How three special-needs kids changed Kenneth Murray's life forever, and how the star linebacker from Oklahoma plans to keep a 10-year-old promise to them
By Chase Goodbread | Published April 8, 2020
About six months had passed since life in the Murray home had forever changed.
Kenneth, then 10, was looking after Lenny, who needed the most attention among three adopted children whose special needs had turned the family's day-to-day life upside down. Kenneth left Lenny with his uncle and sauntered upstairs to his father's home office.
"Dad," he told Kenneth Sr. "If something ever happens to you and mom, I will take care of them. I will make sure they get whatever they need."
That was the moment Kenneth Murray Jr., the inside linebacker from Oklahoma and one of the most promising prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft, decided 'adopted' was just a word, just a label that had no real meaning in his home. Nyia, Lenny and James weren't an imposition, they weren't a charity case, and their stay wasn't temporary.
They were Murrays now, no less a Murray than Kenneth himself.
That there was no blood relation was irrelevant, as was the fact Kenneth had been a Murray for 10 years before his new sister and two new brothers ever even saw the inside of his house. They didn't look like him or act like him, and two of the three couldn't even communicate with him. But from that day forward, they were his.
"Right then, you knew he looked at them like his real sister and brothers," said Lind Murray, Kenneth's uncle, who lived with the family at the time. "And it gave him (more of) a hunger to be a football player."
Kenneth Sr. came downstairs shortly after his son and told Lind, his brother, what Kenneth Jr. had said. The promise had struck the father in a profound way, and he considered the leadership qualities he'd instilled in his namesake to be validated.
Kenneth's love for football and his love for three adopted siblings with special needs have been intertwined in a way that few if any other prospects in the draft could comprehend. He plans to one day take care of them all, but his parents and his 19-year-old biological sister Kimberly won't have the long-term, ongoing needs -- for therapy, for medical treatment, for attention -- that Nyia, Lenny and James will.
It doesn't matter.
They are all Murrays now.
In 2009, while pastoring at a Baptist church in Missouri City, Kenneth Sr. learned that a couple in his congregation with three special-needs children -- the mother with special needs of her own -- was the subject of a Child Protective Services investigation as to whether they could provide a proper home for their kids. Murray and his wife, Dianne, agreed to take the children in while the investigation was completed. Days later, CPS gave the biological parents 90 days to meet certain conditions and the Murrays agreed to keep the children while trying to help the parents achieve a green light from CPS.
The light, however, stayed red.
The 90-day probationary period passed, and CPS eventually determined the parents lacked the necessary skills to reclaim Nyia, the oldest sister at just 8 years old, Lenny, 3, and James, who was a baby. That finding meant the children would have to be split up and placed in foster homes. But after months of witnessing the bond they shared, the Murrays could not bear to see them separated, so they agreed to legal adoption.
"When James was a baby, I wouldn't hold him because I knew he'd steal my heart," Kenneth Sr. said. "I had to hold him one day, and he laid that head in my lap, and it was over."
The children inherited a chromosomal abnormality known as deletion, in which part of a chromosome is missing crucial genetic material. They were all born without the lower arm of the eighth chromosome. In addition, the younger boys also had a mutation in the X chromosome, making them significantly more challenged than their older sister.
Nyia, now 19, is the most high-functioning of the three. She can speak and take care of both herself and her brothers in a number of ways and has a good chance at some measure of long-term independence. Still, she has issues with short-term memory, reads at an elementary-school level, and can't grasp certain basic concepts.
"She can tell time, but she can't understand why she needs to tell time," Kenneth Sr. said. "If you tell her at 2:30 that the bus will pick her up at 4 o'clock, she'll sit by the window and wait for an hour and a half."
Lenny, 14, and James, 11, are both non-verbal and significantly undersized for their age. Lenny has physical challenges that prevent him from walking. He was in a specialized wheelchair when the Murrays first took him in, but through extensive therapy sessions, he learned to walk. He would often play outside with Kenneth, who saw a new light in his adopted brother once Lenny began taking his first independent steps. Unfortunately, a series of seizures caused a regression and Lenny is now again confined to a specialized wheelchair. He remains the sports fan of the three, all the more heartbreaking because of his physical impairments. He'll watch games on television for hours on end and perks up at the sound of a basketball bouncing outdoors.
"To see him come in the way he came in and fight so hard to get better and start to walk, then unfortunately go back to not walking, it just sucks," Kenneth Jr. said.
James can walk but is too afraid to climb stairs without his hand held. His personality is more spiritual.
"I think James sees angels. I can't scientifically prove it, but he is having a conversation with somebody," Kenneth Sr. said. "It's my personal belief that these children can see things spiritually that we can't. They can tap into that."
The daily witnessing of all their struggles -- Lenny's in particular -- ingrained in Kenneth Jr. an appreciation for physical abilities far more basic than the 4.52-second 40-yard dash or the 38-inch vertical jump he recorded at the scouting combine in February.
"It taught me the true meaning of being grateful," Kenneth said. "... I'm blessed and gifted with an ability to simply walk. To simply talk. If I feel sick, I can communicate with my parents and tell them. That's not a privilege these kids have."
