Byron Murphy’s cousins, Justin and Kianna White, have a rare form of dwarfism, called Morquio syndrome, but that hasn’t stopped them from being there and inspiring their hero his whole life.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Byron Murphy tried. On a team bus earlier this week, the Huskies’ redshirt freshman cornerback stood up and begged his teammates — begged for tickets, any extra ticket, to the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.
His teammates playfully booed him back to his seat.
Murphy is home. He came home to Arizona for the holidays last week, and he gets to stay close to home as he prepares to play in his first bowl game. He’ll have his own army of supporters — some 90 strong, he expects — at University of Phoenix Stadium when Washington (10-2) plays Penn State (10-2).
Which is why he keeps bugging teammates about tickets. The Fiesta Bowl allots each player six tickets, and Murphy was grateful to snag a couple extra from teammates who didn’t need their full share. (Tickets on the secondary market are selling on average for $225, according to ticket broker TickPick.)
Among those in the crowd Saturday will be Justin and Kianna White. They have tickets secured, and they have long had a deep connection with their cousin.
To them, Murphy is simply “BJ.” To Murphy, they are an inspiration.
“They’ve been there since I was born,” Murphy said. “I’ve always been at their house or they’re over at my house. It’s been the best thing, them being there and supporting me forever.”
Justin and Kianna have a rare form of dwarfism, called Morquio syndrome. They require wheelchairs for mobility, and they get regular treatments at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Kianna had a recent surgery, but Murphy is thrilled she’ll be able to make it to the game Saturday.
Justin, in turn, has been thrilled to have had Murphy home for the past week.
“We’ve been close since, man, since he came out the womb,” Justin, 24, said with a laugh.
They can usually be found competing in one video game or another. Justin conceded that Murphy usually gets the better of him in Madden, but Justin claims the crown in NBA 2K.
“They are his biggest fans,” said Byron’s mom, Shannon Strickland. “They’re close. Very close, and BJ appreciates them so much.”
Murphy starred in both football and basketball at Saguaro High School, located just two miles from where the Huskies have been practicing this week at Scottsdale Community College. (Murphy is close with former NBA All-Star point guard Mike Bibby, his father’s cousin. Bibby lives in Phoenix and Murphy stayed with him for a few days over the past week.) At Saguaro, Murphy helped the football team win a state title as a senior, and as Arizona’s top-ranked recruit of the 2016 class many expected he would stay close to home and play at Arizona State.
Justin admitted to being “shocked” when Murphy told him he would attend Washington.
“But at the end of day, I was happy for him,” Justin said. “It’s just something he needed to do for himself, to grow as a person.”
Murphy, a 5-foot-11 cornerback, was good enough to play as a true freshman for the Huskies last year, but he was blocked on the depth chart in the Huskies’ star-studded secondary. With Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King off to the NFL last spring, Murphy’s opportunity finally came this year. He was even given uniform No. 1, typically reserved for one of a team’s better players.
He was a hit in his first collegiate game, intercepting two passes in the Huskies’ season-opening victory at Rutgers.
“That,” Murphy said, “was the best feeling. That first drive, man, my heart was pounding. I couldn’t even breathe.”
A few weeks later, Murphy’s season was derailed when he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his foot during practice. He needed surgery, during which a 3-inch-long screw was inserted in his foot. The screw is still there, and probably always will be, he said.
Support from his mom and cousins helped him get through a difficult first few days after the injury.
“He was really devastated,” Justin said. “I told him to him to keep his head up and he’ll get back out there and be better than ever.”
Murphy missed the Huskies’ next seven games, and then finally made his Pac-12 debut against Utah on Nov. 18. It was a humbling game. Murphy was beat twice on touchdown passes in the Huskies’ dramatic come-from-behind victory.
“Those hurt,” he said. “No DB wants that to happen. But I had to stay positive. I can’t let one catch, or two catches, get in my head.”
He rebounded a week later in the Huskies’ Apple Cup rout of Washington State, breaking up three passes and forcing a fumble, regaining some much-needed confidence in himself — and his foot — entering the Fiesta Bowl.
He’s hoping to put on another show Saturday afternoon in front of his closest supporters.
“They’ve kept me going, striving for more,” Murphy said. “I know that Justin would want to do these things too, so I do it for them. That’s what I keep in my head: ‘Just do it for them.’ Justin’s always been there, and I feel like he’s out there on the field with me.”