Unlikely career path didn't matter with Murphy

Underrated safety played 12 years for Packers

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Former S Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy

  • Inducted: 1998
  • Safety: 1980-85, '87-91
  • Height: 6-2; Weight: 200
  • College: West Liberty State, 1977-79

If the truth be known, Mark Murphy was one of those players basically signed just to pad the roster for a spring camp in 1980. Twelve years later, he had played the last of his 147 games with the Packers, more than any safety in team history at that point other than Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood.

Clearly, Murphy's career followed an unlikely trajectory.

The Packers announced his signing along with 10 other players in late May. One of the others had one game of NFL experience and at least two had previous tryouts with other teams. Murphy's only claim to fame, if you'd call it that, was being named all-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as a senior when West Liberty State finished 7-2-1 and shared the title.

That was enough for Murphy to be ranked eighth among nine safeties on the Packers' depth chart in his first training camp. Similarly, he didn't make much headway that summer due to a fractured wrist he sustained in the Pro Football Hall of Game played less than three weeks after his first practice. The injury landed Murphy on injured reserve in mid-August, and he stayed there until two days before the season finale when he cleared waivers, was added to the active roster and appeared in his first NFL game.

Murphy took it from there.

He started his ascent from the depths of the roster in minicamp the next spring. "He's shown more improvement than anybody we have," defensive backs coach Ross Fichtner said after the camp. In training camp, Murphy worked behind Johnnie Gray, who had been moved to strong safety that summer, but also was in the hunt to start at free safety when Mike Jolly was injured in the first preseason game. Instead, the Packers claimed Maurice Harvey off waivers and gave him the starting job because he was faster and more experienced. Then in the mercurial world of the NFL, Gray suffered a season-ending knee injury and Murphy started the final seven games at strong safety.

Gray reclaimed his job in 1982, while Murphy played extensively as a nickel back and on special teams. A year later, in yet another reversal of fortune, Murphy was installed as a starter in the fifth game after Harvey was waived and, this time, held fort at strong safety for seven of the next eight years, missing the 1986 season with a stress fracture of the left foot.

There were faster and rangier safeties in the NFL than Murphy, but he was smart, tough, a model of consistency and a survivor.

"You'd like to have 47 Mark Murphys and you could go out there and line up and you could play anybody," Lindy Infante, head coach of the Packers from 1988-91, once said. "You'd like to clone him. He's maybe not the most gifted of all the safeties in the league, but I doubt seriously if there are any more professional about what they do. He's a leader. When you put Mark Murphy on the field, you don't worry about that position."

A physical force against the run, Murphy led the Packers in tackles in 1984 and 1990 and shared the lead in 1988. While his speed might have been ordinary, he was snap-of-the-ball quick at diagnosing plays and reacting. As a result, Murphy was better in zone coverage than man-to-man, but he also grasped the details of the passing game and his own limitations well enough to be effective, no matter what the coverage.

"Murphy is as tough as any strong safety in the league," Hank Bullough said after the 1988 season, his first as Packers defensive coordinator. "He's probably a little better athlete than people give him credit for." A year later, after Murphy had a career-high five interceptions at age 30, defensive backfield coach Dick Jauron said: "He had an outstanding year … has there ever been a year when he didn't? I think he's greatly underrated. I don't see many (strong safeties) I'd take over him."

Murphy started 122 of his 147 games and finished with 20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries and 11 sacks. Arguably, his most memorable play occurred in the Packers' 1989, 21-17 upset of defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco, when Murphy desperately lunged and knocked down Joe Montana's fourth-down pass intended for Jerry Rice deep in Green Bay territory with just over two minutes remaining in the game.

When the Packers decided to move second-year cornerback LeRoy Butler to strong safety and make him the starter in the spring of 1992, Murphy asked to be released and was accommodated on May 8. The move marked the end of his NFL career.

Born April 22, 1958. Given name Mark Steven Murphy.

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