Here’s a Thanksgiving sports story for you:
The last football game in a season is an emotional time for any team. For seniors, playing their last game, the emotional stakes are high. It was especially so for the Middlebury College team two weekends ago.
Middlebury came into the game with three wins and four losses, so was hoping to get to .500 with a win. Tufts University, their opponent, was winless, 0-7; a victory against the Panthers on Senior Day in Boston before the home folks would salvage their season.
I watched the game on the webcast at home in Cornwall, a Panther partisan, hoping for a victory. My computer was set up in the middle of the house, on the kitchen table.
The first half was enormously frustrating. I paced. I left the room. I cursed. I was bad company. In the 30-minute first half, Middlebury had the ball for just eight minutes and 47 seconds and scored no points.
Tufts played a football version of the Stall Offense, taking as much time as possible on every possession. In two first half possessions, Middlebury drove deep into Tufts territory, to the Tufts’ five and one, before fizzling.
“I told the team at the half,” said Coach Bob Ritter, “‘You can’t play any worse, and you’re only down 10-0.’”
Panther players were a jumble of emotions. Competitors, they wanted to win, as in any game, but more so in this game. It was understandable that their focus was less than complete.
Because of Murph.
Their teammate, Murphy McCurdy, one of 12 seniors on the team, had been badly injured in a fall on the Thursday night before the game.
He had been rushed to the Trauma Unit at Fletcher Allen, diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, and placed in the Intensive Care Unit, unconscious, in a coma.
Murph’s parents, Joe and Kathy McCurdy, got the phone call early Friday morning every parent dreads. They drove to Burlington from Williamstown, Mass., and met with the Emergency Care physicians, who told them the outlook was “grim.”
Coach Ritter and his wife, Sue, spent Friday morning and early afternoon with the McCurdys at the hospital. The coach then returned to Middlebury to meet with his players, give them news of Murph’s condition, and try to prepare them for the game the next day.
Murph was my academic advisee, so I visited the hospital in the afternoon on Friday. His father, Joe, took me in to see him. He was wearing a neck brace, was being fed through a feeding tube, was hooked up to a ventilator, and had IVs in each arm. Doctors had drilled a hole in his skull and inserted a probe to monitor brain pressure.
The doctors were cautious, explaining that it would likely be days and weeks before anything definitive would be known about Murph’s future, his long-term health.
The second half of the Tufts game that Saturday proceeded like the first: Middlebury took the kickoff and drove down the field only to have a pass intercepted at the Tufts 16. The score at the end of three periods was still 10-0.
Middlebury scored early in the fourth, Tufts answered, and Middlebury, finally finding its rhythm, scored again. With four minutes to go, Middlebury got the ball on its own 24-yard line, down 17-13.
The Panthers marched down the field, twice salvaging the drive with fourth down pass completions. With just two seconds to go in the game, running back Remi Ashcar scored from the one-yard line. It was 19-17 Panthers. I let out a whoop, danced around the kitchen.
Coach Ritter assembled his team at midfield, as he does at the end of every game. Before he spoke to the team, he removed his jacket and revealed he had been wearing Murph’s football jersey, No. 2.
“Murph wears number two, we won by two, with two seconds to go,” said senior captain, Michael Bilodeau. “It’s hard to call that a coincidence.”
After every victory the team sings a little celebratory ditty: “Cheer, Boys, Cheer.”
Coach Ritter instructed the players to “sing so loud that Murph can hear you back in Burlington,” and they certainly tried to comply.
The next morning, Sunday, Joe McCurdy was on his way to the hospital when his cell phone rang. It was a nurse from the ICU. “Where are you?” she asked him.
“On my way to the hospital.”
“He’s asking for you,” she said.
“Who. The doctor?”
When Joe entered his room, his son said, “Hi, Pops.”
That afternoon, the feeding tube and neurological probe were removed, the ventilator and neck brace discarded. Murph greeted a contingent of his Middlebury friends and took a few steps.
By Tuesday he had made such significant progress he was moved from the ICU to a ward at Fletcher Allen. On Friday he was off with his family to Boston to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital there.
Murph has a long road ahead of him, but the prognosis is hopeful, good even, a far cry from grim.
Cheer, Boys, Cheer.