All this years later, James Murphy still marvels at how it all unfolded, how the stars and moons aligned to deliver him to Winnipeg and what would become a hall of fame career with the Blue Bombers.
Admittedly, he also understands that’s just how the game works sometimes, with doors opening and closing, with connections providing opportunities and, yes, with fate sometimes intervening to put a player in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Murphy’s story – one that saw him suit up for the Blue Bombers from 1982-90 and be part of three Grey Cup championship teams enroute to spots in the club’s hall of fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and now with a spot on the Ring of Honour – offers up evidence of all of that, and then some.
You see, scroll through the Blue Bombers archives and history will note that Murphy suited up for his first game on November 14, 1982, in a West Division Semi-final victory over the Calgary Stampeders. He caught a touchdown pass from Dieter Brock that afternoon, too, the first of many shining moments in blue and gold for a brilliant receiver.
Yet, his first association with the club came more than a year before that on a community club field in Los Angeles, when…. well, let’s have him tell it.
“I was at Utah State and had one more year left but had decided to forego that and enter my name in the 1981 NFL Draft,” began Murphy in a chat with bluebombers.com. “My agent had a few guys on our team and called us to say the Blue Bombers were having a tryout camp in Harbor City Community College in L.A. and asked us if we wanted to go.
“We said, ‘Absolutely’ even though I mostly wanted just to go down there and work out and see what was going on. The four of us jumped in a car and drove down from northern Utah to Los Angeles – it took us about 12-14 hours. It was an exciting time for us. We’re coming out of college and looking to start the transition into the next stage of our lives.
“We get down there and Paul Robson (then the Blue Bombers GM) is there. We started the camp by running 40s and I ran a 4.4, maybe even faster. I could see the look in Paul’s eyes. It was, ‘Who is this guy?’ We went through some drills, and I was just running by guys left and right catching bombs. After the camp was over Paul approached me and said, ‘Hey James. I’m Paul Robson of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and I want to sign you to a contract. We’ll give you a $5,000 signing bonus and give you a $55,000 contract.’
“My eyes got big. I mean, $5,000?! But I had to politely decline because I wanted to see if I was going to get drafted in the National Football League. My agent had told me he thought I might get picked in the third round by the Detroit Lions. And so, I didn’t really hear much more about it after that for a while.”
And with that Murphy could have very much disappeared from the Blue Bomber radar. The NCAA spits out thousands of players every year, after all, as does the NFL after their training camps finish in late summer.
It’s here were Murphy’s connection to the Blue Bombers almost seemed somehow predetermined. He was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the 10th round, 266th overall, in the 1981 NFL Draft and arrived in camp that year to a Vikings team coached by Bud Grant, the Blue Bombers legend. (Interestingly, the Vikings’ first pick in that draft, Mardye McDole, would later try out for the Blue Bombers before playing with the Stampeders and the Memphis Showboats of the USFL).
“I get up to Minnesota and they’ve got these superstar receivers – Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White, Terry LeCount,” Murphy recalled. “I really didn’t have much chance of cracking that starting lineup, but I thought I might have a chance of making the team.
“But they also drafted another receiver in Mardye McDole and then signed another free agent receiver in Leo Lewis, Jr. At the time I didn’t know who Leo Lewis, his dad, was.”
We interrupt momentarily here to remind everyone of this nugget: Grant long called Leo Lewis – the Blue Bombers’ iconic running back -the greatest player he had ever coached in either the NFL or CFL. And so, yeah, his offspring was going to undoubtedly get a longer look than many other free agents.
“So, one day we’re at practice and I see Bud Grant talking to this guy,” continued Murphy. “I could hear Ahmad talking to the other receivers saying, ‘Oooh, Bud’s over there talking to Leo.’ He was super quick, but I thought I had the upper hand on him because I was drafted, and he was a free agent – not knowing he had a relationship.
“I got a call after about three weeks – the ‘Bud wants to see you and bring your playbook’ call. I knew what was up.”
