Kyler Murray balances football and baseball while replacing a legend

NORMAN, Okla. -- The mere possibility that Kyler Murray might change his mind meant the Oakland Athletics had to show up to as many of his baseball games as possible. That was how Armann Brown found himself in Dallas on a cool, damp February evening.

In the top of the ninth inning, Murray came up to bat for the University of Oklahoma, and Brown got a glimpse of the talent that long kept him and the A's holding out hope that Murray would eventually give up football for baseball.

"He hit the ball over a light pole, and we couldn't see it anymore. It was a majestic home run," recalled Brown, an Austin-based area scout for the A's. "When he hit it, everybody in the stadium got quiet."

Brown paused. "That night it all started."

Murray had opted out of the MLB draft coming out of high school.He made it clear then, to both recruiters and scouts, that he wanted to be a two-sport star at Texas A&M, where his former quarterback father had played his way into the school's Hall of Fame in the 1980s. Murray didn't seem likely to reconsider this time around, given that he -- a no-doubt, bona fide Texas high school football legend -- was in line to succeed Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma.

But Brown and Chris Reilly, a Dallas-area scout who went to about a third of Murray's games this spring, had gotten hints in recent months that Murray might be open to a change.

Brown had a good relationship with Murray's uncle, a former major leaguer who hosted Brown on a college recruiting visit in the late '80s. Reilly had gotten closer to Murray's family by being a constant presence at his baseball games. And Murray's rapid improvement at the plate and in the outfield had become too hard to ignore. The Athletics' internal report on Murray looked promising but was incomplete.

So in April, following a game at TCU, Reilly discreetly sidled up to Murray and, in as vague of terms as possible, asked him if he was serious about pursuing baseball.

"He said, 'Well, I've thought about it,'" Reilly said. "And I didn't expect to hear the excitement in his voice. That's when I realized he might be in play."

The A's got their man two months later, selecting Murray with the ninth overall pick in the draft. The announcement of the choice came with a surprising, if not unprecedented, caveat: Murray would set aside baseball for a few more months, heading back to Oklahoma for one last fall of football.

"That clause is something, in my 38 years of doing this -- it's the first time I've ever done it," said Murray's agent, Scott Boras.

"Other teams probably would have done more and drafted him earlier if they'd known he was going to commit to baseball exclusively. But Kyler told me, 'I'm only going to do baseball if I can fulfill my commitment to OU and my teammates,'" Boras said.

And so Murray will start what is presumed to be the final chapter of his football career when he leads No. 7 Oklahoma into its season opener against Florida Atlantic on Saturday. He'll enter the fall with a lot to prove, a lot to disprove and a legacy -- his own and his father's -- to redeem during the next few months.

"I can't wait to get out there and play," said Murray, obliquely hinting at criticism of him following his star-crossed and ultimately disappointing freshman year at Texas A&M in 2015.

"I'm not one who talks about all that. But there's a lot of people doubting us."

Those doubts, of course, played no small role in Murray's decision to finally embrace baseball.

Murray, his family and his advisers eventually had to accept that baseball clubs would more easily accept his relatively compact frame, at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, than NFL franchises that place, er, outsize importance on height for aspiring quarterbacks. Only three quarterbacks 5-foot-11 or shorter have been selected in the NFL draft since 2000, none higher than Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012.

"If you're a certain size, they might not draft you," said Calvin Murray, an uncle who played five years in the majors. "So you're starting off behind the eight ball, and it has nothing to do with ability."

Meanwhile, the A's coveted Murray for his speed, arm strength, hitting power (10 homers in 2018) and largely untapped potential as a result of his playing one full healthy season since his junior year of high school in 2014.

That package convinced the A's, who under the leadership of general manager Billy Beane inspired the popular book and movie "Moneyball" because of their shrewd personnel moves, to take an uncommon risk with their draft pick. Within a week, they had agreed to terms with Murray on a deal that included a $4.66 million signing bonus.