How does a 10-year-old not first think of self when confronted with his parents' time suddenly being splintered in other directions? How might a boy that young carry an instinct to immediately assist with his family's new challenge and not complain or feel neglected?
To understand Kenneth Murray's sage-like maturity at only 10 years old requires an understanding of his upbringing. Compassion and discipline were certainly hallmarks of having a Baptist pastor for a father and a police officer for a mother. Even Kenneth's first daycare giver was a retired schoolteacher who, according to Kenneth Sr., was so tough she used to try to punish parents if their kids' homework wasn't finished.
Being the first-born son in the family also meant something important to Kenneth. Dianne recalls taking her two young children on a trip to Chicago and, after eating at a Denny's restaurant, returning to the parking lot to find the family's van had been broken into and a DVD system stolen. When police arrived to take a report, Kenneth began answering their questions over his mother. Kenneth Sr. had told him that, as the oldest child, he was in charge whenever dad wasn't around. Kenneth Sr. had only given him that authority between he and his younger sister, but Kenneth Jr. didn't retain that part of the message.
"I had to call (Kenneth Sr.) and ask him to tell Kenny to back down," Dianne said with a laugh. "(Kenneth Jr.) didn't want to let me talk."
It was only natural, then, for Kenneth to confront the arrival of three special-needs siblings with a take-charge attitude. His sister Kimberly's attitude, he sensed, would probably fall in line behind his.
"I wanted to take it on and be the one to adjust first," Kenneth said. "My sister was the baby, so me being the oldest, I knew a lot of her reaction was going to depend on how I reacted to it."
Soon enough, Murray's maturity began to manifest itself in football, as well.
Seven years ago, his Uncle Lind, a hard-hitting safety at West Virginia in the early '80s, took him to his first college game -- Texas' first visit to Morgantown as a Big 12 foe. When he got home, Kenneth posted a list of five goals on his bedroom wall, all related to earning a college football scholarship and excelling thereafter. He achieved all but one, attending WVU, only because the Mountaineers declined to recruit him.
As a sophomore and first-year starter at safety for Fort Bend (Texas) Elkins High, he made coverage calls in a secondary full of seniors, winning instant trust from a coaching staff that placed him in an early leadership role.
A year later, he went to guidance counselor Brian Williams and asked to be placed on an accelerated academic course that would allow him to graduate from high school and enroll in college early. He did just that. While his Elkins classmates were occupied with spring break and prom, Murray was already in Norman earning a starting linebacker role in spring practice.
"Midway through his junior year, he said, 'Let's do this'," Williams said. "And from there he was a bull seeing red."
There is no shortage of big-stage games in the library of film NFL scouts have used to watch Murray's linebacking skills. In his three seasons at Oklahoma he won three Big 12 title games, made three College Football Playoff appearances against Georgia, Alabama and LSU, and had regular-season clashes with the likes of Ohio State, UCLA and Texas.
But for all that logo power, it was a 2018 game against Army that Murray hopes scouts don't miss. He considers the Sooners' 28-21 overtime win over West Point as the pinnacle game of his college career. Army's triple-option offense uses cut blocks and a committed rushing attack to grind defenses down, and on this day, the Black Knights converted a 78-9 run-pass ratio into 26 first downs. With a stunning time-of-possession advantage of 44:41 to OU's 15:19, Army's methodical, plodding offense dragged the heavily favored Sooners' beleaguered defense into overtime, tied 21-21. Murray countered with a school-record 28 tackles. He remembers laying on OU's home turf in exhaustion after the 23rd and summoning a reserve tank of energy to get up and finish with five more. According to head coach Lincoln Riley, he did it while battling a nagging stinger injury to his shoulder.
After QB Kyler Murray saved OU's playoff hopes with a game-winning TD pass to CeeDee Lamb, Kenneth tracked down every Army player he could on the field to personally shake their hands. He got to at least 10 of them before they exited the visitor's tunnel at OU's Owen Field.
"I have a huge respect for what the military does for this country. They put their lives on the line for everybody back home," Murray said. "I'm a warrior on the football field but that type of warrior doesn't compare to the type of warrior that goes out there and faces bullets and armies and the craziness that comes along with being in the armed forces."
The gesture didn't go unnoticed in NFL personnel circles.
"That's not one of the games that will make him a lot of money, but doing what he did afterward, that's all anyone needs to know about what kind of kid he is," said an area scout for an NFC team. "Personal character and football character are two different things, but that kind of showed both. He found a way to combine the two there."
It was a very public display of not only Murray's special gift for the game but also a special respect for it. More subtle indicators dot scouts' research on him.
Oklahoma assistant coach Brian Odom typically got into his office by 5:15 a.m. last year, his first as the Sooners' inside linebackers coach. At exactly 6 a.m. every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday throughout the season, Murray would walk in and discuss OU's defensive scheme with Odom for up to an hour. He tried to come in on Thursdays, too, but Odom insisted his star linebacker sleep instead.
Whichever NFL club makes Murray an early selection at the draft in a few weeks -- he and LSU's Patrick Queen are considered the top two available inside linebackers -- it can expect a public-facing ambassador when it comes to community service. Riley said Murray was the first player to volunteer when such opportunities were offered to Oklahoma players, and for Murray, it was about more than checking a box.