It turns out Robson, back in Winnipeg, had kept up his interest in Murphy. The Blue Bombers brought him in that September after his release and offered him a contract for 1982 following his tryout. But Murphy wanted to keep his options open and was later scooped up by the Kansas City Chiefs and spent the rest of the year on their practice roster. The following September, following his release by the Chiefs, Robson and the Blue Bombers were on the phone again.
“You just never know how things are going to turn out, but I did have all these indirect connections with the Bombers before I even settled in Winnipeg,” said Murphy. “But Paul Robson is the reason for me being a Winnipeg Blue Bomber and for even knowing about the Canadian Football League. Even to this day, every time I see him, I thank him because I’m totally indebted to him.
“It was perfect timing. I had great coaches in college, and we ran a pro offence, and so coming to the CFL and seeing the wider field and the bigger end zones… I was licking my chops.
“And being able to have a good quarterback who could get the ball out to the receivers… I mean, to be able to play with Dieter Brock, Tom Clements, John Hufnagel, Sean Salisbury, Tom Burgess, Danny McManus. The first one was Dieter. He was something. Even if the defender was right on me, he would thread the ball right to my numbers. And Tom… he was just a genius. Hufnagel had the arm and the understanding of the game. Like I said, I was lucky to be able to play with some great quarterbacks.”
Murphy became a full-time starter in 1983 and posted the first of his six 1,000-yard seasons in Blue Bombers colours. He did the same in 1984 – helping the club end a 22-year Grey Cup drought – but an ankle injury limited him to 12 games in 1985 and his production dropped to 56 catches for 749 yards.
He had a tryout with the Cleveland Browns after that, but with his leverage limited after an injury-riddled season he focused on a return to the Blue Bombers.
“Going into the 1986 season I really dedicated myself and said, ‘I’m going to be the best player in the Canadian Football League. I’m going to go home and train and I’m going to get my mind right,’” said Murphy. “I got a mental coach and religiously worked out.
“I was just so focused going into that season. I knew then this was going to be my place for the rest of my career. That’s when I realized this was going to be my home for the rest of my career.”
The work paid off, as Murphy finished the ’86 season with 116 catches for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns while being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. The 116 catches remain a club record, while the yardage total now ranks second to the 1,896 yards Milt Stegall racked up in 2002.
The Blue Bombers would win two more Grey Cups during Murphy’s days – he was the MVP of the ’88 game but injured in the ’90 championship – and when he retired, he was the club’s all-time leading receiver with 9,036 yards and 61 TDs; both totals were later surpassed by Stegall.
After his playing days he then opted to remain in Winnipeg full-time, dabbling in a variety of fields before landing his current gig with the Manitoba Construction Sector Council.
“I could have moved back to Florida. I could have gone to Vegas. I could have gone to a lot of places,” said Murphy. “But I felt like I had paved my way here and this was the place to give me my best opportunity to transfer the skills I had developed as a football player into regular society. It was tough at the beginning, but I really felt this was the best place for me to transition into the next part of my life.”
Murphy will be officially added to the Ring of Honour during the Banjo Bowl on Saturday, September 9th, joining the 14 other members: Chris Walby, Ken Ploen, Gerry James, Milt Stegall, Dieter Brock, Leo Lewis, Bud Grant, Herb Gray, Doug Brown, Jack Jacobs, Fritz Hanson, Bob Cameron, Bob Irving, and Joe Poplawski.
“I’m so grateful for the Blue Bombers,” said Murphy. “I’m grateful for guys like Paul Robson, who had faith in me, and all the many, many great people I met along the way. It changed my life. I will be forever indebted to the club.
“I don’t know what you call it, maybe it’s fate, but it all just came together perfectly. I think it was a beautiful thing, a cool thing. I’ve been so grateful for that time, and I will be for the rest of my life.
THE JAMES MURPHY FILE
Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1982-90
- Inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2000
- Inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1995
- Two-time CFL All-Star: 1986, 1988
- Three-time Divisional All-Star: 1986, 1988, 1989
- CFL Most Outstanding Player: 1986
- Blue Bombers Most Outstanding Player: 1986, 1988
- Three-time Grey Cup champion: 1984, 1988, 1990
- Grey Cup MVP, 1988