If you’re not a Michigan football fan, you probably haven’t heard of Vada Murray, but you might have seen his picture. It’s one of those iconic images of Michigan football, along with Tom Harmon standing in his mud-soaked, torn-apart jersey, and Desmond Howard diving to catch a touchdown pass against Notre Dame.
But the photo I’m talking about shows Vada Murray and Tripp Welborne soaring skyward to block a field goal. They were a kicker’s nightmare. But even when they got a hand on the ball, it simply denied their opponent three points. That’s not the kind of thing that wins you a Heisman Trophy or an NFL contract. They don’t even keep records of those things.
But more than two decades later, something about that photo still resonates. Maybe it’s because it captures their effort, their intensity, their passion – all of it spent just to give their teammates a slightly better chance for success. There is something noble in that. And we recognize it – which is why they’ve been selling that photo at the frame store on Ann Arbor’s Main Street for years, right along side the legendary poses of Harmon and Howard.
Murray prepared for life after football. And, like a few other big-time athletes in town, he joined the Ann Arbor Police Department, where he rose to the rank of detective. Even students he busted for hosting parties years ago remember him fondly, which is saying something.
Whenever his former coach, Bo Schembechler, left town, he would tell Vada, “If anything happens to my home while I’m gone, I’m holding you personally responsible!” Bo picked the right man. His place was always safe.
Vada married Sarah, and together they were raising a beautiful family. Life seemed perfect. But three years ago, while he was taking a shower, Vada noticed his left love-handle was a little bigger than his right side. Vada, who had never smoked a cigarette in his life, had lung cancer.
When he gave a guest lecture for my students at the University of Michigan in late 2009, he started by saying, “I’m Vada Murray, and I’m dying of cancer.” If there’s a gutsier opening to a speech, I have not heard it. The students were stunned, and captivated.
But he didn’t dwell on it. He used it to point out how, if you’re a Michigan man in good standing, your football friends will come to your aid – and that’s exactly what they did. It wasn’t about football, he said. It was about family.
The police department proved to be another supportive family. But from people they didn’t know as well, they still had to endure the occasional well-meaning but misplaced comments. Things like: It will all work out. Everything’s for the best. God has a plan for you.
When I visited their home a few months ago, their youngest daughter was playing in Vada’s lap. Their middle child had her arm around Sarah and their oldest kid was playing in the backyard with a friend. Vada looked me in the eye and said, “If God’s plan is for me not to see my little girls grow up and walk down the aisle, you can tell God, his plan sucks.” We were all getting a little choked up at this point, but I couldn’t help but grin at that.
A few weeks ago, Sarah called me and said, “Vada can’t speak to your class this semester.” She didn’t have to say any more. I knew what she meant.
Vada passed away on Wednesday.
If you’re walking down Ann Arbor’s Main Street some day, doing a little window-shopping, you might want to take a moment to look at the photo in the frame store display. You’ll see what a man living fully looks like.
You don’t get to see that every day.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.