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From Vegas to Philly, DeMarco Murray has learned to play his cards right

Coming off a record season, the Eagles running back is always searching for more ways to better his new team.

Eagles running back DeMarco Murray. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Eagles running back DeMarco Murray. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more(Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

IT DIDN'T TAKE long for DeMarco Murray to endear himself to his new teammates.

It was during the first practice of the Eagles' offseason program in late May, and Murray, the NFL's leading rusher last season as a Dallas Cowboy, didn't like the way a drill had gone. He felt like he kept zigging when he should have been zagging.

Missteps like this are as common in the spring as sweat on a 300-pound lineman. That's why there is such a thing as an offseason program, which is especially valuable for newcomers like Murray on the Eagles.

What is less common, center Jason Kelce explained, is Murray's reaction to the busted plays. The following day, just as the offense again gathered, Murray stood up and accepted the blame for the previous day's foibles.

"That's the kind of guy you want," said Kelce, the Eagles' center. "Those are the people that will take it upon themselves to make a difference. It's not, 'I'm the superstar. I'm doing it my way.' He's a guy that's taken accountability."

Coach Chip Kelly noticed Murray's game mentality as well.

"At the end of every meeting," the Eagles coach said, "DeMarco gets all the running backs together, and they share notes and go over their notebooks together. It's really intense, to be honest with you, in terms of how they approach it."

The Stoops dunk

Murray's coach in high school, Dave White, still gets a chuckle when asked about the time Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops came in for a recruiting visit.

Stoops was at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas to visit Ryan Reynolds, a linebacker who eventually played for Stoops at OU. It was the 2003-04 academic year and Murray was just a sophomore. Some contact, including scholarship offers, is allowed between college coaches and high school sophomores. But direct conversation with coaches is prohibited.

So White had an idea to get Stoops' attention toward his budding young running back. Murray executed it with such precision, it left the college coach's tongue wagging.

As the visit continued, Stoops and White were in the basketball gym when White whistled toward Murray, as if he was a movie director yelling "action." Murray, who is listed today as 6-foot, threw an alley-oop to himself off the wall, spun 360 degrees in the air and finished with a thunderous dunk.

"Coach Stoops looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding me?'" White laughed. Stoops then asked White: "We offered him [a scholarship], right?"

Murray, Reynolds and certainly White helped lay the foundation for Bishop Gorman to become a national powerhouse, especially in football where the Gaels have won six consecutive state titles and last year won the mythical national championship.

Gorman, a private school in Las Vegas, has been described as St. Joseph's Prep times 10. But it wasn't always that way.

Fight and fumble

When Murray was at Gorman, the Gaels didn't have their own football field. They practiced on a 60-yard field without goalposts. They played home games at a nearby high school. For a treat during homecoming, they would play at UNLV's stadium.

The basketball hoops in the gym - like the one Murray famously dunked on - were attached to the concrete wall. White said it was like something you'd see in an elementary school.

Murray had a couple of missteps on his way to becoming one of the greatest players in the history of Nevada prep football. First, the fight.

The Gaels had just lost in the playoffs to rival Cheyenne when a postgame melee broke out and Murray was dead-smack in the middle of it. According to White, a Cheyenne player who had been thrown out of the game earlier snuck into the postgame handshake line specifically to go after Murray.

Murray responded by thumping up the guy, which led to a two-game suspension to start the following season.

"It made him realize he's not invincible," White said. "Can you handle it? Can you deal with being on the news and the scrutiny of being the star? It was good for him in a way because he had to realize he had to work for everything and make good decisions."

Murray declined to talk about his high school experiences, saying only "that was a long time ago." But to understand how far someone has come, it is best to see where that person has been.

In his junior year at Gorman, the Gaels lost again in the playoffs to Cheyenne. This time Murray had a killer fumble at the goal line in the second overtime. Afterward, the 16-year-old cried profusely.

"He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be what everybody thinks he's going to be," White told the Las Vegas Sun in 2005. "I tell him to go out and have fun and play his own game."

He did not win the state football title at Gorman, but he did help the Gaels win the basketball crown. Stoops, who is very fond of football players with basketball ability, won the recruiting battle for Murray. Pete Carroll, who was at USC at the time, wanted Murray to play defense.