"Some guys go do community service, and they're just kind of there," Riley said. "He goes and gets engaged. He goes with a purpose."
NFL scouts tasked with evaluating character learn to be experts at finding a flaw or two in even the most highly respected draft prospects, but background work on Murray has maintained a fairy tale-like theme.
"All the NFL scouts that came through would say, 'This guy can't be real,' " Odom said. "All this stuff makes him sound like a choir boy. And it's all totally legit, but you can't forget that he is an absolute killer on the field."
It's been three and a half years since the fall of 2016, when Alvin Dotson was last sure the bike was unlocked from its tether to the Elkins High School football fieldhouse.
He doesn't coach at Elkins anymore, now busy looking for the next Kenneth Murray at Baytown Sterling High, about 50 miles away on the east end of Houston. But the bike was a fieldhouse appendage for so long after Murray was gone, he's convinced it might still be there. It's late morning on a Tuesday, when a school with an enrollment of almost 2,500 should be bustling with activity. COVID-19 has canceled classes, however, and there's not a soul to be seen as Dotson pulls into a wide-open parking lot beside the fieldhouse. The former Elkins defensive coordinator approaches a fence line blocking the path to the front of the facility and peers around the corner.
"It's gone," he says. "But it was chained up right there forever."
The Elkins coaching staff first took notice of Murray in 2013 when they saw a freshman showing up to offseason workouts on a bicycle. To get there, he had to cross Highway 6, a busy six-lane thoroughfare that hugs Houston's west edge. In a rainstorm or under 100-degree Texas heat, he never missed a day, and the coaches could set their watches by his arrival.
"He was never late one time," said head coach Dennis Brantley. "I never saw him acting like a typical freshman at all. He was already acting like he was on a mission."
At the time, they didn't know exactly where he was coming from or how far he had to ride, but they respected the effort just the same. If they'd known why Murray wasn't being dropped off in a car like every other player without a driver's license, they'd have respected it even more.
His parents and Uncle Lind were often occupied driving his adopted siblings to a myriad of physical therapy appointments and doctor visits. The children's biological parents were unable to provide them with much-needed professional therapy, and the Murrays responded by putting themselves in catch-up mode.
"Lenny would've been walking had he gotten more therapy earlier, if he'd been challenged more. He had been in a chair all his life at 3 years old, and nothing was done to assist him in getting out," Dianne said. "They were so far behind. Lenny had four therapy appointments a week, James had four, Nyia had three, then you throw in all the doctor's appointments. Doctors in the morning and therapy in the afternoon. You're talking about every day, all day."
Kenneth recalls the odometer on his father's car leaping from 30,000 miles to 100,000 in a single year, just driving locally to all the appointments. That left Murray to get himself over to Elkins, but instead of complaining or feeling short-changed, he went to work on an old bicycle that also required rehab. It was an adult three-speed mountain bike, olive green in color, that needed two new tires and a more comfortable seat.
Murray refurbished it on his own.
"The ball bearings were messed up, too," Murray said. "I'm a self-starter. I don't like depending on people. If I can do for myself, I will."
His ride was relatively short, but the initiative he took was more telling. When possible, he caught rides from family members and eventually from coaches, but if he made five round trips in any given week, he'd rack up close to 15 miles.
He pedaled with a purpose.
Even as a high school freshman, the promise he had made to his father was always in the back of his mind.
Long before Kenneth welcomed his adopted siblings into his home and heart, he had already been stripped of the notion that blood relation was a requirement for family status. All four of his biological grandparents died either before he was born or shortly after, but Kenneth Sr. and Dianne didn't want their children to grow up without grandparents.
So, they appointed them.
Kenneth Sr. points toward his living room to indicate where it happened -- they formally asked Elner and V'Lillian Green, whose son had married Dianne's sister, if they would serve a grandparental role for Kenneth and Kimberly.
"They received our request with joy," Kenneth Sr. said.
And with that, a foundation was laid that a village, not just blood relatives, would surround the Murray children. Adding three special-needs children was life-altering, to be sure, but Nyia, Lenny and James became part of that village, not visitors to it. One of Kenneth's close friends spent about a year in the Murray home after his mother died of cancer, and it's been a short-term home for a few others, including a Texas Southern student named Wezizwe Dlamini, a friend of Kenneth Jr.'s and Kimberly's who is the latest to call the Murray home his own. Kenneth built a special relationship with his adopted grandfather, Elner, who died when Kenneth was 14. In fact, it was Elner who gave him the old bike he would later pedal to high school workouts.
It came a little more naturally, then, for Kenneth to accept a sudden leap from a family of four to a family of seven.
Kenneth and Kimberly assisted in getting their adopted siblings dressed, bathed and fed, and looked after them at school as well. Gordon Yancy, Kenneth's fifth-grade teacher, remembers seeing Kenneth escort the kids to class in the morning if a teacher's aide wasn't present when they were dropped off at school.
"I think we always tried to make sure (they) had a childhood, but (they) had to mature quicker," said Lind Murray.