Staff spotlight: Murph
He’s in the flag football Hall of Fame, has worked with the Saints equipment department for over 40 years, taught learning disabled students in New Orleans schools for more than 30, and now, at least for the next year, is the construction manager at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans.
Meet Ken “Murph” Whitman, storyteller extraordinaire.
But wait. Isn’t “Murph” normally a nickname for someone named Murphy?
“My great grandmother had over 150 great grandchildren,” Whitman recently explained at YRNO’s rebuild site on South Salcedo. “She had 13 children and then she adopted a guy—Uncle Lawrence—and he lived on the porch, so he didn’t remember all our names. One Christmas he saw me and grabbed my cheek and he didn’t know my name, so he called me Murphy.”
Got it. But one more question before we get to Saints lore: How does someone who spent decades teaching high school students at De La Salle and Holy Rosary suddenly become a construction manager?
“You’re a school teacher in private schools, you don’t make much, so you own a house, things break and you have to fix it. Over the years, I pretty much fixed everything at my house,” said Whitman, adding that he had guidance from friends in the construction business as well.
It also happens that his brother Bob is board president at YRNO. One thing led to another and even without professional experience, Murph’s latest career—temporary or not—was born.
“I come here this last five weeks and I realized that I’m pretty good,” he said. “I could make a profession of it if I wanted to.”
Murph and Bob are sons of the late Saints scout Bob Whitman, and Murph started working at the team’s training camp as a high school student, initially assigned to the quarterbacks.
“I threw at Archie Manning every day,” he recalled. “You can imagine as a young fella, 14 years old, getting to work with professional quarterbacks is pretty cool stuff.”
Eventually, Murph switched to working with kickers, and now, decades later, he works only on home game days. That includes preparation and setup before before the game and catching balls for punters and kickers during pre-game warm-ups.
“During the game, I’m responsible for the balls,” he continued. “I’m the ball boy. I’m the guy with the X on his shirt or a K on his shirt, catch it out of the net, give it to the referees.”
So does that mean he caught Garrett Hartley’s famed kick that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl? Well, no, but he does list it as his greatest moment on the job.
“I usually catch the kick, and so this is the kick,” he remembered. “He kicks the ball and I didn’t catch the kick. I ran on the field, put my hands up before the referee did. Wow! I could’ve gotten fired if he misses it. If he misses, I get fired, but he makes it. I beat the referee out there.”
You can actually see Murph if you watch a replay of the kick.
“All my buddies saw me. I said, look, it’s once in a lifetime. We’re going to the Super Bowl for the first time. I said, absolutely. So I took a couple balls and threw ‘em in the stands and everybody was cheering.
“It was so exciting. Monumental. My goodness. The curse is broken. Buddy D. is alive!”
Oddly enough, Murph’s other favorite Saints topic is former punter Mitch Berger. He starts the conversation by noting that the NFL instituted a rule mandating fresh kicking balls must be used after former Packers coach Mike Holmgren recognized Berger and former Saints kicker Morten Andersen were still getting distance on their kicks later in their careers because they were using older, fatter balls.
But even after the rule was implemented, Berger would take balls from Murph and scruff them up behind the Saints bench to make them fatter. When the NFL caught wind of this, Murph and his contemporaries were banished to the visitors’ sideline.
The quirky punter remained undeterred.
“Berger would literally punt the ball down the field, with thumbs up or thumbs down, whether the ball was a good ball or a bad ball,” Murph said. “He wouldn’t even worry about the punt. He was worried about the ball. He would send me notes. He was a nut.”
Even when it got to the point when the kicking balls started being sent to stadiums by an affiliate of the FBI and nobody could touch them except a designated official, Berger kept seeking an advantage.
“Berger in a road game went to the room of the FBI affiliate and asked the guy if he would put the balls in a hotel sauna. Another game, he asked the guy if he would leave ‘em in his trunk because it was a hot day; a hotter ball softens ‘em up. That’s how nuts he was.”
Despite the memories, Murph’s gig with the Saints is not all fun. After each game, he helps take the equipment back to the team’s practice facility, where he washes towels and the like. By the time he’s done, he’s put in a 12-hour day, ending at 7 p.m. for a noon game or 3 a.m. for a night game.
“It got worse as the years go on because guys are a little bit more spoiled, they use six towels instead of one,” he said. “Instead of when I first started we had two trunks of equipment, now we have 40-something, plus the players’ bags and a bunch of other stuff.”
And working with the notoriously meticulous Sean Payton as the boss?
“He’s tough,” said Murph, making sure to add that the coach has also won. “Very, very demanding. He’s got everybody on pins and needles all the time.”
Hopefully, Murph feels a little less pressure here at YRNO.