"He probably could have gone to the NFL as a defensive back," said White, who also went from Gorman to Norman (Oklahoma), serving as an assistant under Stoops for 3 years.

Not very Shady

The guy Murray replaces in the Eagles' backfield is the Birds' all-time leading rusher. Tackling LeSean McCoy in the open field is often like trying to catch an ice cube with chopsticks.

Murray is a different type of runner than McCoy. He is more likely to bang for a 5-yard burst than to try to hit a 40-yard home run.

"Coaches have always told me to run north and south," Murray said. "If you go east and west, you get in trouble - especially at this level. There are a lot of fast guys and you don't want to spend most of your time going east and west. Try to get as many yards as you can and get upfield."

Last season, Murray broke Emmitt Smith's single-season Cowboys record with 1,845 rushing yards and became the first Dallas player ever to be named the league's offensive player of the year. He won the rushing title by nearly 500 yards (Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell was second with 1,361, McCoy third with 1,319) and broke Jim Brown's 56-year-old record by rushing for at least 100 yards in each of his first eight games of the season.

Murray will never lead the league in colorful quotes, but he did respond quite assertively to a suggestion made by former Cowboys teammate Joseph Randle that Murray's rushing total could have been even better in 2014. Specifically, Randle said that Murray "left a lot of meat on the bone" last year.

"Hopefully," Murray said, "he can taste some of that meat this year." The Eagles host the Cowboys in Week 2 (Sept. 20) and go to Dallas in Week 9 (Nov. 8).

When asked for his reaction to McCoy's comments that Chip Kelly was getting rid of the team's best black players, Murray disagreed.

"Look around," he said. "There's a lot of us here."

Murray is the most prominent ex-Cowboy to play for the Eagles since then-30-year-old Herschel Walker came to the Birds in 1992. Because of the salary cap, the Cowboys had to choose between Murray, 27, and superstar receiver Dez Bryant. They let Murray jump into the free-agency pool while placing the franchise tag on the now-disgruntled Bryant, 26.

"If there was no salary cap in place," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said, "DeMarco would [still] be a Cowboy."

Murray was signed by the Eagles in March to a 5-year deal for $40 million ($21 million guaranteed) shortly after the Eagles traded McCoy to the Buffalo Bills. Murray had 449 touches last season, sixth most in NFL history, and is expected to cede some work to Darren Sproles and fellow free-agent signee Ryan Mathews.

"I knew when I [signed here] that Mathews was definitely signing. It didn't scare me," Murray said. "I'm not afraid of competition, not afraid to share the backfield with him. He's had a lot of success in this league. I think he's only going to make me better, only going to make the offense better."

Fact is, many of the guys who had similar workloads to Murray's in 2014 often paid for it very soon after.

In 1984, Tampa Bay's James Wilder set the record with 492 touches (407 carries, 85 receptions). He had 1,300 rushing yards the following year, but then his production quickly declined.

Kansas City's Larry Johnson gained 2,199 yards on 457 touches in 2006 and never had another 1,000-yard season.

LaDainian Tomlinson is an exception. He had 451 touches in 2002 and followed it up with seven monster seasons that one day will land him in Canton, Ohio.

"When I got to Dallas, Felix [Jones] was there," Murray said. "Tashard Choice was there. I think only 2 years when I was in Dallas was it kind of me. There's been a little shared backfield wherever I've been. Especially now, you gotta have two, three quality backs."

Sixth RB taken

Murray and Sam Bradford, whom many presume to be the Eagles starting quarterback this season, were freshman roommates at the University of Oklahoma. Bradford says neither was the slob of the partnership, but Bradford's mom disagrees. She remembers their room looking like a tornado had hit it.

In their first game together, on Sept. 1, 2007, the Sooners overwhelmed North Texas, 79-10. Bradford set an Oklahoma first-half record with 350 passing yards. Murray became the first Oklahoma player to score five touchdowns in his debut.

"You can't have two stronger character guys that are competitive team guys," Stoops, the Oklahoma coach, told Daily News sports writer Paul Domowitch. "Unselfish, but talented. Characterwise, they're both as good as you can be. They're great people. I think, in the long run, that matters too."

