This is in no way meant to belittle athletes. My point this week, which ends with Mother's Day, is that Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears and Marshall Faulk of the Indianapolis Colts and Greg Lloyd of the Pittsburgh Steelers and plenty of others I have profiled for this magazine are, despite their athletic brilliance, not the most exceptional people in their families.
That honorific belongs, from what those guys told me, to the women who raised them—women of astounding stamina and resolve who took public transportation to two or three jobs a week, smothered their children with affection, whipped the kids' butts when necessary and insulated their boys from the meanness of the neighborhoods in which they were raised.
"If Mark or Marshall or Greg had ever asked, I would have told them, as I am about to tell you, about another remarkable woman. Herewith, an appreciation of one of the country's most accomplished, selfless and fecund sports mothers: mine. She deserves the publicity for having devoted what might otherwise have been an enriching life to getting me and my seven siblings to practices, games, awards banquets and emergency rooms. She deserves it because, while playing Good Samaritan after a football game in 1988, she damn near got herself killed. She deserves it because, on so many other Mother's Days, she received from us the usual beyond-lame array of greeting cards and panicked post-9:30 p.m. phone calls. Bet you thought I forgot!
She deserves it because, unlike the moms of the above-mentioned millionaires, she is not about to receive from me a house or a Beemer. Pat, this is as good as it gets.
Is this as good as it gets? Patricia Reeves Murphy, 61, has had many an occasion to ask herself that question since meeting her future husband, my father—although we share the same name, he goes by Rex, Latin for "king"—at a tennis tournament in Mountain Lake Park, Md., in 1955. She was playing in it; he was freeloading at it. A problem arose when Rex was asked to be a linesman. Unsure of whether a ball that landed on the line was in or out, my old man alternated. His wretched calls infuriated my mother, who confronted him over the punch bowl at that evening's garden party. He asked her out.
She captained the tennis team and played field hockey at Rosemont (Pa.) College 10 miles west of Philadelphia; he was a former college football player attending Penn's Wharton School of Business on the GI Bill. The athletic young couple married in 1958 and produced seven children in eight years. (An eighth kid followed four years later.)
We moved 10 times; stop number 3 was Denver. While skiing in 1966, Pat broke her left ankle. The injury required a cast up to her knee, which made it difficult, but not impossible, to shift our bile-green, three-on-the-tree Ford van. Pat worked the brake and accelerator with her right foot and depressed the clutch pedal with a drum majorette's baton. It was resourceful, it was illegal, it was Pat at her quintessential can-do best.
My siblings and I played 15 sports for 159 different teams. (How do I know? Upon request, Pat sat down one recent evening and counted them.) There hung, in the kitchen of whatever home we lived in, a two-by-three-foot calendar. Each day was a box, each box a logistical morass of teams, times, places and players. A typical mid-1970s summer day, as described by Pat:
"Leslie and Lorin's swim meet is across town from Austin's Babe Ruth baseball game, which is 45 minutes after and two miles removed from Chris's Little League game, which starts concurrently with Gibby's softball game, four fields from where Matt and Mark compete in T-ball. Amy is in a playpen, ready to attend any of the above. Mom just wants a nap."
The '80s were easier. "The first child to make a varsity team signals a major domestic turnabout," says Pat. "The dirty uniform no longer comes home, and the athlete who does is already clean." Less laundry, however, means more travel. No problem. "In the later years," says Pat, "a sports mother can easily make a Bishop Egan High football game on a Friday night (after coaching a grade school field hockey game at 4 p.m.), then tear off to a Colgate University jayvee football game on Saturday in central New York, 230 miles away, and be back in Pennsylvania for a St. John the Evangelist Elementary School soccer game on Sunday afternoon."