The smile on Justin Murphy’s face while wearing the hospital gown hid a dreary truth: The UCLA right tackle was probably finished for the season.
Having been a veteran of two previous surgeries on his knee, Murphy was an expert on the recovery process even before undergoing a third arthroscopic procedure last month to clean up cartilage damage in the same knee. He tweeted out a cheerful photo of himself at the doctor’s office and alluded to his season being cut short.
But since his knee was considered structurally sound, Murphy held out hope that he might be able to play in another game or two.
“The doc gave me the green light to come back as soon as I felt comfortable,” Murphy said Tuesday, “and it just so happened to be for the best game of the year.”
Murphy played in the Bruins’ 34-27 victory over USC on Saturday, only four weeks after his latest surgery. It had been one of three games the graduate transfer from Texas Tech highlighted upon his arrival in Westwood. Murphy got to play in what he considered the first big game, against former Big 12 Conference rival Oklahoma, before sitting out the second against Oregon, part of a six-game absence caused by his knee injury suffered against Colorado on Sept. 28.
Playing against the Trojans was everything Murphy had envisioned. He was on the field when Bruins tailback Joshua Kelley burst through the line on a 55-yard touchdown run that provided the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
“I was just really excited to be able to come back for this USC game and bring the Victory Bell back home,” Murphy said. “It was a phenomenal experience, great crowd, great emotional roller coaster all game. So you can’t really ask for anything more.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly said Murphy played 16 snaps in the game, providing more than another big body.
“He loves playing football and has a contagious personality,” Kelly said. “He’s been really, really good because we’re so young, especially in the line, for him to come in and add a little bit of leadership because he’s got some experience coming from Tech.”
He’s hoping for more experience as a Bruin, starting a campaign that could be dubbed “Murphy in 2019.” The player whose previous knee surgeries limited him to parts of two seasons at Texas Tech and briefly forced him into a medical retirement has petitioned the NCAA for another season of eligibility.
“From what compliance has told me, they said I have a strong case,” Murphy said, “but as you know, with the NCAA, you just never know.”
Andre James figured the best way to honor his father was to do what he loved most.
He would play.
The left tackle returned to the field in late October against Arizona during the same week his father, Marcus, died after a lengthy battle with testicular cancer. Andre had been with his father in Utah when he passed away after surprising him during a visit intended to be a birthday celebration before Marcus took a turn for the worse.
“Coming back for the game, it was emotional,” James said Tuesday in his first interview since the game. “But the team rallied around me.”
James had already switched his jersey to No. 77, the last two digits of his father’s birth year. His play all season has been another tribute to the man he called his inspiration.