September 21, 2017

Cal Murphy | Heart of a Champion

Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Cal Murphy talks to players at practice in Vancouver, Nov.17, 1983. Murphy, who was part of nine Grey Cup-winning teams as an assistant coach, head coach and CFL general manager has died at age 79. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Buston

He was ‘Kindly Cal’ to most and ‘Crusty Cal’ to others.

Truth be known, Cal Murphy could often be both. And that was certainly the case during his days with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, during which the club appeared in five Grey Cups – winning three times – and never missed the playoffs in 14 seasons.

He was as shrewd a game manager as any man who ever pulled on a headset. He was a brilliant evaluator of talent and a fierce competitor. His cackle-slash-laugh could fill a room, just as his howls of displeasure – usually beginning with ‘Oh, Judas Priest!…’ – could rattle windows.

Today, the late Murphy, one of the-most influential figures in the history of the Bombers franchise and in the Canadian Football League, will be honoured with the unveiling of a bronze statue of his likeness outside of Gate 3 at Investors Group Field. The ceremony will be attended by family, friends and former players. He will be the second Bomber icon to be honoured with a statue, as a likeness of the legendary Bud Grant was unveiled in 2014.

Murphy’s many successes are detailed on the plaque that accompanies the statue – he is second on the Bombers’ all-time coaching wins list to Grant, was a two-time CFL Coach of the Year, was instrumental in Winnipeg landing the 1991 Grey Cup game, and has been inducted in both the Winnipeg Football Club and Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

But for yours truly – who first began covering this team as a beat writer in 1990 – the story that best represents everything about the man, especially his spirit, his fight and that trademark competitiveness, began to unfold some 25 years ago, in the summer of 1992 …

Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Cal Murphy talks to full back Duane Forde, left, and linebacker Elfrid Payton during team practice in Calgary on Nov. 24, 1993. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Buston

It was July 2, 1992 when Murphy, then 60 and the Bombers’ GM and head coach, checked himself into Health Sciences Centre after suffering an angina attack during training camp. He had a history of heart trouble, as he underwent a quadruple bypass in 1978 while serving as an assistant coach with the Edmonton Eskimos and then a second heart attack in 1985 during his third year as the Bombers head coach.

This one was different.

Within 10 days, Murphy was placed on ‘sick leave’ by the club and headed to University Hospital in London, Ontario to be readied for heart transplant surgery. He was on the operating table undergoing surgery just to keep him alive on July 15th, 1992 when a donor was found at the last second in what doctors referred to as a ‘Hail Mary.’ Within 16 hours, with his wife Joyce in the waiting room clutching his wedding ring the entire time, Murphy emerged from surgery with a new ticker.

Now there are many chapters to the Cal Murphy story. He was a Winnipegger at birth, born in 1932 one of seven children in his family. He attended and played football at Vancouver College and later briefly at the University of British Columbia before turning his attention to coaching.

He wasn’t just a good coach, he was a respected coach. And the teams he helped coach as assistant before his arrival as the head knock in Winnipeg in 1983 – the 1977 Montreal Alouettes and the 1978-82 Edmonton Eskimos dynasty – were always hoisting the Grey Cup on the last Sunday in November.

His successes in running the Bombers were many, from ending the 22-year Grey Cup drought in 1984 as the club’s coach, to being the GM who picked Mike Riley to succeed him and help guide the team to two more titles in 1988 and 1990.

But it was the fighting spirit he showed in 1992 – and after – that, from this perch at least, perfectly captures the man. Murphy listened to the club’s first win – a 36-33 OT thriller in Hamilton that was Matt Dunigan’s first start as a Bomber – on the radio from his hospital bed. A week later, he insisted that a message be read over the public-address system at the Bombers home opener reminding fans to sign their organ donor cards.