Beane recalled a team meeting a couple of nights before the draft in June, when the front office kicked around whether it was worth it to draft Murray.

"Everyone was sort of dancing around the obvious," Beane said. "I knew who they really wanted, but they were fearful of sort of dealing with the whole football issue.

"I said, 'We should take Kyler Murray. That's who everyone wants to take.' Everyone kind of looked at me as if [asking], 'Is that OK?' And I said, 'Yeah, we're going to do it. If it's the best player, we're going to take him.' I think it really energized everyone."

In fact, Beane said, he is looking forward to seeing Murray suit up for the Sooners and plans to get to Oklahoma to watch a game or two.

"He's fun to watch on a football field," Beane said. "It's going to be exciting to watch him play."

Later that day, at Murray's introductory news conference in Oakland, Boras was spellbound watching Murray taking a round of batting practice while explaining that he wasn't worried about Murray getting hurt playing football.

"When you have an athlete like him," Boras said, "his avoidance factor is so high because of his speed and agility."

Boras was then interrupted by the sound of Murray, outfitted in a full A's home uniform, sending a pitch far over the center-field fence of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

"Now that's my kind of quarterback," Boras said.

After a recent football practice in Norman, Kyler Murray grinned as he pondered the absurdity of his pee-wee football days, when his team was the only one running its offense out of the shotgun formation.

"I've been throwing the ball for a long time," Murray said. "A lot of people label me as a runner, but as far as a thrower, I feel like I'm the best. Spinning the ball is second nature to me."

That forthright confidence and penchant for a passing offense have their roots in the same man, his father, Kevin Murray, a star quarterback at Texas A&M in the mid-1980s and now a private quarterback coach of some renown in the Dallas area.

"Growing up, he instilled all of that in me," Kyler Murray said. "That we don't take anything from anybody. That at all times, you're the best on the field. Whether it's football, baseball, basketball, whatever it is."

Kevin Murray charted this particular course more than 35 years ago, earning all-state honors in football and basketball at North Dallas High School. But Murray chose to pursue baseball after being drafted in the 11th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982. A $35,000 signing bonus sweetened the deal.

His baseball career lasted all of 10 weeks, with a .178 batting average in the Appalachian League helping him figure out that his talents would be better served elsewhere. "I can see why some of those guys become alcoholics," Murray told the Dallas Morning News in October 1983. "If I had stayed with it, I would have done the same thing."

R.C. Slocum, then a highly regarded defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, called to check in on Murray, whom he'd convinced to sign a national letter of intent with the Aggies a year before.

"Minor league baseball is a hard life. I called him and go, 'You tired of riding those buses?'" Slocum said. "I didn't convince him to give up baseball. In his mind, he'd already made his decision."

The Brewers, however, alleged that the Aggies played a much more active role in changing his mind and sued Murray and Texas A&M to prevent Murray from playing college football. The legal dispute lasted into the next summer, with a federal judge ultimately ruling that Murray could break his contract with the Brewers and play for the Aggies.

Thus commenced one of the most colorful careers in college football, with the Morning News proclaiming in 1986 that "no other Southwest Conference player has been the center of such continuing controversy and attention."

Murray took over as starter midway through his freshman year, a remarkable development for a program from which the first two black quarterbacks had transferred away.

"I had watched all those guys come through and never expected it to take place in that area," said Rod Bernstine, a native of nearby Bryan and an Aggies star tight end who was an NFL first-round draft pick in 1987. "I had never seen a black quarterback that had those tools. For him to be at that level, it was incredible to see."

Murray finished the 1983 season as the Southwest Conference Newcomer of the Year and the league's leader in total offense. A gruesome broken ankle prematurely ended his sophomore season, but he returned to form the next year, throwing for a school record 2,463 yards and leading the Aggies to their first Cotton Bowl victory since 1968.

