Then, during one workout that summer of 2012, Kyler Murray appeared.
“We were all anticipating him,” said Geno Pierce, a team parent. “He showed up, and he was a real little guy. We were all like, ‘This is it?’ ”
No one, not even Kyler or his father, Kevin, could’ve known what the roughly 5-foot-5, 130-pound kid would become. Back then, the 14-year-old couldn’t overhead-press a weighted barbell. He needed the younger kids’ training bar.
Seven summers later, now 22, 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds — still small by football standards — Murray stepped onto a practice field in Tempe, Ariz., with pressure mounting. He is one of the NFL’s most improbable quarterbacks ever and perhaps the most anticipated player of the 2019 season. He also embodies a pro football experiment that is testing two extremes — one physical and the other schematic.
He gave up millions of dollars in pro baseball money to be here. His team, the Arizona Cardinals, tore down the pillars of its organization — firing the coach, trading the quarterback — to embrace the offensive revolution sweeping the league. The Cardinals hired Coach Kliff Kingsbury, a 40-year-old offensive guru whose Air Raid scheme produced just a 35-40 record in six seasons at Texas Tech.
The NFL has long denigrated the Air Raid, a pass-heavy offense run almost exclusively out of the shotgun with four receivers and one running back. But the Cardinals believed it was feasible with the right quarterback. They had the No. 1 pick, and Murray felt like a fit, both because he ran the offense in college and because the NFL considered him risky. He was slight, outside the league’s Clydesdale ideal.
But if Murray is feeling the weight of these expectations, he isn’t showing it.
“I’m chilling,” Murray told reporters this week. “Excited for Sunday, obviously, knowing it’s a big day for everybody.”
After Murray arrived at Allen, then-coach Tom Westerberg worried he wouldn’t be ready because of his size and age. Murray’s August birthday meant he was always one of the youngest in his grade. But he displayed polished mechanics, smarts and leadership, and after five games he became QB1.
Murray told his coaches he didn’t feel anxious, but during the first few plays of his first game, his body shook uncontrollably. He told reporters this week that it was the last time he felt nervous. It’s unclear how Murray processes pressure, but those closest to him have always marveled at his ability to seemingly isolate himself from what’s around him.
“He’s been who he is for a long time,” Westerberg said.
Once settled, Murray rocketed toward stardom. He became one of the most famous Texas high school football players ever: undefeated in 42 starts, three state championships in the highest classification, highlights watched nationwide.
Big college programs coveted Murray — including Clemson, Ohio State and Texas — but Murray signed with Texas A&M, his father’s alma mater. That fall, Murray couldn’t unseat the incumbent, sophomore Kyle Allen, and faced adversity for the first time in his career. He struggled with the diminished role and the coaches’ communication style. Murray sat in his dorm room, miserable, calling his parents and loved ones.
His pro prospects at their bleakest, Murray announced his intention to transfer in December 2015. Lincoln Riley, then Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, quickly reached out. Riley had recruited Murray before, but he had been hired by the Sooners too late to become a serious contender. Now, in the afterglow of Murray’s frustration with A&M, the quality Riley believes he and Murray share most — direct communication — worked in his favor. He explained his vision for Murray in a big-play offense and felt a connection.
“It was one of those deals where you felt like it wasn’t the first time you’d talked, even though it really was,” Riley said.
The revitalization of Murray’s football career didn’t go as planned. He sat out 2016, per transfer rules, then most of 2017 because the Big 12 Conference granted the Sooners’ starter, Baker Mayfield, an unexpected extra year of eligibility. But in the meantime, Murray raked for Oklahoma’s baseball team. In 51 games in 2018, the center fielder hit .296 with 10 home runs, and that summer the Oakland Athletics drafted him ninth overall. He signed with Oakland in June and agreed that, if he could quarterback that fall, he’d forgo his senior season for baseball.
“When he signed the deal with the A’s, I know he was fully planning on and expecting to play baseball. That wasn’t some insurance policy or some front,” Riley said. “Just anticipating that: ‘I’m a 5-10 quarterback. I know I’m good enough, I think I can be good enough, but will somebody else believe that and take that big of a chance on me?’ That was always kind of a question in his mind.”
Before the season, Riley thought his quarterback could lead Oklahoma into the College Football Playoff. (He did.) He thought Murray could win the Heisman Trophy. (He did.) And despite the fact that Murray clearly had a bright baseball future, Riley had a feeling that Murray would one day play football in the pros. He said he always saw “a little different kind of love and passion for the game and the position” in Murray.
Still, Murray prepared to give up the sport. He told reporters after the Heisman ceremony, “As of right now, everybody knows I’m playing [baseball].”
That changed within weeks. The season Murray had — 4,361 passing yards, 1,001 rushing yards, 54 combined touchdowns — sowed a seed: He might be talented enough, and the NFL might be changing enough, for him to flourish in the pros.