He was in daily contact with interim head coach, Urban Bowman, and assistant GM Lyle Bauer from the hospital in London. And as he grew stronger, so too, did his fight and his sense of humour.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Cal Murphy (right) jokes around with Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach Tom Bruno at a coaches news conference during Grey Cup week in Edmonton, Nov.15, 1984. Murphy, who was part of nine Grey Cup-winning teams as an assistant coach, head coach and CFL general manager has died at age 79. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Buston

The only details Murphy new about the donor was that it came from the victim of a motorcycle accident in Toronto. When a columnist from Edmonton kidded about his new heart coming from an Easterner, Murphy – a deeply religious man who attended mass daily – retorted with a laugh “I was more worried whether or not it was Catholic.”

Those 1992 Bombers somehow managed to overcome all this and still advance to the Grey Cup, where they fell to the Doug Flutie-led Calgary Stampeders. And a year later, Cal was back on the sidelines coaching again, leading the Bombers to another Grey Cup appearance where – minus an injured Dunigan – they fell to the Eskimos.

When a friend said to his wife, “Joyce.. it might kill him to coach” she answered: “Yes. But then it might kill him not to.”

“I didn’t go through this to sit around on my butt,” Murphy reasoned. “It’s like they say, the disease is gone, man. You still have to take certain immune drugs and take care of yourself, but aside from that it’s normal existence.

“I want to work, and I NEED to work. This is the C.F. of L, you know. I figure another 20 years and I might be financially secure.”

Kidding aside, no one was more appreciative of his second chance than Murphy. He became a very public spokesman for the organ donor program and a shining example of how it could save lives.

“I know this might sound corny, but sometimes I look at the obituaries in the paper and I say to myself, ‘Why not me?’” Murphy told The Winnipeg Free Press in 1993. “Maybe there’s a reason for it. Maybe it’s selling the donor program.”

Murphy stayed in contact with those in the 12-room transplant unit he shared in London. During one trip to Regina in ’93, he spent a good chunk of the hours before the game visiting with a fellow heart transplant recipient.

“You see him and you see how good he looks and we’re both like, ‘Isn’t it amazing?’,” Murphy said. “I said to someone one time, ‘Man, he was really sick.’ They said to me, ‘You weren’t in great shape yourself.’”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Cal Murphy celebrates with Bombers’ Delbert Fowler after the Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions in Vancouver on Nov. 11, 1984. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nick Didlick

The Bombers underwent a slow decline after coming close in 1992, 1993 and 1994, falling to 7-11 in 1995 and 9-9 in 1996 as the club desperately attempted to find a replacement for Dunigan, who left for the expansion Birmingham Barracudas after the 1994 season. There was Sammy Garza, Shawn Moore, Reggie Slack, Kevin McDougal and Kent Austin. And his final game with the Bombers was a 68-7 loss in the ’96 West Semifinal in the ice and snow at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

He was let go that offseason, ranking then as the eighth-winningest coach in CFL history and second only to Grant on the Bombers wins list. But of course, Murphy stayed in the game, first with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and then the Frankfurt Galaxy before becoming a scout for the Indianapolis Colts.

It was years later, upon the announcement of his induction into the WFC hall of fame in 2002, when I had the chance to speak to him again about 10 years with his new heart.

“The fact that I know how many people get that chance and knowing how I got that chance… well, it’s pretty emotional,” said Murphy, tears welling up as he spoke. “It’s something I think about quite often, every day, really. How can you not think about it every day? It’s something I’m very grateful for the way it happened.

“To me, every day is a plus. I go back there (to London) for the check-up every year. I don’t have to, but I always believe you go back to where you got the motor from and let them check it out. It has been very good. I’m looking forward to a lot more years.”

Murphy got another decade before passing away in 2012. He was a lot of things to a lot of people – ‘Kindly Cal’ and ‘Crusty Cal’, Grey Cup champion, leader and innovator, husband, father and friend.

The Murphy I choose to remember is the man who got up off that operating table 25 years ago, and squeezed absolutely everything out of every day. That alone, is worthy of a statue.