and the Mall of America is filling with people doing the Skol chant, it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, the circumstances in the running back room were set up for conflict. Murray was supposed to be top dog with the ink still wet on a three-year, $15 million contract. Jerick McKinnon, a free agent to be, was desperate to prove he was the real deal after a down 2016, and the rookie was taking playing time away from both.
The conflict never came. On the Monday following the Steel City beatdown, Murray was one of the only players in the locker room. There were no demands for more playing time during his session with the media, only credit to Cook, who scored his first career touchdown in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody is close in our room, we’re all like brothers,” McKinnon said on Thursday. “We want the best for everybody. [Murray] continued to work and work and work and when he got his chance, he made the most out of it.”
That chance came on October 22. With Cook out for the year with an ACL injury and the Vikings needing both their backs to rise to the occasion, Murray made his mark. Up 12-6 in the third quarter of a grind fest against the Baltimore Ravens at US Bank Stadium, Keenum handed the ball to Murray, who made one cut, spun around a defender like an Iverson crossover and dove into the end zone.
Murray popped up and made a T with his arms, a nod to the “Tay Train” nickname that he’d been given in high school. He finished with 18 carries for 113 yards – more than he’d gained in 41 carries over the first six games.
Over the final 10 games of the season, he scored eight touchdowns and rushed for 745 yards on 175 carries, a 1,200 yard pace over 16 games. He and McKinnon totaled over 2,000 yards from scrimmage on the year.
On Thursday, wearing a Jerick McKinnon T-shirt, Murray handled questions from a gaggle of reporters, then a one-on-one with an Austrian reporter for German television, who told him that fans in Europe had adopted the Vikings and added that the Austrians were proud of former Wild scorer Thomas Vanek.
Murray thanked the the continent for their support, then turned to reflecting on his rough start to the year, which started with ankle surgery.
“It’s hard because you work so hard toward something and you put so much into something but you have to remember it is just a game,” Murray said. “So for me, I know what was important is to continue to work hard, to trust and believe the ankle will heal, and the opportunity will come. When that will be, I don’t know, I didn’t have any idea, but I’m a firm believer in that and that’s why I was able to handle that situation. ”
On Wednesday evening, the 28-years-to-the-day old running back had been watching David Letterman’s interview special with Barack Obama on Netflix. He was reminded of the bigger-picture mindset he’d adopted during his hardest days as a Vikings running back.
“Knowing that there’s not the greatest circumstances going on, you just try to get wrapped up in things that are really, really important like family and the life you have right now,” Murray said. “Because if you let that other s— [get in the way]. it isn’t going to do you any good.”
Murray isn’t a single-focus athlete. He has a lot of interests beyond the game like photography and a clothing line and he’s as concerned about the current political atmosphere as you are. Some football coaches might call those things distractions, but his approach acts as a mechanism to divert frustration.
“You can’t let it define who you are because there’s a lot of life after football,” Murray said. “There are a lot more important things, even right now compared to football.”
There may be more important things going on, but not many in Minnesota this weekend. Following the Minneapolis Miracle, an entire state’s self worth is riding on the Vikings. And Murray is set to be the Vikings’ feature back in the NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have the No. 1 ranked defense against the run.
In the biggest game of his life, Murray will be still reminding himself of the things and people who matter most. He’ll still be thinking about his journey from Onondaga, New York to the NFC title game. He’ll still be remembering who he’s playing for.
Twenty minutes after Murray reintroduced himself to Minnesota with 113 yards against the Ravens, the Vikings’ running back stood in the middle of the home locker room in a yellow and green No. 30 jersey, gray undershirt and white shoes. There was some confusion over the garb among those unaware of the excellence of Breanna Stewart, star of the Seattle Storm.
Murray and Stewart went to Central New York schools of different sizes – Murray’s Onondaga high school is carefully placed in the wooded hills and graduates classes of around 80, while Stewart’s Cicero North Syracuse easily tops 500 – but he wants more of the spotlight for an area of the country that isn’t generally associated with star athletes like Southern California or Florida.
“I’m a guy that, the things that mean something to me, the things that I care about, the things that I like and have interest in, I try to find ways to show people that,” Murray said. “So if it’s my love for Syracuse, my love for my home town, rock the Breanna Stewart jersey, rock the Sky Chiefs old school baseball jersey…things like that you don’t see people doing, you don’t see people wearing but it’s kind of just a reflection of me.”
Latavius Murray sporting the Breanna Stewart jersey post game pic.twitter.com/XREXv1VwOD
— Matthew Coller (@MatthewColler) October 22, 2017
Murray didn’t expect the attention he’d receive. Women athletes sent him messages saying how much it meant to them, his home newspaper ran a story about the jersey and ESPNW posted it.
“When I saw Tay wearing my jersey postgame I was in China and thought it was amazing!!” Stewart wrote via email. “For him to support CNY, WNBA and myself like that just goes to show what type of person he is! I messaged him right after I saw it and was flattered with that type of recognition.”
