The Recruitment of Kyler Murray: Origin of a 2-Sport Legend and His Big Decision

Mike PiellucciCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2019

B/R

The decision that has captivated the sports world was, for all intents and purposes, a rerun.

Three times in his life, Kyler Murray has been forced to choose: Football or baseball? And three times, he's made the same choice.   

The third, and most dramatic, time was January's declaration that he would enter his name in the NFL draft, a move that requires him to pay back a $4.7 million signing bonus he earned after the Oakland A's selected him ninth overall in the 2018 MLB draft.

The second, and most unusual, occurred last summer. Rather than begin his professional baseball career, Murray asked for and was granted permission by the A's to play his redshirt junior season of football at Oklahoma, a move unheard of for a prospect of his caliber—a prospect with so much financially on the line.

The first, however, was the most influential. Four years ago—before he'd become the most famous dual-sport athlete in the country or a multimillionaire or a Heisman Trophy winner—Murray was a high school senior with a dizzying array of options available to him. His recruitment, and his ultimate decision, set the tone for everything that has come since, for an otherworldly talent who has managed to surpass every lofty expectation—and do so with a little flair for the dramatic, too.


Kyler Murray was never another face in the crowd. His talent never allowed for that, nor did his pedigree.

Calvin Murray, Kyler's uncle, played outfield for five years in the major leagues. Kevin Murray, Kyler's father, ended his collegiate career as the Southwest Conference's all-time leader in touchdown passes and arguably the greatest quarterback in Texas A&M history.

Kevin was also a respected quarterback coach in the Dallas area, so before Kyler had even hit puberty, seemingly everyone who was plugged into the local youth football scene was watching.

"He had reached some kind of cult status in the Dallas peewee football circuit," says Billy Liucci, who covers Texas A&M football and recruiting for TexAgs.com.

But it wasn't until 2012, his sophomore season in high school, that Murray began to assert himself as a full-fledged phenomenon. The catalyst was a transfer from Lewisville High School to Texas' second-largest public high school, Allen, which boasted perhaps the state's most recognizable high school football team. The notoriety that came with playing there was exacerbated by the debut of Eagle Stadium, Allen's now-infamous football palace, which cost nearly $60 million to build and seats 18,000 people—the largest of its kind for a single high school team in the state.

Murray's talent was evident the moment he stepped foot on campus. But he arrived just a few weeks prior to Allen's first game—not enough time to win the starting job. A month passed. Then, in Allen's fifth game, he was inserted at halftime of a key non-conference road game. Two weeks later, he was named the starter. Fanfare quickly followed.

"As soon as Kyler grabbed that starting job, the buzz was kind of up around him and on Allen," says Greg Powers, who covers high school recruiting for Dave Campbell's Texas Football. "It was Kevin Murray's son, and Kyler's a ball of electricity—you have to get over there and watch him."

Murray poses with former Texas governor Rick Perry after winning MVP in the state title game.
Murray poses with former Texas governor Rick Perry after winning MVP in the state title game.Matt Strasen/Associated Press

What happened next defies precedent. Beginning with his first start against rival Plano East, Murray would not lose a single football game over the next two-and-a-half years, ultimately graduating with a perfect 42-0 record as a starter. In the process, Allen became the fourth high school in Texas history to capture three consecutive state championships, and the first to do so in the state's highest classification. Individually, Murray accounted for almost 15,000 yards of total offense and 186 touchdowns.

Then there were the comebacks, like the stunner in the state semifinals his junior season. The opponent was DeSoto, a rematch of the previous year's semifinal, in which Murray and Allen had upset the top seed. This time, however, revenge appeared to be in hand as DeSoto took a 35-20 lead with fewer than nine minutes remaining. Allen hadn't trailed after halftime all season, much less so late in a game. Fans began to trickle out of the stadium, resigned to the inevitable.

That's when DeSoto head coach Claude Mathis heard Murray bellowing at his teammates on the opposing sideline.

"Let them leave," Kyler shouted. "This game is not over!"

Immediately, Mathis radioed his defensive coordinator, determined to prevent a big play at all costs. It was futile. Murray uncorked a 68-yard touchdown pass on the very next play from scrimmage, then led two more scoring drives to gut out a 42-35 victory. The next year, Allen defeated DeSoto yet again en route to Murray's last state title.

"The best high school player I've coached against," says Mathis, who also coached against the likes of the Browns' Myles Garrett and the 49ers' Solomon Thomas. "He cost me three state championships."

It was the sort of high school career that vaulted Murray alongside the likes of Earl Campbell, Adrian Peterson and Cedric Benson in the conversation for the greatest of all time in Texas state history.

It wasn't just fans and pundits who took notice, either. Scholarship offers rained down, despite Murray's listed height, hovering between 5'9" and 5'10". Colleges may have fretted about his durability, but the body of work was simply undeniable.

LM Otero/Associated Press

Liucci remembers watching one of Murray's games with Johnny Manziel shortly before the 2012 Heisman winner played his final college game. Manziel was unequivocal in his evaluation.

"Oh, he's going to be way better than me," Liucci remembers him saying.

