Remembering Vada Murray

Apr 8, 2011

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 the iconic images of Michigan football, along with Tom Harmon standing in his mud-soaked, torn-apart jersey, Ol’ 98, and Desmond Howard diving to catch a touchdown against Notre Dame -- two Heisman Trophy winners, winning big games.

But the photo I’m talking about depicts 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 -- not the kind of thing that wins you a Heisman Trophy or an NFL contract.

They don’t even keep records of blocked kicks.

But, over two decades later, something about that photo still resonates, perhaps 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 poses.

Like a few other world-class athletes in town, Murray joined the Ann Arbor Police Department, where he became a respected detective.  Even students he busted for hosting parties remember him fondly, which says 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 safe.

Vada married Sarah, and together they had three beautiful kids.  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.  They soon learned 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 rapt. 

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 just what they did.

It wasn’t about football, he said, but family. 

He and Sarah were surrounded by supportive people from the police department, too – but they still had to endure the occasional well-meaning but misplaced comments from people who didn’t know them well.  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.”

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.

But 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 display at the frame store.

You’ll see what a man living fully looks like.

You don’t get to see that every day.