“And for the record I do have his jersey, I’m still waiting to get his autograph…” Stewart added.
The former UConn star, who averaged 19 and nine for the Storm this year, will be over in China during the NFC title game and potentially the Super Bowl, but she’ll be keeping track of Murray and the Vikings’ progress.
“I’ve kept up with Tay’s career quite a bit,” Stewart wrote. “Anytime I hear about someone doing big things coming out of Central New York I try and keep track as often as I can. We’ve definitely built a strong friendship supporting one another’s success and becoming fans of one another.”
Murray and Stewart may have been at the opposite of the school-size specturm and draft spectrum – Murray was a sixth-rounder, Stewart was No. 1 overall – but they both use their upbringing as a driving force.
“I never forget where I started or where I came from and always use it as motivation to continue to reach new heights knowing that I have Central New York’s full support,” Stewart wrote.
Murray moved to Central New York from Florida at a young age when his parents split. In his final year of high school, he was named the 2007 Gatorade Football Player of the Year in New York. He rushed for 2,194 yards with 28 touchdowns on offense and recorded 78 tackles, three forced fumbles and two interceptions on defense.
“I love it, to be honest,” Murray said. “It makes for a good story. When you come from a place where many athletes come from, it’s a norm or not as unique. I love the fact that I went to a very, very small school that didn’t graduate many in my class or any of the previous classes. Even the area, Syracuse in general, upstate New York is not a popular area that NFL football players come from. That’s why I like to embrace that.”
His former head coach Bill Spicer loves it, too.
“He’s very proud of where he came from,” Spicer said over the phone as he wrapped up a Friday track practice. “He’s very appreciative of the people who have helped him along the way, in whatever facet, in the classroom with the teachers, in the fields on the court and with the community support. He’s very proud and very appreciative of that. He is a kid that may not vocalize when he’s thinking about something. The thing with the jerseys, probably all summer long he was trying to figure out a way of showing support and then came up with this.”
“I think this is his way of saying, ‘I’m from Central New York, Central New York pride, for the past, present, future’ and giving that press to say, ‘recruiters, when you’re coming through town, don’t make it a fly by through. Make sure you stop and take a look because there are players in this area.”
Spicer makes sure to catch every Vikings game he can. He gets amped up talking about the differences between Murray’s one-cut style and the shifty style of former Onondaga star Mike Hart, who played for Michigan and with the Indianapolis Colts. The current Baldwinsville assistant coach took notice of his former pupil slamming into the New Orleans defensive line and coming out with yards where many would have gone down.
Murray and his old coach still maintain a relationship. On multiple occasions, the Vikings’ running back has come back to Central New York for Spicer’s football camps.
“He doesn’t just come in and sign autographs and leave,” Murray’s former coach said. “I was actually kind of panicked because he was out on the field running around with the kids and he’s leaving for NFL camp for a few days and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh he’s going to be out there and roll his ankle.’ He’s a kid at heart to and he wants to promote it so more kids are coming out for football.”
Coming back to CNY gives Murray an opportunity to show people from his area that – to quote KG – anything is possible.
“For everyone there who has the dream of playing or the dream of doing something, I think I have an obligation to do that for everyone that’s in that area,” Murray said.
The title game
Murray didn’t make it to Central New York for any football camps this year.
On June 22, he sent a message to CNYCentral.com saying:
“I want to apologize to everyone who may have looked forward to seeing me this weekend, especially all the kids. I’m very sorry and hate that I let you down.”
Murray couldn’t bear to return to the home that lives so deeply in his heart because his home allowed the killer of his best friend to walk free.
On Thanksgiving eve, 2016, a man named Sangsouriyanh Maniphonh, an army veteran who was carrying a legally-possessed handgun, got into a dispute with Murray’s best friend of 20-plus years Jonathan Diaz. Outside a downtown Syracuse bar, Maniphonh shot Diaz to death.
A jury agreed with Maniphonh’s self defense argument and acquitted him of second-degree murder.
In his apology for avoiding the CNY Football Academy, Murray wrote:
When Stefon Diggs scampered down the sideline at US Bank Stadium, scoring a 61-yard, walk-off touchdown to beat the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional round, Murray was caught up in joy and disbelief like everyone else.
But Diaz was on his mind in the ensuing days.
“Somebody mentioned when they wrote me the other day, talking about the ending of the game we had, and they were like, ‘man, you have an angel watching over you,’” Murray said. “It got me emotional.”
He couldn’t help but think of the things that had gone the Vikings’ way this year, from Keenum’s rise to an eight-game winning streak to a miracle game-winning drive last week.
“You think about how everything has unfolded, it’s been a real special season,” he said. “I’m just trying to finish this thing the right way. And hopefully if it is the angel on my shoulder, he’s going to lead me to what everybody in this locker room believes we can do and what he would want to be a part of.
“I know he would be a part of it if he was still here.”