The Washington Redskins released Mark Murphy on a Friday night: July 12, 1985, the day before his 30th birthday. He knew it was coming, knew it as every professional athlete knows it. The way it works, your wife and friends and family tell you to prepare, to get ready for it, you can't play the game forever. You tell them you know that. The end is coming, you say.
What you don't say is that nobody ever felt better in a football uniform than Mark Murphy, because this may only be close to the truth. And once it happens, once you're out of the National Football League, you keep quiet on the reasons why you're not playing the game anymore, as Murphy has for almost three months now. You don't want to sound like sour grapes, you have a lot to look back on and feel proud about.
But something has been eating at Mark Murphy for too long now. He said so yesterday. Murphy confesses to be more than willing to let go of the game, and the memory of his days in it, but he continues to wrestle with a number of things that have confounded him since the day the Redskins set him free.
For starters, Murphy says Redskins' management lied publicly to cover up the facts of what went on during his contract negotiations, although owner Jack Kent Cooke vehemently denies Murphy's contentions. Murphy also says Cooke singled him out for his outspoken involvement with the NFL Players' Association and often embarrassed him in front of teammates. And he even wonders if Cooke and Redskins' management worked to blackball him from the league.
Says Murphy, "I'm going to live here in Washington, this is my home. In one sense, I'm really happy that things are working out the way they have. I'm glad that the process was speeded up. But there are still some things I can't forget. And I hope that talking about them will make it better for the players so things like this won't happen again in the future."
Murphy, who now is enrolled at Georgetown Law School, missed nine games last season with a knee injury and never regained his starting job. The year before, 1983, he was an all-pro after leading the league in interceptions with nine and finishing second on the Redskins in tackles with 132. But it was the year before that, 1982, when Murphy believes he first fell out of favor with Cooke.
That season, Murphy became one of the most prominent and outspoken members in the players' strike against the NFL. As a persuasive member of his union's executive committee, Murphy helped turn the Redskins into a staunchly pro-union team, and in the process, he claims, upset and dismayed Cooke. But it was not until the next season, Murphy says, that he saw any changes in the way the Redskins treated him.
Coming off a big win in Super Bowl XVII, and entering the 1983 season, Murphy said he met with Richie Petitbon, coach of the defense, a few days after reporting to the Redskins' training camp in Carlisle, Pa.
"He told me I was overweight and that I wasn't playing well and that they would have to bench me," Murphy said. "He said I didn't have enough speed. This was the year I would make the Pro Bowl, the year he told me how fat I was . . . Two other times during the year he called me in and said they needed more speed, he threatened to bench me, but he never did it. We ended up going 14-2 and I led the league in interceptions. We made the Super Bowl.
"Still, I couldn't understand what was going on."
Murphy charges that the Redskins "finally found a way of getting rid of me," when he sprained a ligament in his knee in the second game of the 1984 season. "After about a week and a half into the injury," Murphy said, "Cooke came up to me and said, 'You'd better get healthy or you're going to lose your job.' I don't know if he meant lose my job or my position on the team. On one of the first days I was out practicing again, he came out onto the field and said, 'How're you feeling, Mark?' I said I was fine. He said, 'How's your knee?' I told him it was getting better. I said, 'It's probably going to be another week or two.' And he said, 'It doesn't make any difference, you're never going to play again.' "
Asked if Murphy's account was true, Cooke said, "It's a lie. It's an abominable, vicious lie that exists in his head only. I never said such a thing."
Murphy said Coach Joe Gibbs later apologized for Cooke's remarks. "Gibbs told me he'd never heard of anything like that," Murphy said. "He was sorry it happened. He said he was going to talk to Cooke about it but he never did."
Gibbs, reached by telephone at Redskin Park, refused to comment on the matter.
When Murphy began to play again, it was in a minor role, mostly on special teams. He said Cooke "came up to me and wanted to know what it felt like, playing on special teams. (Someone else) was there and he said he felt sorry for me. 'It's too bad you couldn't punch his lights out,' is what he said."
Told of Murphy's allegations, Cooke said "he's lying, lying, and he's obviously paranoid . . . A man that is drowning, thrashes about. I think Mark Murphy is frustrated beyond description."
Sometime after the 1984 season, Murphy said he approached Gibbs and said he wanted to make a decision about his future. "I told him I'd like to come back but really had some problems with what happened to me last year. I wanted to know if I was in their plans and would be given a chance. Gibbs said, 'Why don't you talk to Cooke?'"
The negotiations with Cooke failed, leaving Murphy feeling "stuck" and "belittled," as he described it. Then, he contends, "the Redskins said publicly that I was asking for a guaranteed contract. They said that to make me look unreasonable. But I never once asked for a guarantee, that just wasn't true. All I wanted was an $8,000 advance on my contract -- the equivalent of what it costs for a year of law school -- and to know that I was in their plans.
"I really didn't think it was so much to ask. Art Monk received about $500,000 as a bonus. (Tony) Zendejas, the kicker who was later traded and never played a down in the regular season, got $150,000. Darryl Grant, who was in the same contractural situation as I was in, got $90,000 as a signing bonus and they upped his salary the next year to $200,000. All I wanted was a show of good faith, that's all. But their attitude was they didn't have to give me that."
Both Gibbs and Cooke have a different account of Murphy's demands. "Mark was the first professional athlete I'd ever dealt with to ask for a guaranteed starting position," Cooke said.
Said Gibbs, "What Murph wanted was assurances in areas that I couldn't guarantee. I felt it would be wrong for everybody else on the team if I agreed to what he was asking . . . He said I didn't give him a fair shake here. No player ever said that to me in all my years of coaching. And I can tell you that hurt me."
After the Redskins waived Murphy in July, he was free to make a deal with any team in the NFL, but nothing came of it, even as reports persisted that he was close to terms with the Bills.
"A friend of mine was the weight coach up in Buffalo," Murphy said. "When I first held out of minicamp, the head coach and general manager came up to him and said, 'Is there any way we can get Murphy to come up here, can we work it out?' My friend called me and asked if I'd be interested, I said yeah. Then Gibbs called me in May and said Buffalo was prepared to give up a fifth-round draft choice for me, that they were ready to complete the deal. It didn't happen, I don't know why."
With the Redskins losing all but one of their first four games, Gibbs is more than a little hesitant to discuss the details of what happened to Murphy.
"Murph always meant a lot to us," Gibbs said. "I pleaded with him to stay, I told him it was a wrong decision. But it was his decision. And I was the guy trying to get him back. It was me. It was always me. He had been with me four years and I didn't want to see him go. 'Come back and win the job,' I told him. 'Come back,' but he wouldn't."
Said Murphy, "He takes everything so personally. He's under so much pressure. It had nothing to do with him at all. It wasn't that I didn't trust him, because I did. I did trust him. I was making a decision that would affect the rest of my life. Under the circumstances, I did what I had to do . . . Players can't play forever. Nobody can."