In early February, Murray tweeted his decision. He had never had trouble convincing himself or those around him that he could make it in football. Now, he needed to persuade the NFL itself.
Jim Zorn, the former NFL quarterback and coach, watched his student fill the whiteboard with X’s and O’s. It was mid-February, days after the tweet and about two weeks before the NFL scouting combine — a critical pre-draft opportunity for Murray to convince NFL teams that a sub-6-foot quarterback was worth a first-round pick.
As part of his tutoring, Zorn quizzed Murray on all things defense, racing through familiar fronts and coverages and slowing to fill in the gaps. He pushed Murray to analyze deeper, stressing how much teams value combine interviews to form their opinions of quarterbacks. “You’re always being evaluated,” Zorn said he told Murray.
The more they spoke, the better Zorn understood what others have learned about Murray over the years: He’s quiet. College recruiters and high school rivals found him difficult to read. One reporter in Oklahoma compared him to Russell Westbrook, the state’s ornery pro basketball star. This week, Kingsbury said it has been “like pulling teeth” getting Murray to tell him which plays he does or doesn’t like.
Zorn was used to chatty quarterbacks peppering him with questions and clarifications. Murray was different, wrestling with the concepts in his head.
“He may be on the same page as you, but you may not know it, because he’s not saying a bunch of comeback words,” Zorn said. “He just thinks.”
While a new face schooled Murray’s mind, an old one trained his body.
Stephen Baca met Murray seven years earlier, when the trainer visited Allen with Performance Course, a private strength and conditioning program popular with Texas high schools. Baca said Murray “barely spoke” at first, but in time they began talking every game day. Later, in the first few weeks of his freshman season at A&M, Murray called Baca, which was unusual.
Murray vented, and Baca listened. They talked more and bonded over their shared love of movies. Now they train together every summer, consider each other brothers and FaceTime regularly, sometimes without anything to say.
Baca understood Murray would face herculean defenders and durability questions in the NFL. He wanted to “bulletproof” the quarterback from injury, starting with a warmup that puts extreme rotations on Murray’s joints, from his ankles to his shoulders. The stretches simulate a defender’s crunching hit in hopes that, if his ankle or knee grows more accustomed to the twist, the body will tell the brain this range of motion is okay and not “bad, bad, bad,” Baca said, which increases the likelihood of a tear.
Baca focused on “unilateral” workouts, with one leg or arm, because he believes it better represents game situations. A player’s feet or arms are rarely, if ever, even. Greater time under tension strengthens muscle fiber, so Baca told Murray to worry less about the force he can create and more about what he could absorb.
“Everything we do is for one goal,” Baca said, “which is keeping him on the field.”
For all the work Murray invested to become an NFL quarterback, the final step included a stroke of good timing. The Cardinals owned the league’s worst record and its top draft choice, and they had just hired Kingsbury as head coach. Years earlier, Kingsbury had scouted Allen and watched, amazed, as the skinny sophomore quarterback dominated. He offered a scholarship thinking that one day the kid could lead his offense.
While Murray was winning the Heisman at Oklahoma, his predecessor, Mayfield, helped transform the Cleveland Browns as their No. 1 pick. Patrick Mahomes, a former quarterback of Kingsbury’s at Texas Tech, lit up the league with the Kansas City Chiefs and was named MVP. The NFL seemed ready to take a chance on a gifted but undersized quarterback with a background in the Air Raid.
After all, Murray wasn’t that much smaller than Mayfield or 5-11 Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson. In Murray, said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, Arizona saw a chance to get a playmaker like Wilson.
“Not only is [Murray] incredibly marketable and a great leader, he’s also in some ways, even when you call the perfect defense, undefendable,” Hasselbeck said.
In late April, Murray strode under bright lights in Nashville as the No. 1 pick in a pink pinstripe suit inspired by his favorite movie, “The Great Gatsby.” He had devoted his life to pursuing athletic greatness, yet until months earlier this version of it seemed impossible.
In the months since, skeptics still found fodder. After he finished 3 for 8 for 12 yards in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, safety Lamarcus Joyner called the Cardinals’ offense “pretty boy football.” ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Rex Ryan predicted the Cardinals were “going to get whipped Week 1.” None of this fazed Kingsbury or Murray, who will have their first opportunity to stifle doubters Sunday at home against the Detroit Lions.
“Nobody knows what we’re going to do or what it’s going to look like,” Kingsbury told reporters this week, adding: “There’s only one way to find out.”
A few weeks after the draft, Pierce, the former Allen team parent, walked into one of Murray’s summer workouts with Baca. Pierce had been in Allen that day seven years ago when Murray couldn’t lift the barbell. He looked at the man who had taken the kid’s place. He asked if Murray remembered that day, too.
Murray grinned. He remembered. Pierce watched as Murray got back to work and, while it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback realized it, he was preparing to absorb a weight heavier than any barbell could hold.