Andy Murphy, who relies on help from his kids and wife Brooke Murphy in their Batesville home, was a student manager for Indiana coach Bob Knight.
Robert Scheer, Indianapolis Star
BATESVILLE – His speech was slow and sloppy, almost like he was drunk. Messy, garbled, sometimes hard to understand.
His words were delayed, too. Andy Murphy could feel it. He would try to say something and the words wouldn’t come out. When they did, it felt like an eternity before they passed through his lips.
It was summer 2019. Murphy talked to his wife, Brooke, about this strange, frustrating phenomenon taking over his body. Each day that passed, tiny bit by tiny bit, his speech worsened. By the time a family birthday party at a bowling alley came in August, the rest of his family was alarmed.
“He was really slurring his speech,” said his older brother, P.J. Murphy. “We were thinking maybe a stroke or something.”
P.J. Murphy told his brother: “You need to get that checked out sooner rather than later.”
Four months of doctors appointments, tests, being pushed off by doctors, Murphy finally found a neurologist, Robert M. Pascuzzi in Indianapolis, who was willing to take his symptoms seriously.
Brooke remembers being so excited. It was the day after Christmas. They were on their way to Murphy’s appointment and they were finally, thankfully, going to get an answer. They celebrated by stopping to have lunch out.
Then they walked into Dr. Pascuzzi’s office.
“It’s something you don’t forget,” Brooke said through tears from the couple’s Batesville home.
“I know what it is,” the doctor told them. “He has motor neuron disease.”
“And my first thought was, ‘OK. Now that we know, let’s fix it,'” said Brooke. “‘What do we do?'”
“The problem is,” Dr. Pascuzzi said somberly, “ALS doesn’t have a cure.”
Losing his voice
ALS. They had heard of it. They knew it was bad.
“Obviously we were in shock,” said Brooke. Fortunately, Murphy had already planned for time off during the holidays. “We had that time to grieve.”
They saw some friends, went through the motions. “But for a couple weeks, it was like waves of grief would randomly kind of hit us,” she said.
They joined some groups on Facebook which in some ways were helpful and in others devastating.
“It was alarming to see people that were farther into this progression,” Brooke said. “Kind of seeing what we were up against.”
Murphy is up against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the New York Yankee first baseman who gave his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium in July 1939 after being diagnosed.
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break,” he told fans. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig died in 1941, two years after that speech.
ALS is always terminal, but there is no way to know how quickly the disease will turn fatal for Murphy. ALS causes nerve cells in the body to break down, which reduces function in the muscles they supply. For some, the progression happens quickly. For others, it can be decades.
The best guess doctors tell patients when given the diagnosis is they likely have two to five years to live. In the year and a half since his diagnosis, Murphy’s ability to talk has vanished.
A robotic voice now tells the world what he has to say. Murphy uses an eye-gaze device that lets him focus with his eyes on words, letters and phrases on a screen to form sentences. They are said out loud by the computer, in a man’s voice.
Murphy still tries to talk. But to anyone but Brooke, the sounds are mumbles. His wife can understand what he wants to say most of the time by looking straight at his mouth, watching how he tries to move his lips.
He has no use of his right arm or hand. His left side is becoming weaker and he struggles to grip things. His walk is slow and unsteady so he uses a wheeled walker. He also has a power wheelchair and recently got an accessible van.
Murphy has lost 50 pounds. Doctors don’t like that. Once an ALS patient loses weight, it usually is not regained. He has a feeding tube and gets cartons of formulas throughout the day. Whatever he wants and can eat, he does.
He can no longer drink liquids because he chokes. He is showered by Brooke and wears a ventilator at night to allow his body to get restful sleep as the device breathes for him. A towel is kept by his chair. Brooke uses it to wipe away the excess saliva, a symptom of the disease.
There is also a device nearby that, when Murphy chokes, performs the act of coughing for him. His muscles are no longer strong enough to cough on his own.
All that comes with ALS is a cruel reality for Murphy, who has a daughter, 7-year-old Kerrigan and son, 4-year-old Drew.
The worst part of the disease, though, Murphy said through Brooke: “Not being able to communicate.”
His biggest fear: “Brooke and the kids not being taken care of.”
But so many people have stepped up to help in so many ways. Family, friends, strangers.
Among Murphy’s biggest advocates, though, are the guys from one of the greatest times in his life. When Murphy was the basketball manager at Indiana University.
‘The guy everybody wanted to know’
Murph. That’s what people from his IU basketball days call Murphy. He was the student manager the final four seasons of Bob Knight’s career before the coach was fired in September of 2000.
How Murphy got to IU was through his best friend from high school, Jason Collier. The two went to Springfield, Ohio’s Catholic Central High.
Murphy played basketball but had multiple injuries during his high school career that left him on the bench. But he was there, supporting the team when in 1996 it won a state championship.
When Collier committed to IU, Murphy knew exactly where he would go.
“Murph kind of came with Jason as a package deal,” said Michael Lewis, former IU player and roommate of Murphy’s.
Knight didn’t require players to live in dorms their freshman year. So Murphy, Collier, Lewis and his best friend in high school nabbed a two-bedroom, two-bathroom place in Jackson Heights Apartments.
“We felt like we were living like kings,” said Lewis.
He got to know Murphy well during that time. He was quiet with a great sense of humor and quick wit. Very unassuming. Which was perfect for the job of basketball manager.
Those are the guys without the egos, said Lewis. There before practice, setting things up. There after, wiping up floors and doing laundry. Passing and drills with the team. Packing for road trips. Doing everything and anything that goes on behind the scenes of a college basketball program.
Murphy did it all with a smile.
“He was never the guy that walked in the room and turned heads,” said P.J. Murphy. “But he was the guy everybody wanted to know.”
