Even some of the greatest athletic phenoms in high school find themselves chewed up and spit out by the moneymaking machine that is collegiate athletics. For former Camdenton High School star running back, Murphy Ward, the transition hasn’t been smooth.
In the transition between high school athletics and collegiate sports, casualties pile up along the way and no free passes are given. College sports come with the raw realization that it’s a business, and the athlete maintains a role of just a commodity at disposal.
Even some of the greatest athletic phenoms in high school find themselves chewed up and spit out by the moneymaking machine. For former Camdenton High School star running back, Murphy Ward, the transition hasn’t been smooth.
Most people of the Camdenton community have come to know Ward in some fashion. His athletic prowess attracted a following, but another characteristic better illustrates Ward — a quality that his former high school head football coach, Jeff Shore, witnessed.
“His heart was the thing that made him,” Shore said. “He would not quit, period. Unless you had to drag him physically off the field, he was not quitting. He was such a warrior.”
It was that “no quit” persona that created a warrior. As a three-year starter, Ward became Camdenton’s all-time career rushing yardage leader by running for an astounding 4,609 yards and 48 touchdowns. Of course, with an absurd stat line like that, colleges were chomping at the bit to haul in Ward’s talents. Several state colleges — mainly lower division schools ― sent letters in droves to Ward, but he had a dream to play Division I football. He also had a dream aimed at another in-state institution.
“I had the aspirations to go to Mizzou,” Ward said. “I wanted to take a path that was less tread. It’s not necessarily the most common thing or the most comfortable, and it’s not the safest. But, I wanted to say at least that I did it.”
Safe would be the perfect antonym to describe the journey Ward undertook.
Thanks to some connections with the coaching staff, a team official from MU visited with Ward. The excitement soon faded as the meeting ended on a sour note.
“He shot us straight,” Shore said of the meeting. “He said without the size requirements, you’re probably not going to get an opportunity here. Unfortunately in Division I nowadays, if you don’t meet a certain stature criteria, they usually don’t even give you a look. That’s hard to hear because I believe totally the other way.”
Even though it was a tough pill to swallow, Ward took the criticism and didn’t let it derail his dream. While he would not find a home in Columbia, it wasn’t much longer before another high profile, Southeastern Conference College expressed interest, the Arkansas Razorbacks. Ward scheduled a trip to Fayetteville, Ark. for a visit oozing with anticipation.
“We got a tour of the entire campus and the facilities, then I met with the running backs coach,” Ward recounted of his trip. “He said, ‘I want to talk about some of the expectations going on here. Now, I can’t tell you if you’re going to be here in the summer or the fall, but either way you have a spot. This is your home.’”
Home was everything that Ward hoped to find. He longed for an opportunity, and it seemingly fell into his lap.
“I always had a sense of skepticism in the sense that that was it,” Ward said on how simply his search ended. “It was so surreal. It happened so easily.”
Ward’s senior season progressed under the assumption that his destiny lay with the Razorbacks, but the water slowly started to turn murky. In a conversation with another athlete who committed to Arkansas, Ward discovered that player had signed a letter of intent to play there — something the school had not presented Ward.
“His side seemed so much more sure and definite.” Ward said. “I was a little worried about that. Every time I called the coach he was very vague. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll get your dorm stuff figured out. We’ll get that all clarified.’”
The months passed by with uncertainty and lukewarm responses continued. The time turned late June 2013, and he received a bombshell.
“I remember after practice one day, my mom was sitting in the stands, and she looked really distraught. She just looked so beaten,” Ward said. “I don’t know why, but the idea came to me that it might be something affiliated with Arkansas. I went and asked her what was wrong after practice. I told her, ‘Mom, don’t hide this stuff from me. It’s not good to avoid a problem.’ She said that they don’t have a roster spot for you. You don’t have a definite thing at Arkansas.”
The new home turned into new heartbreak.
“That was probably the most disappointed I’ve been, involved with football, in a long time,” Shore lamented. “They totally pulled the rug out from under him at a late hour. It woke me up to the business side of Division I football.”
Now cutoff, Ward decided to give MU, a school that had already expressed doubts, and his D-I dreams another shot. In Fall 2013, Ward enrolled at MU in hopes of making a name through the walk on program. Unfortunately, the second meeting between the two ended with more anguish for Ward. The future Cotton Bowl victors cut Ward without even letting him touch the field.
“I wasn’t angry with anybody,” Ward said. “But it was kind of upsetting not to get that chance. That’s what I was looking for, just an opportunity.
Once again Ward found himself on the search for a new opportunity. After spending a semester at MU, Ward transferred to Missouri State University, a team that had shown interest earlier. There, a squad welcomed him with open arms. Finally a team seemed to appreciate the workhorse running back.
In a meeting with the coaches, Ward learned that if he was willing, committed, and working hard, then he’d find a home, and playing time, as a Bear.
“There wasn’t a probably,” Ward said of his chances. “It was a very definite ‘You’d have a spot here.’”
Ward dedicated himself to his training and finally seemed to have a breakthrough. This time though, he received plenty of compliments from teammates that helped to validate his effort.
One teammate said, “You’re so hard to tackle because you’re so low to the ground,” Ward remembered.
Another teammate said, “The offensive line coach loves you. You’re one of the best blockers. You work hard.”
A starting offensive lineman said that he could see Ward playing next season.
“I started to feel like I had a part,” Ward said of the newfound respect.
After a successful offseason, the college running back started to look forward to next season as a Bear. Before that, Ward wanted to speak with the head coach to receive more insight.
“He said that he thought I was a good football player and I had a lot of heart.” Ward said of the encounter. “He said that I couldn’t be a starter at that level. He said I don’t fit into their system and it’d take a lot for me to ever contribute. Even to get a number for next year was probably not going to happen.”
It seemed like déjà vu. The same concerns that Ward thought he dispelled still surfaced. But, once again, the warrior spirit burned even hotter within Ward. He took the criticism as fuel for his fire. He yearned to prove the doubters wrong.
Through the remnants of more disappointment, a new safe haven emerged. Ward has found his true home in a team that always wanted him from the start –a team that never wavered throughout Murphy’s journey. That new home is Evangel University.
“I appreciate the confidence Evangel has in me.” Ward remarked of his new home. “They’ve invested in me even though I’ve been here and there. They could’ve revoked their statement. But, they stood strong with how they felt, which is really miraculous. There’s a great chance we can do something special.”
Shore expressed that he couldn’t feel happier for Ward.
“I’m really happy for him heading to Evangel because I feel like that’s a place that all along was just begging to have him.” Shore said. “Maybe it just took a roundabout way to get there, but obviously I hope that it does work out well for him at Evangel. I hope it’ll be home for him because I’d like to go watch him play again.”
With the stars finally aligning in his favor, Ward has had the chance to reflect upon the challenges he’s faced thus far. Instead of feeling remorse, Ward expressed that he doesn’t regret any decision.
“I’m glad of the decisions and I don’t have any regrets,” Ward said of his journey. “I’m happy I saw all the first places through because I never want to look back and say that I didn’t try. Yes, there are bumps in the road, but you can still keep driving. There are obstacles and hiccups, but you’ve got to keep going.”
Ward kept going through the heartbreak and uncertainty, and has escaped through the other side unscathed and still hungry to prove everyone wrong.
Why? Because that’s what warriors do.