A Michigan Man
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If you’re not a Michigan
football fan, you probably haven’t heard of Vada Murray, but you might
have seen his picture. It’s one of those iconic images of Michigan
football, along with Tom Harmon standing in his mud-soaked, torn-apart
jersey, and Desmond Howard diving to catch a touchdown pass against
But the photo I’m talking
about shows Vada Murray and Tripp Welborne soaring skyward to block
a field goal. They were a kicker’s nightmare. But even when
they got a hand on the ball, it simply denied their opponent three points.
That’s not the kind of thing that wins you a Heisman Trophy or an
NFL contract. They don’t even keep records of those things.
But more than two decades later,
something about that photo still resonates. Maybe it’s because it
captures their effort, their intensity, their passion – all of it
spent just to give their teammates a slightly better chance for success.
There is something noble in that. And we recognize it – which
is why they’ve been selling that photo at the frame store on Ann Arbor’s
Main Street for years, right along side Harmon’s and Howard’s legendary
Murray prepared for life after
football. And, like a few other big-time athletes in town, he
joined the Ann Arbor Police Department, where he rose to the rank of
detective. Even students he busted for hosting parties years ago remember
him fondly, which is saying something.
Whenever his former coach,
Bo Schembechler, left town, he would tell Vada, “If anything happens
to my home while I’m gone, I’m holding you personally responsible!”
Bo picked the right man. His place was always safe.
Vada married Sarah, and together
they had two beautiful kids, along with Vada's son, Deric, from his first marriage. Life seemed perfect. But three years
ago, while he was taking a shower, Vada noticed his left love-handle
was a little bigger than his right side. Vada, who had never smoked
a cigarette in his life, had lung cancer.
When he gave a guest lecture
for my students at Michigan in late 2009, he started by saying, “I’m
Vada Murray, and I’m dying of cancer.” If there’s a gutsier
opening to a speech, I have not heard it. The students were stunned,
But he didn’t dwell on it.
He used it to point out how, if you’re a Michigan man in good standing,
your football friends will come to your aid – and that’s exactly
what they did. It wasn’t about football, he said. It was
The police department proved
to be another supportive family. But from people they didn’t
know as well, they still had to endure the occasional well-meaning but
misplaced comments. Things like, It will all work out. Everything’s
for the best. God has a plan for you.
When I visited their home a
few months ago, their youngest daughter was playing in Vada’s lap.
Their middle child had her arm around Sarah and their oldest kid was
playing in the backyard with a friend. Vada looked me in the eye and
said, “If God’s plan is for me not to see my little girls grow up
and walk down the aisle, you can tell God, his plan sucks.”
We were all getting a little choked up at this point, but I couldn’t
help but grin at that.
A few weeks ago, Sarah called
me and said, “Vada can’t speak to your class this semester.” She
didn’t have to say any more. I knew what she meant.
Vada passed away on Wednesday.
If you’re walking down Ann
Arbor’s Main Street some day, doing a little window-shopping, you
might want to take a moment to look at the photo in the frame store
display. You’ll see what a man living fully looks like.
Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio
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