SALT LAKE CITY — In any story about Jake Murphy, the University of Utah's tight end by way of BYU and American Fork High, there is the inevitable mention of the old man, so let's get that out of the way.
Jake Murphy is the son of Dale Murphy, the former Major League Baseball superstar who was as famous for his clean, polite persona as he was for home runs. He and his wife Nancy produced eight children, one short of a baseball team, and Jake is sixth in the batting order.
These days you can find Dale, a man who was once mobbed everywhere he went, hanging out on the sideline during Ute scrimmages, relatively unrecognized and unmolested as he keeps an eye on Jake. All of which is a strange turn of events in itself.
Murphy lives in Utah Valley, not far from BYU, and has dozens of friends and long-time acquaintances at the school. Nancy was a BYU cheerleader (she is finishing her degree at the school now). Dale himself attended BYU for a few weeks in 1978, shortly after joining the LDS Church and two years into what would be an 18-year Major League career. Two of Murphy's sons graduated from BYU. The Murphys have owned BYU football season tickets for years (although they have rarely used them). Given all of the above, no one was surprised when Jake signed a letter of intent with the BYU football team as a high school junior.
Yet here he is, wearing a red and white jersey, No. 82 in your program.
"Apparently, he rethought his position," says Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"It wasn't anything personal," says Jake. "Utah was the best fit for me."
Actually, they're being coy. It's much more complicated than that, but more on the subject later.
Maybe the elder Murphy was a seven-time All-Star and two-time National League MVP who hit 398 career homers, but his progeny are football players. Shawn, 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, was drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins out of Utah State. After stints with Carolina and Tampa Bay, he is trying to make the cut with the Denver Broncos on the offensive line. His younger brother McKay, another lineman, plans to walk on at Utah after returning from a church mission. Then there is Jake.
When he left to serve a two-year church mission to Australia in 2008, he was a wide receiver. He returned as a tight end. He gained 50 pounds on his mission and grew himself right into a new position. At 6-4 and 255 pounds, he is battling for playing time at a hybrid tight-end, H-back position.
"I've been playing a little bit of everything," Jake said following a recent scrimmage in which he caught three passes for 65 yards.
"He still has the athleticism he had when he was smaller," says Whittingham. "He has the good ball skills you would expect of a guy who played wide receiver. Like a lot of tight ends, he needs to work on other parts of his game."
Such as blocking.
Jake is calm, poised and polite, although you would have thought otherwise after a recent practice when a graduate assistant coach stood watch over a one-on-one interview between Murphy and a reporter.
"Just keeping an eye on him," he said, unsmiling behind dark glasses. When Jake gave the reporter his phone number, the assistant snapped, "You don't have to give him that."
Either this guy thinks he's a Secret Service agent or the new Pac-12 membership has put everyone on edge.
With Jake and his brothers committed to the gridiron, there will be no encore act for the Murphys in the Major Leagues. All of his sons tried baseball and some excelled, although, predictably, they were burdened with the name.
"The pressure never came from my dad," says Jake. "It came from the outside world. If I struck out, it was like, how can Dale Murphy's kid strike out?"
"It's an inherent thing with athletes' kids," says Dale. "People tend to have higher expectations. It was more pronounced when I was still playing and our older sons played Little League. There was undeserved pressure. My philosophy was, go out there and have fun, and if you enjoy it, work at it."
Taylor, the fifth child, was a promising baseball player at Utah Valley University, but his career was cut short by a severe shoulder injury. "He may have had a shot at possibly getting drafted," his father says, "but he redshirted the year after his mission and was injured during fall camp the next year — an injury that put him so far behind that he pretty much had to stop playing."
Jake was a second-team all-state shortstop in baseball, sporting a .400-plus batting average as both a junior and senior. He was good enough that scouts watched a few of his games, and his dad was able to arrange for a brief tryout with the Braves that consisted mostly of taking batting practice with the team at the age of 18 prior to a game against Oakland.
"I just came out because there's a possibility of getting drafted," he told reporter Jon Cooper at the time. "If that offer was better than a scholarship, then I'd take that. I've talked to the Braves, the Giants and Cubs."
"He hasn't played a lot of baseball but you can tell he has some skills," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton. "He's a Murphy. I think it's just a matter of him getting a lot of baseball time in to develop his hitting. He's got some potential there. No doubt about that."
He was four years old when his father retired from baseball, so he didn't have to endure as much of the pressure that came with the family name (he admits that on occasion, when he's "bored," he looks at highlight footage from his father's career).
"Jake hopes he can play baseball on the collegiate level," says Dale. "It's not easy to do, but he may give it a shot after a couple of years of football. He'll just have to see how it goes."
On the gridiron, Jake was a first-team all-state wide receiver/safety in high school, catching 44 passes for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.
"He committed so early (to BYU) that we didn't get the chance to recruit him," says Whittingham. That oversight would prove to be a blessing for the Utes.
With their close ties to BYU, the Murphys deflect questions about Jake's transfer. According to a source, it was a complex case of miscommunication. The short version of a long story: Jake was originally supposed to leave for his mission in December 2008, but got his departure moved to October. After serving in Australia nearly two years, he was released in August 2010 to enable him to enroll in time for fall semester.
Meanwhile, BYU still believed Jake was returning in December and had no scholarship available for him until winter semester. BYU had hoped to remedy the situation by grayshirting Jake, but he wanted to be part of the team immediately. Because the Utes had not recruited Jake, they were able to offer him a scholarship in the fall. Upon returning from his mission, Jake, accompanied by his father, drove straight to a Ute practice session to observe, and that was that.
"There are no hard feelings; it really was an honest oversight on BYU's part" is pretty much all Dale will say.
So a promising young player has fallen into the Utes' lap.
"He's going to be a very good player in this program," says Whittingham. "He's just a freshman. He's taking strides forward every day. He was a wide receiver in high school, and so everything he's doing as a tight end and H-back is new. He's a tough kid and he's very athletic."