By 1986, in what turned out to be his final year in College Station, Murray had another record-breaking season, finishing as the Aggies' leader in career wins (25) and most passing categories. He was named SWC Offensive Player of the Year again and led Texas A&M to another Cotton Bowl and top-10 finish. Murray declared himself eligible for the 1987 NFL draft, seemingly a shoo-in for the pros at 6-foot-2, with arm strength good enough for pro baseball and a command of a passing offense.

But Murray went undrafted, with 19 quarterbacks coming off the board before him, raising concerns that the NFL had effectively shunned him. "I feel it's a slap in the face to all black quarterbacks," said then-Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon, then one of only a handful of black quarterbacks in the league.

"Basically it was two things," said Jackie Sherrill, Murray's head coach at Texas A&M. "Challenging the junior [draft eligibility] rule and being an African-American."

Kevin Murray never made an NFL roster, gave up on football and returned home to Dallas. His younger brother, Calvin, then a top high school quarterback and Major League Baseball prospect, couldn't help but take note of the seeming unfairness of it all.

To the Murrays, baseball ultimately made the most sense: There's no arguing with the math. By comparison, football was a game far too dependent on personal preference and individual interpretation. The personnel decisions didn't have to make sense. Look at Kevin Murray. Look at Colin Kaepernick.

Now look at Kyler.

"That's one of the reasons I went into baseball," said Calvin Murray, now a player representative for Boras' sports agency.

"You're not pigeonholed by size or race. You look at some of the guys in the big leagues, and they don't have to look a certain way. That's the beauty of it."

Kevin Murray returned to football almost 20 years later, this time fashioning himself as a private trainer for aspiring quarterbacks.

He first teamed up with Scott Nady at the fledgling program at Parish Episcopal, a small private school in Dallas. When Murray's executive position in the banking industry seemed on the verge of being downsized, Nady encouraged Murray to turn his gift for coaching into a full-time job.

"He was pretty concerned, and I said, 'Well, good.' It'll give you an opportunity to do what you're supposed to be doing anyway," said Nady, now a special-teams analyst for SMU.

Murray started the Air 14 Football Academy (named for his uniform number) and later convinced the head coach at Allen High School, Tom Westerberg, who had been a student manager when Murray starred at Texas A&M, to let him work with one of the quarterbacks in their program. In the spring of 2010, Alec Morris, a sophomore starter on the varsity basketball team, met Kevin Murray on the field of the track stadium in front of the Allen campus. Morris wasn't yet in line to be the starter at quarterback and wasn't even sure football was his best sport.

"He elevated my game, obviously," said Morris, who later signed with Alabama and finished his career at North Texas. "He was a guy who was going to shoot me straight. I appreciated the realness he brought to the relationship while being constructive."

Tagging along at some of those workouts was little Kyler, who was then already showing signs of being something special. "Kevin has been training Kyler on how to take a drop since the kid was about 4 years old," said Jeff Fleener, who was the offensive coordinator at Allen and is now head coach at Mesquite High School.

"I could tell Kyler was going to be special when he was 9, 10 years old," Nady said. "He had that Murray swag from an early age."

It was also apparent to Dick Olin, who was then the head coach at Lewisville High School. He regularly checked on Kyler while he was tearing it up at one of the feeder middle schools.

Olin, who sent a number of quarterbacks to major-college stardom, including Clint Stoerner (Arkansas), Ell Roberson (Kansas State), Brian Johnson (Utah) and his stepson, Drew Tate (Iowa), took the unprecedented step -- for him -- of coaching the freshman football team so he could work with Kyler.

"We ran our [varsity] offense and threw it all over heck," Olin said. "He was phenomenal. I told him, 'Gosh, you're just like my son.'"

But Lewisville fired Olin at the end of the season, opening the door for Kevin Murray to move Kyler and his family to Allen about 30 minutes away.

"He would've set every record in the state had we been able to stay at Lewisville," Olin said. "I told Westerberg, 'You've got a guy who's the best I've been around.'"

Allen was a fledgling football power, having won the state title in 2008 and regularly making deep playoff runs. It was also one of the biggest high schools in Texas, with more than 6,000 students.

The addition of Kyler Murray only made Allen loom even larger.

