Comparatively, I didn’t know Rick Murray for very long. We met in the parking lot of a church in Palm Valley leaving Bruce Edwards’ funeral. Bruce was Tom Watson and Greg Norman’s caddie for years and I knew him starting in the early ‘80’s. He moved to Ponte Vedra and was diagnosed with ALS, and his funeral brought people from all over the country.
Rick stopped me on my way to my car. I say stopped me, but he actually just spoke from the side of his van, sitting in his wheelchair as I admired some of the “Go Navy” stickers on the van. “I have ALS,” Rick told me at our first meeting.
Outside of being in a wheelchair, he didn’t look very infirm. A Naval Flight Officer, Rick had been active in all kinds of sports, especially tennis and cycling. So seeing him in a wheelchair, he looked like a guy who was convalesing from something like a broken leg and he’d be back on his feet in no time. But the prognosis was not good. Three years to live, max. Little did I know that he had already exceeded that expectation and planned to “live” a lot more. We had a nice conversation, he introduced me to his wife Sherry, and we went on our way.
Somewhere in the not so distant future from that meeting, I had donated a visit to “The End Zone” to a charity auction, and Rick bought it. When they called to redeem the prize, I told them all about it, but they said, “Rick’s not getting about too well and was wondering if you’d just go by and have lunch with him.” “Sure,” I said, and we set it up.
Turns out Rick and Sherry didn’t live far from me in Mandarin so I went by with the instructions to, “Just come around back,” which I did. When I got a look at Rick I was a little stunned. He’s stuck in his bed with a contraption hooked to his head that kept him breathing. “Fourteen times a minute,” he explained to me.
He couldn’t shake hands anymore so I tapped him on the palm and sat down. For the next couple of hours we talked about sports, flying, sports, women, sports, people, sports, reality and sports. Rick knew what he was talking about. Could quote stats and dates with the best of them and was really sharp. I hadn’t dealt with anybody in his condition before so it was a hard juxtaposition to see somebody with such a fragile body have such a strong mind. I knew I had met somebody I could talk with who had an objective view of things but was never afraid to let you know where he stood.
Our conversations over the next couple of years were varied both in topic and duration. Sometimes we’d just watch a game, others we’d solve the world’s problems. Once when I was there I could tell he was a little down and I asked him “What’s up with you?” He kind of motioned to himself as if to say “all this” so I stood at the foot of his bed and looked him right in the eye.
“Do you understand how important you are to so many people? Do you know what an inspiration you are to everybody you meet? Look, I draw inspiration from you every day so don’t you dare start to get down,” I said, as sternly as I could.
“I’m slippin’,” Rick said softly and after a short pause followed that up with “but thanks” and a small smile. I tapped him on the palm, kissed him on the head and walked out of the room, crying of course.
Each time I’d see Rick after that he’d say, “I’m getting’ worse,” but that’s about all we’d say about his condition. It became more and more difficult for him to speak, a sign that ALS patients are sliding down a slippery slope. I had to lean in closer each time to hear him, and after a while, it was more non-verbal communication than anything else.
And then last week he was gone.
I had really torn feelings about that, knowing how much he had suffered but also knowing how much he loved living. “Persistence wins again,” was one of his favorite sayings and that really stuck in my mind.
I could go on and on about him writing a book, about his Harley passion, about the cycling trips after his diagnosis but suffice to say when I hear the word “courage” the next time, I’ll be thinking of Rick.