Overcoming Injury: The Six Seasons of Drew Murphy

Story by Margaret High, Video by Colleen Brown, Graphics by Jeni Rust, UNC Media Hub

Published in partnership with UNC Media Hub

The clock read 102 minutes, the second overtime for UNC’s Sweet 16 game soccer game against Providence. Fans stood in the stands, reacting to every pass.  

UNC’s Drew Murphy paced lightly in the top left of Fetzer Field, knowing there had to be a game-winning, walk-off score; a golden goal.

Mauricio Pineda found Murphy, a transfer junior from Palos Verdes, Calif., at the outside wing. Murphy turned to face the Providence defender when he faked left, then cut right. There was a flash of Carolina blue socks as he struck the ball with his right foot.

Providence’s goalie got a hand on the ball, but Murphy’s bullet had too much on it and it deflected into the goal.

Murphy ran toward the stands, sliding on the grass as his teammates caught up and buried him in a dog pile. He forgot about the pain in his right calf. His 20-yard goal took the Tar Heels to their seventh Final Four appearance in program history.

Little did he know that that day, December 2, 2016, was the best he would feel for nearly two years.  

Murphy’s time at Carolina can be tracked by two calendars: One beginning when he transferred to an unfamiliar school based on the hopes of a national championship, and the other tracking the injury that cost him the future he always envisioned.  

Murphy didn’t realize then that his golden goal marked the demise of his future professional career. But now, as a sixth-year senior, it’s a cost Murphy is willing to pay a hundred times over if it means winning for the Tar Heels.  

Calendar One. Day One

In January 2016, almost a year before the golden goal, Murphy got off the plane from California in Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He just finished the fall soccer season at University of California at Santa Barbara and decided to transfer.  

He wore board shorts and a sweatshirt with a boot on his injured left foot and a flip-flop on his right.  

He was arriving injured, which is unusual for transfer athletes. A standard slide tackle during a game at UC Santa Barbara had a not-so-standard outcome: Murphy tore every ligament in his ankle, requiring a four-hour reconstructive surgery.  

Hours spent in recovery allowed Murphy to realize he had lost sight of his ultimate goal: professional soccer.  

Since starting year-round soccer at 9 years old, every decision put soccer first. That meant missing birthday parties, homecoming dances and vacations. It meant driving two hours each way to practice in a beige Mini Cooper, eating cooler-packed dinners and singing to The Eagles with his dad; from dying his hair blonde like David Beckham to eating and training with the soccer superstar while Murphy played for the LA Galaxy youth academy.  

“That’s all he wanted to do – play soccer,” Michelle Murphy, Drew’s mother, says. “He would do anything to keeping going, to reach the top.”

By the age of 18, Murphy was dedicating 10 hours a day to training with the LA Galaxy youth academy. They noticed his natural understanding of the game and offered a three-year professional contract. Instead, Murphy wanted a college degree. He enrolled at UC Santa Barbara.

The school’s main sport is men’s soccer. Crowds regularly reach 10,000. Murphy was a campus celebrity, his bleached-blonde hair an iconic sight on posters and official promotions.  

“But none of that matters if you’re not competing for a national championship every year,” Murphy says. “You get kind of caught up in the spotlight, but in reality, what’s cool about not winning?”  

UNC’s men’s soccer competes for a national championship every year, making his transfer to the foreign state an obvious choice.  

Day One had a lot riding on it. Murphy just had to lose the boot.  

“It was supposed to be a very minor injury,” Carlos Somoano, UNC’s head soccer coach, says. “They said he should be back by the time he arrived at Carolina.”  

Day 36  

The boot stayed on his foot nearly two months past its due date. Murphy was anxious to play again. He’d been sitting on the sidelines, integrating himself on the team during water breaks for too long.  

Murphy went to treatment every day in the spring. He worked through rehab, but never felt normal again. He wasn’t sure he ever would.

For the first game in Murphy’s redshirt senior season, he put on his Carolina jersey and covered the #9 with a neon yellow penny, signifying he was a substitute. He knew the ritual well.  

Days went by, rehab continued, Murphy played a few minutes and tried to recover, but something still never felt right.  

He spent the summer in Portland, Oregon, trying to push through his injury and cling onto years of development. He enjoyed a somewhat successful summer with more playing time than he’d seen at UNC.  

Murphy would turn a corner and pick it back up for the fall season in Chapel Hill, or so he assumed.  

Day 292  

UNC versus Clemson.  

“I can visually see it 100 times over and over,” Murphy says. “I know exactly what happened.”

There wasn’t a distinct pop, just pain. Not in his left ankle, either. This time it was his right soleus, a muscle in the lower calf. Murphy limped to the sidelines. His soleus had enough. He had been overcompensating for his left ankle injury.  

Five weeks passed. Murphy was given another shot at playing time. He took the field against Virginia Tech, not fully healed but well enough so he could play.  

This time there was no contact, no spikes-up cleat sliding through Murphy’s body. This time he simply collapsed. He couldn’t even walk. He just lay on the field, hands over his face, almost numb as the sports medicine staff rushed to him.  


Day 305

Murphy ruptured his right plantaris, which is another muscle in his calf.  

“I was gutted,” says teammate Walker Hume. “There were a lot of expectations and I was excited to play with him. We had talked about moments in games that we were excited about during the year.”

Who knows the number of moments stolen from Murphy as he lay on the field in Chapel Hill with a ruptured plantaris, torn soleus and reconstructed ankle.  

But he had no intention of letting those injuries finish him. Murphy could no longer dedicate himself to soccer through playing; now, he dedicated himself through rehab. Any amount of time he could eek out on the field was worth it.