As Kyler Murray recalls it, the only time he has been nervous before a game was the 2012 season opener at Allen High School.

A standing-room-only crowd of 22,000 came to watch Allen open its $59.6 million stadium -- boasting a high-definition video screen in one end zone and a three-tier press box -- against defending Class 5A Division I state champion Southlake Carroll.

"I was shaking," Murray recalled. "Coming out for warm-ups, it was like a movie."

Murray, then a sophomore, began the game behind a senior starter and rotated in every third offensive series. But when the senior went down with cramps, Murray took over in the second half and helped Allen complete a 24-0 victory.

"Once I got in there," Murray said, "the rest is history."

It was an auspicious start to one of the most celebrated high school football careers in Texas, and it elevated Murray to a status reserved for legends such as Earl Campbell, Billy Sims and Davey O'Brien.

Murray won all 42games he started at Allen, leading the Eagles to three straight state championships in the state's largest classification. In his three years on varsity, Murray completed 63 percent of his passes for 10,386 yards and 117 touchdowns and rushed for 4,139 yards and 69 touchdowns on more than 8 yards per carry.

His stats were only part of the lore. In a program flush with top college prospects, members of the coaching staff said Murray's feel for the game and unshakable confidence gave them an edge even in the rare games in which an opponent had as much or more talent.

Fleener recalled a game from Murray's junior year, the highly anticipated rematch against Southlake Carroll. On the first possession, Murray had a pass bounce off the hands of a receiver and into the arms of a defensive back, who returned it for a touchdown. Back on the sideline, Fleener gathered the offense around him and paused a moment. He turned to Murray and asked him what he thought.

"He looked at me and said, 'They're f---ing trash, and if we don't throw for about 400 yards tonight, I'm going to be pissed,'" Fleener said. "His confidence was just unbelievable, and the rest of the team just fed off of it."

Murray went on to throw for 466 yards and three touchdowns and rush for another 80 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-27 win.

"He's the best QB I've ever played against," said Claude Mathis, the former head coach of state power DeSoto High, which was knocked out of the playoffs by Allen in three consecutive years. "He was everything everyone said he was and more."

Murray ended his career at Allen as a five-star recruit and ranked as the top dual-threat quarterback in his class, according to ESPN. He was almost as good a prospect in baseball, becoming the first athlete in history to play in the Under Armour All-American football and baseball games.

Expected to be a top pick in the MLB draft, even after playing only designated hitter in his senior season because of a shoulder injury suffered during football, Murray made it clear to baseball scouts that he wanted to play college football.

"He always wanted to play quarterback at that level," Allen baseball coach Paul Coe said. "The kid has got it in his mind and wants to prove he can play QB. He wasn't going to give that up."

Kyler Murray couldn't resist the opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps to Texas A&M, where head coach Kevin Sumlin had turned lightly recruited and bantam-sized Johnny Manziel into a Heisman winner.

It seemed like a great fit.

Little has been said on the record about what happened during Kyler Murray's freshman year in College Station, but one thing is clear: Everyone involved emerged from it diminished.

Kyler Murray started the season as a backup to sophomore Kyle Allen, who the previous year had wrested the position from Kenny Hill midway through the first post-Manziel season at Texas A&M. Murray got the opportunity to play in relief, mostly out of the Wildcat formation.

But when A&M lost back-to-back games to Alabama and Ole Miss in October, Sumlin installed Murray as the starter to much fanfare and talk that his rise was following the same arc as his father's in 1983.

In his first start, Murray threw for 223 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 156 yards and another score, leading the Aggies to a seven-point win over South Carolina at Kyle Field.

"He came in [to that huddle] like it was Allen High," A&M offensive lineman Germain Ifedi told reporters after the game. "He commanded the huddle as well as any 18-year-old I've ever seen."

That was as good as it would get in College Station for Murray, who threw three interceptions the next week in a loss to Auburn and was replaced by third-string quarterback Jake Hubenak. Murray got another start the next week against Western Carolina, putting together an uneven, three-touchdown, two-interception performance that led Sumlin to open the quarterback competition again.