Murray earned a degree in communications at Oklahoma and qualified for the conference all-academic first or second team during three of his four playing seasons.

Frequent injuries created the biggest question surrounding Murray coming out of college. He missed the final three games of his redshirt freshman year after dislocating his right kneecap while trying to recover an onside kick.

As a sophomore, he ruptured his left hamstring on the opening kickoff of the Big 12 title game and missed the subsequent BCS Championship, a 24-14 loss to Tim Tebow and Florida. He started just five of 12 games as a redshirt junior but played all 14 as a senior.

Murray was the sixth running back taken in 2011, a third-rounder at No. 71 overall. Those who went ahead of him include Mark Ingram (28th overall), Ryan Williams (38th), Shane Vereen (56th), Mikel Leshoure (57th) and Daniel Thomas (62nd).

Last year, Murray had more rushing yards than those five guys combined. Two of those players, Williams and Leshoure, did not play in the NFL in 2014.

As the draft slipped from one round to the next, Murray became increasingly discouraged. When the Cowboys grabbed him in that third round, one of his first calls was to family friend Lorenzo Fertitta, the head of the Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship series and the biggest benefactor of Bishop Gorman football.

"He called me literally right after he talked to Jerry Jones and he felt like it was going to be a great place for him to go," Fertitta said. "Obviously, it turned out that way."

Last year was the first time in his four NFL seasons Murray did not miss games with injury. He did break a finger on his left hand in a Week 15 win over the Eagles, but he managed to play through it.

"He's as strong-willed and determined an individual as I've ever been around," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said immediately after Murray's hand injury. "And if anybody has a chance to come back, he does."

Murray helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, ending a three-year string of 8-8 seasons. A controversial loss at Green Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs ended the postseason run. Murray had 123 rushing yards (and a sloppy fumble) in a game that will forever be remembered for Bryant's electrifying touchdown catch that was ruled not a catch.

'Loves that attitude'

While Murray was running away with the NFL rushing crown last year, an ugly - and ultimately unfounded - controversy nipped at his heels.

Former Oklahoma teammate Brennan Clay tweeted on Nov. 30 that Murray was having an affair with Clay's wife, Gina D'Agostini. Three weeks later, Clay retracted his accusations.

"Jumped to a conclusion that wasn't true.." Clay wrote on Twitter, "can't judge a situation without knowing all the facts ..I apologize.."

Truth is irrelevant on social media, where there also is no unringing of the bell.

Murray, his reputation sullied, refused to respond to the accusations as Clay eventually filed for divorce. (In January, Clay was arrested for assaulting D'Agostini. The case is pending.)

Murray, meanwhile, married longtime sweetheart and soap-opera actress Heidi Mueller on June 20 in a modest ceremony in Dallas.

"He's always been a great dude," said Bradford, who attended the wedding. "That's why we hit it off, heck, 10 years ago. That's why we've stayed so close. No matter what he's done, or what success he's had, it's never changed him. He's always been the same guy. He's just a great guy."

Murray is guarded but not a recluse. Both Bradford and White said he has a fun sense of humor. Murray cited his father, Kevin, as the biggest influence in his development.

"He taught me about work ethic," DeMarco Murray said. "He's always been there, very supportive no matter what it was. Football, education, no matter what, he was a great dad."

Murray is on his way to expanding his own family. During their wedding, Murray and Mueller announced they were expecting their second child.

By all accounts, during Murray's time here there should be no Twitter wars with baby mamas, no bickering with the head coach, no 20-cent tips on $60 lunch checks.

Eagles wide receiver Miles Austin, who played three seasons with Murray in Dallas, called Murray "a great teammate to have and an even better friend."

"He's the type of guy," Austin said, "that is going to accept the number of carries he gets. He's not going to complain one bit."

OK, so the consensus is that all Murray wants to do is win a championship - something that hasn't been done around here since before JFK became president. Murray probably could have gotten a bigger contract from places like Jacksonville or Oakland. But those are cities where careers go to die. He has come here asking not what Philadelphia can do for him, but what he can do for the Eagles.

"He knows he has something to prove in Philadelphia," said White, his high school coach. "He told me, 'Philly fans are behind me, but if I mess up, they'll let me hear it.' But he loves that attitude and he's looking forward to playing there."