By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Murphy Holloway was feeling good a few weeks ago.
The Ole Miss senior basketball star had just played in the Portsmouth Invitational, a college career showcase for NBA scouts.
Murphy, a 6-6, 238-pound forward who was six steals shy of becoming the first player in SEC history to record a combination of 1,400 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 steals, was sitting in an airport waiting to fly south back to Mississippi.
He was satisfied with his play, averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, when he ran into a scout with the Boston Celtics.
“The scout said, `You had a good tournament, all the scouts are talking about you’,” Murphy recalls. “So I asked him, `What are they saying?’ He says, `You should play football. That you can make millions playing football.’
“I wanted to hear something about the NBA. But it woke me up about football.”
It’s a wakeup call sent by the NFL that has been answered. Are you ready for Murphy Holloway, tight end for the current Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens?
Last week’s NFL draft provided the usual expected story lines, such as the SEC having a record 63 players drafted, including 12 in the first round. It was more proof that postseason all-star games shouldn’t be North vs. South or East vs. West. Maybe it should be the SEC vs. the rest of the nation.
And there were the postdraft surprises, such as Murphy, a South Carolina native who hasn’t played football since he was a sophomore at Dutch Fork High, signing a free agent contract with the Ravens.
“I’m all in,” says Murphy, who flew to Baltimore on Thursday for a four-day mini-camp before returning to Oxford to graduate. He then returns to Baltimore the second week of May.
The SEC has had some outstanding multi-sport athletes before, the most notable is Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson who was a power-hitting outfielder in baseball, mixing both sports (Raiders of the NFL, Royals in the American League). And don’t forget Tennessee’s Ron Widby, who lettered in football, basketball, baseball and golf.
There have also been numerous football/track stars and football/baseball, dating all the way back to such notables as Ole Miss’ Jake Gibbs, a key part of the Johnny Vaught powerhouse football teams of the late 50s who later became a catcher with the New York Yankees.
But Murphy might be one of the first SEC athletes to attempt to make it professionally in a sport that he never played in college.
Murphy began getting calls from NFL scouts during his final basketball season at Ole Miss that ended with him leading the Rebels to their first SEC tournament title in more than 30 years, and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Many athletes would have been stunned by the unexpected interest that Murphy received from the NFL. And many would have said “no thank you” immediately, their egos taking over and believing their only destiny was their current sport.
But if you’ve followed Murphy’s college career, he’s a go-with-the-flow guy who thinks with his head, not his heart.
For instance, Murphy stunned everyone around him when he decided to transfer from Ole Miss after his first two seasons from 2008-10.
The wide-body had started 47 games, averaged 9.3 points, and led the Rebels in rebounds both years and bodies scattered when he dove for loose balls.
Murphy wasn’t leaving Ole Miss because of a lack of playing time. He made the decision to transfer home to the University of South Carolina as a walk-on to handle parental responsibilities for a newborn daughter.
He spent the 2010-11 season as a redshirt, practicing and working out with a new set of teammates. But his heart was still in Oxford.
"I set up my ESPN phone app with Ole Miss as my favorite team," Murphy recalls. "I'd get text messages keeping me updated on scores."
By the end of that season with his family situation stabilized, Murphy began pursuing a waiver from the NCAA that
would allow him to return and become immediately eligible. With help from then-South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, the NCAA granted the waiver.
"I pride myself in not being surprised very often," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy says. "But two of the most surprising days of my career were when Murphy told me he was
leaving and when he told he was coming back. I didn't see either one coming."
Kennedy was ecstatic to have Murphy back in the fold. Since Kennedy’s program is built on toughness and defense, no one exemplified that more than Murphy.
It was never more evident than in March’s SEC tournament championship game against regular season champion Florida.
Murphy scored 12 of his game-total 21 points in the first half, and kept the frigid Rebels from totally disappearing in the first 20 minutes. Despite admittedly being a lousy free throw shooter, he hit one of two free throws for the Ole Miss’ final points ("I was like, 'Man, just make one just in case they hit a 3 and we can go to overtime'," he says) The 66-63 victory sent the Rebs to the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels beat Wisconsin in their tourney opener and then lost to LaSalle on a last-second drive.
Murphy’s 132-game college basketball career as one of the most productive players in Ole Miss history had ended. But as promised, those NFL scouts that called him during the season called him again.
“The Ravens’ scout called me and was at Ole Miss’ pro day (in March),” Murphy says. “I said, `Who are you here to see?’ He said, `I’m here to see you.’ ”
Considering the words of the Celtics’ scout in their Boston airport conversation, Murphy realized at best he might be a late second round pick (in the two-round NBA draft) or he might not be chosen at all.
Or he could roll the dice and bet on all the interest from NFL scouts.
So he did some homework. Through some of his old connections – South Carolina football players in the NFL – he contacted San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates who previously made the same journey Murphy was about to make.
Gates, a Detroit native who was runner-up for Mr. Basketball in Michigan as a high school senior, originally enrolled at Michigan State to play football and basketball. But when Nick Saban wanted Gates to play only football, he transferred to Eastern Michigan to play only basketball.
Ironically, he ended up at Kent State, Saban’s alma mater, where he averaged 18.3 points and 7.9 rebounds in his two-year career, to lead the Golden Flashes into the NCAA tourney’s Elite Eight.
Because he was 6-4 and undersized for an NBA small forward, he arranged to workout for NFL scouts. The Chargers signed him as a free agent, and 12 seasons later Gates has caught 642 passes for 8,321 yards and 83 TDs as a five-time All-Pro selection and eight-time Pro Bowl choice.
“I talked to Antonio Gates and he told me there will be a transition but it’s not as hard as you think,” Murphy says. “He says the running is not as hard (in football) as it is in basketball. It’s all about learning technique, like it is in just about any sport.”
Murphy worked out for the Ravens, Bucs and Eagles. In three workouts, he dropped one pass.
“In the beginning, scouts said they wanted to look at me as a tight end or a defensive end if I couldn’t catch very well,” Murphy says. “But the only pass I dropped was a really bad pass thrown to me from the Eagles’ scout.
Murphy chose to sign with the Ravens, because he felt he’d have time to develop. He also knows a familiar face on the Ravens’ offensive line, former Ole Miss star Michael Oher.
“They know what I have to work on and they are willing to work with me to make me the next Antonio Gates,” Murphy says. “I talked to Mike and he said the coaches had a good plan for me. They know it’s a low risk, high reward-type of thing. It’s a good setup, because I can play behind a couple of veterans who can show me the ropes.
“I feel like I fit what the Ravens like to do, using two tight ends. I watched YouTube clips, and their tight ends block down most of the time, so I won’t be under those big guys getting crushed.”
Murphy knows he won’t earn everything in a blink.
“I know it’s going to take time as far as learning blocking and playbooks and running routes,” Murphy says. “I don’t want to let the things I can’t do hurt me and show them the things I can do, such as my pass-catching ability and athleticism.”
And if Murphy one day makes the roster, it will be another bragging right for the SEC, a league so good that even its basketball players can play in the NFL.