Friday Football Fever: Mike London’s Legend: Marshall Murphy
His son’s wedding brought Marshall Murphy back to Landis this week, and the sound of a locomotive’s lonesome whistle as it chugged through the town’s heart took him back 50 years in 50 seconds.
Football has changed since his days at old Landis High, but the wail of the train is the same.
Murphy argues he’s no legend, but people who saw him play insist he was of the best ever at the small high school that churned out tons of talent in the 1950s.
“Marshall had an outstanding reputation as one of the best athletes in three sports,” said Reid Bradshaw who was two years behind Murphy at Landis and a teammate at Catawba.Murphy made the varsity in all three sports as a Landis freshman, the only one in his class to do so. He started in baseball and basketball as a ninth-grader.”I just matured a little earlier,” Murphy said.
In football, he was starting at defensive back by his sophomore year. On offense, he backed up two veteran stars ó tailback Ken Orbison and fullback Howard Barnhardt.
In 1958, Landis beat both Mooresville and North Meck 40-0.
Murphy remembers the glow he felt when the Charlotte Observer ran a photo of Landis stars Oscar Overcash, Barnhardt, Orbison and Murphy. The Observer asked the rhetorical question, “Is Murphy another Billy Barnes?”
When that story ran, Barnes, the best of all the great Landis athletes, was starring for the Philadelphia Eagles. It was a magic moment for Murphy.
“That was the highest compliment I ever got in sports because Billy was my idol,” he said. “I had some of the ability Billy did, but not the fire. Billy was as good a competitor as there ever was.”
In 1959, his junior year, Murphy had a chance to show what kind of competitor he was. Landis had graduated its size and most of its big names, but Murphy, an all-county fullback who ran back three kickoffs for TDs, sparked an 8-1-1 season.
China Grove and Landis both had powerful teams in ’59. Landis, which tied A.L. Brown, lost only to Albemarle. China Grove (8-2) beat A.L. Brown and lost only to Albemarle and Landis.
“I knew their players because my mother worked at a department store and I’d run into those China Grove kids there,” Murphy said. “I considered them more friends than enemies, but the rivalry really was big.”
Stricken by the flu, Murphy nearly missed the epic 1959 game with China Grove, but he talked Coach Bill Kluttz into letting him play defense. Landis won 12-7 ó on a batted pass.
Murphy drew serious ACC recruiting interest his junior year. His dream school was Wake Forest because Barnes had gone there, but a serious injury early in his senior season hurt. He got injured in the showdown with China Grove.
“I was running the ball, a tackler got on my shoulder and my ankle just locked,” Murphy said. “I was pretty well done. China Grove whipped us that year. Kannapolis whipped us.”
Murphy had a torn Achilles tendon.
“I had a cast on my ankle, but I got all bandaged up and did go into the game against Kannapolis just to throw,” Murphy said. “I couldn’t move, but I was 5-for-5.”
Murphy was part of Landis’ last graduating class in 1961. A few months later, it joined with China Grove to form South Rowan High.
Wake Forest lost interest after his injury, but Murphy headed to N.C. State and played in all five games for the freshman team.
“I always say I started four out of five, but that was because I was better on defense than the guy I was splitting time with and we kicked off four times,” he said.
He only lasted at N.C. State until the spring of his freshman year. He spent several months after leaving school building chain-link fences in Chicago. Those days reinforced the value of education, and he accepted a scholarship from Catawba.
“A family friend, Charles Peacock, was a neighbor of Catawba’s football coach Harvey Stratton,” Murphy explained. “My play at Catawba wasn’t always stellar, but it was always interesting”
Catawba was grooming a great quarterback in John Scott, but Stratton wasn’t sure Scott was ready when the 1964 season opened.
Murphy started at QB at East Carolina, and Catawba took it on the chin ó 25-0.
“East Carolina went to the Tangerine Bowl that year,” Murphy said. “What do I remember about it? I remember five of our guys went to Duke Hospital after that game with knee injuries.”
In 1965, his final season on the field, Murphy made a contribution to Catawba lore by playing five or six positions.
“Whoever got hurt, I played in their spot,” he said.
Catawba was at Wofford late in the season, and the Indians were banged up.
“Everyone was hurt,” Murphy said. “Ike Hill was hurt. Sam Boyd was hurt. Bryan Applefield was hurt.”
Murphy was hurt. Pulled hamstring. He was on the sidelines. Catawba trailed Wofford late in the fourth quarter, and Murphy suggested a halfback pass to assistant Don Maphis.
“Flood right, pitch right, pass,” Murphy said.
“Go tell him,” said Maphis, pointing at Stratton.
“Flood right, pitch right, pass,” Murphy repeated to Stratton. “With me throwing .”Stratton, who had just watched Scott miraculously escape a sack on third down, was down to his last snap. He stared at Murphy, and then sent him into the game.
“Coach sort of threw up his arms like it was all over with anyway,” Murphy said with a chuckle. “I go in there and one of the Wofford players, yells, ‘Watch 17.’ Well, 17 is me, so I’m worried.”
Scott pitched the ball to Murphy, who had Bradshaw, a tackle, protecting in front of him. The flanker and split end took off deep.
Catawba’s great linebacker Ed Koontz was playing tight end because of injuries, and Murphy saw Koontz sprinting free in the middle of the field, just the way it was supposed to work.
“I cut it loose, a beautiful pass,” Murphy said. “High, arcing. But their safety goes up on the 1 and intercepts.”
Well, almost intercepts. Koontz, who would play pro ball for many years, clapped his hands over the safety’s, twisted and wrestled the ball away as they tumbled.
Instead of an interception, Koontz helped Murphy find glory. Catawba had first-and-goal, and Scott scored the winning TD on the next play.
Murphy went on to coach at South Rowan. He got track rolling there, with a big assist from North Rowan coach Burton Barger.
“When I was playing for Landis against North, Burt rode the dickens out of me,” Murphy said. “But he was great when we were opposing coaches. As a track coach, he was way ahead of his time.”
Murphy eventually earned a masters degree, and scouting assignments led to him coaching four years at Catawba. He was head baseball coach from 1975-78.
He found his professional niche as a right-of-way manager, handling land and property purchases for Duke Power in North Carolina and Koch Industries in Kansas, and finally Sunoco Logistics in Sugar Land, Texas.
He’s worked for Sunoco the last 21 years and hopes to retire and return home to Landis next March.
That move would reunite him with lifelong friends such as Bradshaw, who still claims he was wide open for a tackle-eligible pass from Murphy when Catawba was playing at Guilford in 1964.
“Murphy threw it straight into the ground,” Bradshaw said. “I actually caught it at my shoestrings, but they ruled it incomplete.”
Murphy’s recollection is that any pass to Bradshaw was a shaky idea to start with, but that’s something they can settle while they listen to the sweet sounds of the trains rumbling through downtown Landis.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.