COSTA MESA, Calif. — You can hear the sadness in his voice. It’s not outwardly noticeable if you didn’t know to look for it, but it’s there — the kind of sadness you would never wish on anyone.
Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. is a 6-foot-2 and 241-pound chiseled athlete who cares passionately about the game of football. He also cares passionately about his family, especially his adopted siblings, all of whom have severe special needs.
His father, a Baptist minister, and his mother, a retired police officer, learned of the children from his church congregation — and took them in when Kenneth Jr. was 11. And when the middle son, the one he was closest to, Lenny, died unexpectedly in April on what would have been his 14th birthday, Kenneth Jr. was devastated.
Kenneth Jr. had pledged to take care of the kids if something happened to his parents. But nobody expected something like this to happen to one of the children.
“One day I was doing something with football and I got a phone call and I kind of had to drop everything and jump on a flight and go through that,” he said. “Since then I’ve just kind of stayed to myself.”
He took to Twitter to process his grief:
Today was supposed to be your birthday but instead it turned out in a way unimaginable. By far the toughest person in my family and the toughest person I know…Fly high lil bro, you’ll never be forgotten. My inspiration until we meet again. R.I.P Lenny 4.30.21 🕊
— K9 (@KennethMurray) April 30, 2021
Not wanting to divulge more details, all Murray would say about Lenny’s death is that it was “like a bad nightmare,” and something he tries not to think about.
“It’s too hurtful to do in the media,” he explained simply.
All three of the adopted children — Niya, Lenny and James — were born with a genetic abnormality, in which part of a chromosome is missing crucial genetic material. Lenny was the most severely impaired and was confined to a wheelchair. He was also Kenneth Jr.’s biggest fan.
“He was super enthusiastic about coming to the games,” Kenneth Jr. said. “That’s what makes it such a sore spot for me.”
The family would often make the seven-hour drive from their home in Missouri City, Texas, up to Norman, Oklahoma, where Kenneth played at the University of Oklahoma. He started at linebacker for three years and racked up 334 tackles and 9.5 sacks for the Sooners. His biggest year came as a sophomore in 2018, when he had 155 tackles, including a school record 28 in an overtime win over Army.
Murray was co-Big 12 defensive freshman of the year in 2017 and second-team all-conference in 2018 before being a first-team All-Big 12 and third-team All-America pick in 2019. His work ethic was legendary. He’d often watch five to six hours of film a day early in the morning before class. And when he was selected in the first round of the 2020 draft by the Chargers with the No. 23 pick, his entire family was with him as GM Tom Telesco made the call that would change his football life.
He’s carried his work ethic with him to the NFL, where he had 107 tackles as a rookie a year ago and 20 through three games this season with the Chargers (2-1), who host the Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Murray will miss Monday’s game with an ankle injury suffered in practice on Saturday.
“We have just a great group on defense including Kenneth, we have him and [S] Derwin [James Jr.],” Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said. “All the guys during practice every week, every day, they always bring energy so they have been great.”
“He has worked extremely hard,” Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said. “We have talked about playing him downhill, being back and being able to run sideline to sideline. He has all of those traits.”
When the adopted children arrived at the Murray home 11 years ago, Kenneth and his biological sister, Kimberly, had to grow up fast. With their parents, they helped shuttle the kids to various doctors’ appointments and therapy.
Niya is now 19 and reads at an elementary-school level. James, the youngest, is now 12 and in a wheelchair. Lenny was the sports fan in the group and used to spend hours in front of the TV watching whatever sport was being played. And they all loved traveling to Oklahoma to watch Kenneth Jr. perform.
“You can definitely see the joy light up in their faces when they see me play.”
— ESPN (@espn) April 24, 2020
Lenny and Kenneth Jr., would go out in the backyard and do whatever they could to emulate playing catch and other sports activities.
It’s been a painful five months since Lenny died, but Kenneth Jr. says his family and his faith have gotten him through the hardest times. Of his compassion, he points directly to his parents.
“I’m from them,” Murray said. “It’s where I get all of this.”
In his pre-draft interview, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones asked Murray what challenge has made him who he is on and off the field. He pointed to his experience growing up with his siblings.
“I look at it not as a setback, but as a blessing,” he answered. “When I was growing up my mom and my dad did things that were true acts of selflessness.”
There are moments in an interview where you learn something about a prospect that goes far beyond football.@OU_Football LB Kenneth Murray provided one of those moments in his interview with the #DallasCowboys. pic.twitter.com/rxq6vYKn8X
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) April 8, 2020
It’s what inspired him to work as a church counselor during summers growing up. He also volunteered at El Modena High School in Orange, California, last month to help honor the Chargers’ high school coach of the month, Matt Mitchell, and be part of El Modena’s pregame coin toss. Murray is an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and regularly visited the Children’s Hospital at the Oklahoma Medical Center. His first task after the draft was to set up funds for his siblings for long-term care.
Murray cherishes every interaction that he has with his siblings, which is why Lenny’s death hit so hard.
“He had special needs and you learn to appreciate the small things because you know the small goals that a lot of times, we as human beings we take for granted,” Murray said. “And you learn to appreciate them when you see somebody who can’t do those things and still finds a way to be happy.
“That was Lenny.”