Column: Kenneth Murray is more than just the ‘next man up’ for the Chargers

Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray exits the field after a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 13.
Chargers rookie Kenneth Murray has shown promising flashes of defensive leadership without the support of injured star safety Derwin James.
(Emilee Chinn / Associated Press)

“Next man up” is a common phrase heard around the NFL but for a Chargers squad that finished last season with the third most injuries in the league, it’s damn near the team slogan. Unfortunately for coach Anthony Lynn, this season started with more of the same as another preseason injury to a key player forced him to lean on a rookie more than expected.

But so far, the kid has risen to the challenge and, no, I’m not talking about quarterback sensation Justin Herbert.

I’m referring to linebacker Kenneth Murray, who is shouldering more than originally planned because of the season-ending knee injury to defensive star Derwin James. And just as fellow first-round pick Herbert has given fans hope for the future, Murray also has shown promising flashes.

“My main focus is to get better every week and as long as I keep doing that, I think I can reach the goals I have for myself and the goals we have as a team,” said Murray, the Chargers’ second-leading tackler. “It was a blessing [knowing the Chargers traded up to draft him].


“I didn’t really communicate a lot with them during the draft process, so when I got that phone call it was definitely a bit of a surprise. But it’s one I was so grateful for knowing they believe in me that much. I owe them my all … to go out there and play elite defense and be that guy in the middle.”

Lynn credited Murray for his ability “to pick up all of the little integral parts of the defense and being able to stand in front of the group and call the play” despite a lack of a preseason.

Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray eyes Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on Sept. 27 at SoFi Stadium.
(Peter Joneleit / Associated Press)

“We ask a lot of our linebackers … he has a lot on his plate but I like the way he handles that,” Lynn said, adding the enthusiastic Murray occasionally beats him to the facility in the morning. “He hasn’t been as impactful as his skill set may say he would have been, but he’s just touching the surface right now. And despite being all of that he’s still the second-leading tackler on the team. He’s going to be an outstanding player.”

With four consecutive losses — all by a single score, including two in overtime — this off week could not have come at a better time for Lynn and company, especially mentally. The disappointment of blowing back-to-back 17-point leads to future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees can be taxing. And then there’s the heartbreaker against Kansas City, a game they didn’t trail in until Harrison Butker’s game-winning 58-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining in overtime. Even for someone as optimistic as Murray, a string of those kind of losses can follow you long after the final whistle.

Even though the Chargers’ week off came earlier than expected because of NFL schedule changes, Joey Bosa is not complaining because he has injuries that need healing.

“We came in there with a really good game plan,” he said about the matchup against the champs. “We had the right mentality. We just got to be able to get that win late in the fourth quarter. It was good to go out there and compete against those guys, but we’re definitely not satisfied with just competing. We want to win those games.”

Lynn agrees.

“It’s frustrating because we knew this stretch was going to be a little rough, but I do believe we should at least got two out of three,” he said. “So I spend a lot of time self-scouting, looking at us and what we can do differently.

“And [Murray] is one of those players we’re looking at to help get us over the hump.”

That’s a lot of pressure. But as the saying goes, pressure will either grind you into dust or turn you into a diamond, and for Murray — more often than not — it’s been the latter.

For example in July 2019, while driving home from church one night, he came across a woman who was lying on the sidewalk unconscious, not breathing and bleeding from the head. A friend of the woman arrived shortly before Murray did and was desperately trying to wake her up. That’s when Murray, who had received CPR training at church, sprung into action. He was able to revive her. And then as with any unassuming hero, he left once paramedics arrived.

“I thought I got away without anyone seeing me,” he said. “Three days later I was sitting at my locker after practice and our media relations guy came up to me after practice and asked if I had given anyone CPR lately. It just so happens a kid from the student newspaper was driving by while all of it was going on.”

Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray reacts during the 2019 Big 12 championship.
Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray reacts during the 2019 Big 12 championship.
(Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)

It wasn’t just one budding journalist, but a car full from the OU Daily. They were driving home from dinner and stumbled upon the scene.

“Our design editor immediately spots Kenneth’s girlfriend, which makes me think that means Kenneth is around too,” according to Caleb McCourry, the paper’s sports editor. “Sure enough [Kenneth] was performing CPR on an unconscious woman. I knew it was him right away. Hard to miss a varsity linebacker of his size.

“He just took off when the lady was put in an ambulance and OK. He’s a real humble guy and didn’t want anyone seeing him there. This was right outside the Duck Pond parking lot next to Gaylord Stadium.”

Being there for others is something his parents — father a pastor, mother a retired police officer — instilled in him early. His three adopted siblings are all special needs and he was relied upon for help.

“It definitely makes you grow up fast,” he said. “That turned out to be a good thing because you have to be a mature player in order to be someone the coaching staff and your teammates can depend on.”

And as far as having a mother who was in law enforcement during this unique time in American sports …

The Chargers had big half time leads against Kansas City, Tampa Bay and New Orleans before losing down the stretch.

“There are good cops out there, but there are also bad cops out there,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen from having my mom be a police officer. In fact, she struggles with it herself and she gets angry when she sees some of the things police officers do that are not right.

“I’m a guy who stands for what is right and stands against what is wrong. I’m going to fight against social injustice and join with my brothers and sisters around the country in the fight for equality.”

Considering he’s still about a month away from turning 22, Murray is similar in age to many grass-roots leaders I spoke with who are organizing protests around the city. So it makes sense he would care about these issues as passionately as he does.

Just as his impact on the team makes sense.

The Chargers moved up 14 spots to get him. NFL draft expert Mel Kiper listed him as one of his instant impact players after the draft, following a career at Oklahoma where he collected 335 tackles and nine sacks in three seasons. Now the Missouri City, Texas, native hopes to continue that success for a team that is high on moral victories but only has one actual one.

“When I first came in, [James] kind of took me under his wing and let me know different things about the team and how to be a great player,” he said. “So when he got hurt that was definitely a blow. He’s a difference maker. But you always know [getting hurt] is part of the game. So, it’s next man up.”

Yes it is, Kenneth … yes it is.