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Former two-sport athlete Niall D. Murphy ’03, who played a key role in the Harvard football team’s undefeated 2001 season, died suddenly last Wednesday morning from complications of juvenile diabetes. He was just 31.
To those who knew him, Murphy’s death came as a shock.
“[I’m] still kind of in a daze over it [a week later],” says Chuck Adamopoulos, Murphy’s high school football coach.
A home-grown talent, Murphy made quite an impact on the local sports scene from an early age. Before he donned the Crimson, the Lowell, Mass. native led his Central Catholic High School team to two Eastern Massachusetts Super Bowl titles as a quarterback.
But it wasn’t his quarterbacking skills that caught the eye of the Harvard coaches.
“He wasn’t a great thrower by Division I standards,” says Harvard football coach Tim Murphy (no relation). “He was a kid that we recruited as an athlete.”
And an athlete he was. On the gridiron, he made plays that, according to Adamopoulos, “[made] you shake your head and say, ‘Did I really just see that?’”
Murphy had also been quite an accomplished runner at the high school level, winning state titles in the 110 meter and 300 meter hurdles, and he continued running at Harvard. After joining the track and field team during his junior year, he quickly became the team’s best high hurdler, according to former coach Frank Haggerty ’68. In fact, Murphy’s 60 meter hurdles time of 8.36 seconds is the fourth-fastest in Harvard history.
But Murphy’s main focus wasn’t running.
“[He] only competed in [the] indoor track [season] because [his] real love was football,” Tim Murphy says.
A tireless worker, Murphy earned a starting position in his sophomore season, this time as a strong safety.
It took him little time, by Tim Murphy’s account, to become the best at his position in the Ancient Eight. After playing an instrumental role on the unbeaten 2001 team, Murphy’s time as a defensive back culminated in an All-Ivy selection his senior year.
But athleticism was far from Murphy’s only attribute on the field. The son and grandson of high school football coaches, the safety had a deep understanding of the game.
Against Yale in 2002, for instance, Murphy noticed that the Bulldogs had set up in an unusual formation. Quickly and decisively, he changed the defensive alignment.
“[Yale] threw right into where our coverage was,” recalls former cornerback Chris Raftery ’04. “He definitely knew his stuff.”
Despite his large impact on the field, it was the way Murphy carried himself off of it that most impressed his teammates and his coaches.
“Niall was probably one of the most energetic, fun-loving people I’ve ever really come across,” says former wide receiver Carl Morris ’03. “He was everybody’s favorite, really. Everyone loved him.”
“He definitely helped out any young player no matter where they were on the depth chart, and that was enormous for morale,” Raftery adds. “He really went out of his way to be kind to everyone, and that always made a lasting impression on me.”
All the while, the former strong safety dealt with a severe case of diabetes. Diagnosed at the age of 11, Murphy had to constantly check his insulin levels and self-administer multiple injections a day. But he refused to let the disease get in his way.
“He was a guy who would never make an excuse for not doing something,” says former running back Nick Palazzo ’03. “He just looked at [his challenges] like speed bumps—he never let them define him and he used them to actually become a better athlete and person.
In fact, Murphy didn’t even disclose that he had diabetes during the recruiting process.
“I can vividly remember how I found that out,” Tim Murphy laughs.
After walking into the locker room before one practice, the coach noticed someone injecting himself in the leg. “And I said, ‘Oh my God, what do we have here?’ I’m thinking the worst – we’ve got a kid shooting up or something.”
“And [Niall] looked up and said, ‘Coach, it’s not what you think,’” Murphy continues. “And he laughed and told me.”
But, diabetes wasn’t Murphy’s only obstacle in college—as a senior, he lost his mother.
“Nothing really ever came easy for him,” Tim Murphy says.
Following graduation, Niall eventually became director of recruiting at MetLife Insurance, though he made sure to maintain his close ties to Harvard and Catholic Central football. Even after his death, though he hasn’t donned a Crimson uniform for nine years and a Raiders uniform for 13, he continues to have a big presence at his former institutions.
“I’ve been at this school for 27 years, and we’ve had a lot of good, successful people come out of this school,” Adamopoulos said. “But if I had to choose one person to represent the school and its values…Niall Murphy would be a great representative. He really was just a phenomenal, phenomenal kid.”
—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.
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