And once they knew him they loved him, including Knight.
Collier, who died in 2005 at the age of 28 from heart abnormalities, announced he would transfer to Georgia Tech during his sophomore season at IU.
Knight knew about that package deal. And he didn’t want Murphy to follow Collier.
“The day Jason left, I was in the locker room after practice and coach called me out onto the floor,” Murphy said. “And he and I walked around while he told me how important it was for me to stay at Indiana.”
Famous 3-technical fouls game
Murphy stayed. And he relished his time as manager. His sense of humor has stayed, too. That’s what makes the disease even more brutal, said Brooke. Your mind is as strong as ever; your body isn’t.
Murphy is laughing as he listens to the robot tell one of his favorite memories from IU. It was his sophomore year and he was doing the book at home games.
“(Referee) Ted Valentine had made fun of the long-sleeved almost plastic jacket I had to wear,” he said. “His wife made him bring me one of his shirts. The day he gave me the shirt was the day he gave coach three technical fouls.”
Murphy has more Knight tales than she can count, said Brooke. He graduated in the spring of 2000, months before Knight’s firing.
When it was time for Knight to clean out his office at IU, it was Murphy he called to help.
At one point, Murphy was standing in Knight’s office with an Olympic gold medal in one hand and three national championship rings in the other.
“It was awesome,” Murphy said of his time with Knight. “Coach was demanding and hard on you but if you were loyal to him and worked, he will be your biggest advocate.”
That became clear when Knight was there for Murphy during a dark time in his life.
Traumatic brain injury dashes dream
Out of IU, Murphy had a job offer with the Orlando Magic as a video coordinator. It was a basketball lover’s dream job.
Before he started work there, he went to Cincinnati for a guys’ trip with his brother and a couple friends. One night, walking back to the hotel, four men with baseball bats came out of an alley and beat and mugged Murphy.
They took one of his shoes and his IU commemorative watch he’d gotten as part of Knight’s team.
“He woke up in the hospital,” Brooke said, “and a police officer said ‘We found you in a pool of your own blood.'”
Murphy had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Brooke said there is no way to know if that injury triggered ALS in Murphy.
But because of it, doctors told Murphy he should not take the Orlando job. It was too high stress, too many hours and he needed time to recover.
During that time, Knight replaced Murphy’s watch. And when it came to getting a good job, Knight was there for him, too
Murphy had been offered a job at small Denison University in Ohio. Not necessarily a dream job, but something. He was driving to the college to accept the offer when he found out Ohio State was looking at him for a position.
“Murph,” he heard his name called when talking to Ohio State. Murphy knew then. Only IU people called him that. Knight must have pulled some strings for him, talked to some people.
Murphy spent three years with Jim O’Brien, then his career took a business turn. Murphy left his job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Friday where he worked in human resources. Brooke will not be working either, as she stays home to take care of her husband.
Murphy has seemed positive when he talks to him, said Lewis.
“I don’t know. I’m sure he has dark moments he deals with personally,” he said. “He’s got a wife and two kids and is in the fight of his life.”
‘A chance to fight’
There is a hospital bed in the lower floor of the house. That way if Murphy isn’t strong enough to get upstairs, he can sleep there.
He isn’t strong enough any more to pick up his computer or get out of a chair on his own. One day when Brooke was taking Kerrigan to Girl Scouts, Murphy fell over his walker, got his arm stuck and couldn’t move it.
Drew got on his tablet and called Brooke. She didn’t answer because Drew likes to play around. Then he called again and left a video.
“Mommy, you need to come home fast as you can. Daddy needs you. Daddy needs you.”
The family has had to adjust to so much. Kerrigan is a huge help getting things her dad can’t, helping him around the house. She said she “liked when he had his voice.”
But they’ve been resilient, Brooke said, maybe more so than the adults.
“He’s gone from being hands on to having to be more of a bystander and watch because he physically can’t do it,” she said. “That’s been difficult.”
Murphy coached Kerrigan’s T-ball league for two years. He can’t do that now. He loved to play basketball. Murphy has tried to qualify for ALS trials, but during the screening process he was disqualified for different reasons.
He is tired often because it’s hard to get restful sleep. As the neurons die in different parts of his body and stop working, it causes pain. There are also muscle twitches and spasms. And as the muscles relax and die, they feel heavy and ache. Murphy uses ice, heat and does stretching exercises with Brooke suggested by a physical therapist.
They decided to share their story to raise awareness and fight for treatment, research and access to trial drugs. They also wanted to let people know what living with ALS is really like.
Before Murphy’s diagnosis, they knew nothing about ALS. They didn’t know the havoc it wreaked on a body. The emotional toll. The wondering. The dark thoughts.
They want to help the people who may be diagnosed long after Murphy is gone.
“Even if it’s not for him, we want people that have this to eventually have some kind of treatment and to have the opportunity to live a normal life for longer,” Brooke said. “You know, would we like a cure? Absolutely. But at this point, we’re just asking for a chance to fight.”
How to help Andy Murphy
A house is being built on land in Oldenburg on a farm owned by Brooke’s grandparents. There will be ramps, no stairs, wider doorways and hallways, the entire house designed so anything Murphy needs will be accessible from his wheelchair.
Medical expenses are mounting. With Brooke home as Murphy’s caretaker neither will have a job. P.J. Murphy set up a GoFundMe for Murphy’s medical expenses and care.
Join the Act for ALS to give those battling the disease access to critical therapies. The site allows people to send a standard letter to their congressperson to support legislation geared toward funding expanded access to experimental treatment.
“Every 90 minutes someone is diagnosed and someone passes away from ALS,” said Murphy. At any given time, there are about 30,000 people living with ALS in the United States.
“The more people know,” Murphy said, “the better chance to take this from terminal to treatable.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.