Murray never started again and left the team a month later, saying he was going to transfer. Allen had announced his departure from the team a week earlier. At the end of the season, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and the Aggies agreed to part ways. Sumlin never really recovered at Texas A&M, struggling to settle on a quarterback over the next two years before being fired this past November.

The most detailed account of what happened that season came from Hubenak, who published a post -- without identifying the names of players and coaches -- on the Aggies fan site in April. Hubenak largely pinned poor communication from the coaches as the source of the turmoil.

"They left because of how they were treated," wrote Hubenak, clearly referring to Murray and Allen. "A lack of good communication ended up being the biggest problem that year. A bunch of good people were caught up in a bad situation."

However, friends of the Murrays remain agitated by the suggestion -- mostly circulated on social media and fan sites -- that Kyler Murray was a prima donna who bristled at not being handed the starting spot and that Kevin Murray was a meddlesome force.

"That was one of the things that teed me off," Allen athletic director Steve Williams said, recalling his time with the Murrays."That's not anywhere close to being true. They never complained, never griped about anything."

Kevin Murray declined a number of interview requests, telling via text, "I had my time 30 years ago -- I did my thing! And people for whatever reason are still talking about ME (most are misinformed) but at the end of the day whose problem is that?!?! It's not mine!"

Kyler Murray quickly found a new home at Oklahoma, opting to sit out a year and play football for the Sooners instead of going to a junior college to play baseball and enter the MLB draft. Again, his love of football drove his decision-making.

"Being a football icon in Texas," Calvin Murray said, "I think he wants to get it out of his system."

Baker Mayfield, Heisman winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, is no easy act to follow. But at least superficially, Murray has already done a passable job of it.

Before arriving in Norman, Mayfield won a state championship in football, was an all-state baseball player in Texas and went on to play as a freshman quarterback (a walk-on, at that) at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma. But all told, Mayfield came to the Sooners with a relative fraction of the accumulated acclaim of Murray.

That might be why those close to Murray and the Sooners don't expect much drop-off this fall. That's an audacious thing to say -- publicly or otherwise -- about an offense that set school records for total offense (579.6 yards per game) and yards per play (8.3).

"I don't think there will be any drop-off," said Barry Switzer, the Hall of Famer who was head coach at Oklahoma from 1973 to 1987. Of Murray, he said: "He obviously would've fit my playbook pretty well."

"I was watching the Heisman Trophy winner all last year, and I'm waiting to see a play that Kyler couldn't make," Nady said. "The season ended, and I didn't see one."

Murray, who performed well in a few spot opportunities to relieve Mayfield last season, said he's looking forward to showing what he can do.

"I'm here to win a national championship," Murray said. "I've put in work my whole life for this opportunity."

Such an accomplishment would be a validation of what he inherited from his father: dogged insistence on his own talent and that his greatness must be appreciated on his terms. The Murrays are still, 30 years later, looking for a happy ending to their family football story.

Largely left unsaid is what will happen if Murray has the football season of his dreams -- and others' expectations -- and delivers on the promise he showed in high school and in a couple of college games. Could he really give it up and head off to the drudgery of minor league baseball? Would he be willing to risk another family fight with professional baseball?

Sooners football coach Lincoln Riley wouldn't close the door on Murray returning for another year.

"We'll see if it's his final year," Riley told reporters earlier this month. "That hasn't been determined yet. I'm not worried about it if it is or if it isn't."

Boras, Murray's baseball agent, tried to close the door on that speculation. "Kyler's baseball career has a very defined path, which includes playing football at OU for only the 2018 season," Boras told The Athletic a couple of days later.

Ever optimistic, Armann Brown, the scout who first wrote about Murray for the A's, still believes that Oakland will bring him home to his rightful place in baseball.

"It's just something he wanted to get out of his system," Brown said. "To let people know he could do it and go on to bigger and better things."

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