Despite not being fully healed, Murphy pushed his recovery timelines and played with a torn soleus. At the time, that was worth it. Even though severely injured, he was playing minutes in the game he loved.    

Those minutes put him on the pitch against Providence and sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four with his golden goal.  

Those minutes drove Murphy to the surgeon’s table.

***

On Oct. 18, 2017, Drew Murphy was basically starting over, wiping the slate clean.  He could hardly walk. All of 2017 was spent in sports medicine, trying various treatments to avoid surgery. Despite the hours in rehab, the result stayed the same. Surgery became unavoidable.  

This is where Murphy’s calendar resets. This is the injury that changed his soccer career’s trajectory.  

Calendar Two. Day One

 
 Right ankle and lower leg arthroscopic surgery.

Right ankle and lower leg arthroscopic surgery.

Various treatments, like platelet rich plasma injections, made little progress. Murphy and the athletic training staff consulted an orthopedic surgeon and decided this was his best choice.  

Six small scars still show on Murphy’s front ankle, Achilles and top calf in pairs. The idea was to cut his calf and release the pressure from his soleus tear.

The surgery didn’t work.

Alan Aguilar, Murphy’s head athletic trainer, was just happy if Murphy would be able to walk again. One surgery and three months of rehab in, it wasn’t looking like Murphy could do that alone.  

Murphy began thinking he would never reach his lifelong goal: a professional soccer career.  

“I never thought I’d be depressed because I’ve always been a happy person,” Murphy says. “I didn’t want people knowing how I felt or thinking I was weak. I was just trying to tough it out.”  

Day 95

Right ankle and lower leg surgery. This was the last chance, the final Hail Mary to heal Murphy.

“It’s crazy because this was a really hard case for the second doctor,” Aguilar says. “And that doctor is like the top doctor of ankles. For him to say, I’m not really sure what to do to next, that was kind of the final thing.”  

The scar tissue removed during open surgery equaled the density of Murphy’s muscle. Another incision was made to split the muscle longitudinally to get a better look and promote healing.  

“He didn’t know if it was going to work,” Murphy says. “They could try it, and if it worked, then great. But I thought, what can I do to help this team win a national championship? Because I want to be remembered as someone who got the job done.”  

Day 112  

Little progress was made. The expected timeline for Murphy’s recovery was long ago exceeded. Running in the near future was out of the question, let alone play soccer.  

“It was excruciatingly hard because one, we couldn’t get the results, but two, he’s such a good person with such a big heart,” Aguilar says. “He cares a whole lot about the team and he cares a whole lot about himself in his own career.”

The effortless smile always on Murphy’s face was replaced with grimaces. He continued to show up to treatment every day, laugh with the athletic training staff and give honest feedback about his recovery.  

He entered a new kind of ritual, vastly different than his youth academy days. Murphy would show up to practice, hobble to the sidelines, and try to encourage the team in any way he could in between water breaks.  

“It’s honestly the worst part about playing sports,” says teammate Tucker Hume. “Sitting there and just watching and not being able to help. When you come to Carolina, a big part is the sports. When you can’t do that, you feel a little bit empty.”

It was maddening. The sport Murphy gave his entire life to, the sport Murphy loved, he couldn’t play. He turned down the only shot at professional soccer he would ever get, for this. To hear his teammates, who were perfectly capable of reaching his goal, complain.  

“I was in a dark place,” Murphy says. “That’s the point in time when I was like, yeah, it’s over. I was trying to deal with the fact that it’s over… Yeah. I hated soccer.”  

All at once, none of it was worth it. The nine-hour days at the Home Depot training Center in L.A. The hours juggling in his back yard after school. The extra sprints when he didn’t think he could run any more. The friends he turned down because he had soccer.  

On day 250, he didn’t have soccer.  

Two years without soccer, two years without running, two unsuccessful surgeries.  

“He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel,” Michelle says. “He’s given everything he can to soccer. He loves it.”

Murphy was finally given the chance to realize there’s more to life than soccer.  

It was almost liberating. College soccer wasn’t about getting a degree to carry him over in the professional level anymore; it was about sacrificing everything for a national championship.  

Day 300

He talked with his coaches, the training staff and his parents. He was going to apply for a sixth year.  

Jogging progressions started to improve. He was responding to treatment. He finally turned a corner.  

The 23-year-old sixth year senior from California found a new role on the team. Forget professional soccer, just play the game. Win the national championship.  

Day 1,000

Drew Murphy was cleared to play again.  

Take away the reset. This was the first time he could really play soccer after 1,000 days.  

He put on his Carolina jersey and covered the #9 with a neon yellow penny. He knew the ritual well.  

“Murphy,” Somoano said.  

He was being called to warm up.  

“I had to put him in at that point because I wanted him to remember what it was like to be out on the field,” Somoano says. “I wanted him to have that feeling again.”

“Dude, get that smile off your face,” Murphy recalls someone saying. It’s the best way to describe the feeling. He was beaming.  

Text messages instantly flooded Murphy’s phone from former teammates, athletic trainers, family, friends, Chapel Hill locals. They all knew what this moment meant.  

For those six minutes on the field again, the sixth year was worth it.  

The calendar Murphy has kept since he tore his soleus still hangs in his bathroom. Some days are circled, marking days without pain. Other days show setbacks.

“It was the hardest injury to treat,” Aguilar says. “And if you asked me six months ago, I would have told you it was the only injury that I didn’t get better in 10 years.”

Now, halfway through the season, Murphy has continually increased playing time. He gets to end his soccer career on his own terms.  

“The national championship is at my old school this year,” Murphy says. “So it’d be a fairytale story.”  

The national championship game will be held on December 9 at UC Santa Barbara. Murphy’s birthday is December 8.

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