And all the time, Murray was equally tantalizing in baseball, a sport in which he was never dogged with height questions. There were no questions at all, really: His profile screamed superstar. He used his turbo-charged legs to wreak havoc on the basepaths, and his quick-trigger wrists to flick extra-base hits. Those talents converged in his junior season, when he set single-season school records for steals and home runs, the latter of which still stands.

It created a bevy of opportunities for Murray and several permutations for how to pursue them. He could go to college to exclusively focus on football or baseball. He could turn professional right away in baseball and start making a living at sports. Or he could do what those who knew him best always believed was most likely: pursue a path of playing both football and baseball collegiately.

He took the first step toward that decision in the spring of his junior year, 2014, the sweet spot for quarterbacks around the country to commit to their school of choice.

And he had choices. 247 had him as a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015, listing Ohio State, Notre Dame, Clemson and Oklahoma among the schools to make him offers. Per multiple sources, he was intrigued by the opportunity to replace Marcus Mariota at Oregon after the Hawaii native became the first Heisman winner in school history while playing quarterback in Mark Helfrich's frenetic offense. According to Liucci, Gus Malzahn's system at Auburn piqued Murray's interest for similar reasons.

But his final destination always seemed preordained.

George Bridges/Associated Press

How could Kevin Murray's son be anything other than a Texas A&M Aggie? Head coach Kevin Sumlin's air raid scheme was an ideal fit for Murray's skill set, and the school was only a few hours from home—a huge advantage given Murray's close relationship with his mother, Missy.

Murray wasn't the only quarterback who saw the Aggies' appeal. Redshirt freshman Kenny Hill flashed promise replacing Manziel the previous season, and A&M had added 5-star quarterback Kyle Allen—the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2014—in February. But Murray was hardly fazed by a crowded depth chart.

"He thinks he's better than everybody," says Tom Westerberg, Murray's head football coach at Allen, chuckling. And, according to Liucci, in the court of public opinion, Murray would win the job practically as soon as he signed a letter of intent. "It was all about Kyler, I think, in the eyes of the fanbase, with very little exception," he says.

As expected, Murray committed to A&M on May 28. And for months, that figured to be it. He took an official visit to Oklahoma in October but otherwise laid low. The headlines were about his senior season at Allen, which culminated in winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award. As the calendar turned to 2015, his lone offseason storyline revolved around becoming the first player ever named to the Under Armour All-American game in both football and baseball.

Then, two weeks before signing day, Kyler decided to visit Texas.

It was meant to be clandestine, a brief midweek trip with his dad and 4-star wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge—a former A&M commit—to hear what the Longhorns had to say. It mostly was, too, up until the moment Murray and Lodge, shortly after leaving campus, fired off back-to-back tweets of white Texas jerseys bearing their respective numbers.

Predictably enough, the internet erupted.

"Maybe he could be the savior of the program, and I think that's why it was such a huge deal," Powers says. "The most important position, the most glamorous player in the state, taking an eleventh hour visit to the school that needs him the most and the fans want him the most."

Despite the fervor, neither his coaches nor Liucci or Powers believed Murray would change his commitment. They were right: Murray signed with A&M. Last year, a piece in The Athletic intimated that Murray knew Texas wasn't the right fit as soon as he left Austin. The tweets were a troll job.

"We knew it would blow up," Murray said.

But Murray still had the real decision to make. By then, professional baseball scouts had been trickling into Allen for well over a year to gauge Murray's eagerness to sign out of high school. None of them had delusions about how much football meant to him, though. Four years before it dominated the news cycle, baseball scouts and execs were well aware of football's place in Murray's heart.

According to Paul Coe, Allen's head baseball coach, one even went so far as to ask Murray directly how much thought, really, he was giving to skipping college—and, in so doing, giving up football.

"I wouldn't be sitting here if I wasn't serious," Murray assured him.

Ultimately, though, fate helped force Murray's hand. Coe planned to move Murray from second base to shortstop ahead of his senior season, but that idea was scuppered when Murray tweaked his shoulder during offseason workouts. He was healthy enough to still hit—"I had the most athletic DH in the United States," Coe quips—but his batting line dipped and, without any recent infield work to bolster his film, so did his projected draft stock. Murray opted against entering the draft, cementing his decision to play both football and baseball for the Aggies.

But Coe and Westerberg agree there was another motivating factor. The same one that explains why Murray wagered his health and, instead of reporting directly to the A's after last year's draft, played his junior football season at Oklahoma, where he had transferred three years earlier when Sumlin's program devolved into chaos. The same one that led Murray to forfeit his guaranteed baseball payday for the risk of making less upfront money in this year's NFL draft.

It isn't just that he loves football; it's why he loves it: because people doubt him.


Murray didn't commit to football because it's the safe choice. Rather, he chose it all three times because it's the more difficult one.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

"I think he still has things he wants to prove on the football field," Coe says. "That feeds a lot of what he does. He likes to prove people wrong. And he truly believes he can probably be the best at any sport he wants to play."

"There's a lot of people that said he can't play because he's too short or he's this or that," Westerberg adds. "He's definitely going to let some people know that he can."

A recruitment is only a brief moment in time in an athlete's career. But in Kyler Murray's case, it's a window into what led him to the precipice of NFL stardom. The pathway was unconventional then, as it is now. The results have been just as extraordinary. 

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