ATLANTA — When Eddie Murray went on his honeymoon last year, he packed footballs.

And when the happy couple arrived in Hawaii, they got in a car, and went looking for an open field.

“You can kick between those two palm trees,” said Cindy, Murray’s wife, pointing out a target.

Murray nodded, set up about 40 to 50 yards back, and began to boot them. One after another. Footballs through palm trees. Day after day, this was his honeymoon. Footballs through palm trees.

At one point, some kids came by, and Murray said he’d give them each five bucks if they’d retrieve the balls and bring them back. They agreed — until the balls landed in some colorful bushes.

“No, no, those are poison,” they said, shaking their heads and backing away.

And Murray laughed, because, in his own way, he knew how they felt. He’d been a little poisoned. Nobody wanted to touch him, either.

When you’re cut from a football team, the whispers start. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. So when Murray was let go by Detroit, after 12 years, the whispers were that he was too old, he was finished. Why else would the Lions cut him?

He sat unemployed for the first half of the 1992 season. Depressed, he kept working out, sometimes wondering why he bothered. He fell into a familiar pattern for aging ballplayers: watch the games on Sundays, see if anyone screws up or gets injured, then wait by the phone Monday, hoping that guy’s team will call.

“Every time the phone would ring,” Murray says now, “I would get a little jolt.”

He went to seven tryouts. Some went well. Some not so well. All ended in
“no thanks.” He signed for one week with Kansas City, kicked a 52-yard field goal, and was released the following week when the regular kicker came back. Murray hooked on with Tampa Bay and finished the season, but by the following fall, he was unemployed again. Thirty-seven years old and back by the phone.

On the second Monday of the season, it rang.

It was the Dallas Cowboys. . . . Still good enough for Cowboys

Bernie Kosar was a folk hero in Cleveland. A local kid who saw his dream come true when he was drafted by the Browns. Cleveland? He wants to go to Cleveland? He quickly became a star, and was arguably the most popular athlete that city had in the ’80s. At least while the Browns were making regular playoff appearances. He did charity work. He spoke intelligently. He had friends. He had money.

But a new coach and a disagreement over how the offense should work and suddenly, the local hero was no longer wanted by management. In the middle of this season, he was cut. Not traded. Not shopped. Just cut. Bernie Kosar?

“He’s finished,” they whispered.

Here is how big that story was in Cleveland. The owner of the Browns, Art Modell, was advised by his PR staff not to read the local newspapers the day after Kosar was cut. Modell took the advice, but nonetheless called the office and asked how the papers had played the event.

“As if the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” he was told.

None of which did Kosar any good. He was unemployed. They said his “skills had diminished.” His contract was not guaranteed, and suddenly, neither was his future.

“That was the first time in my life that anyone told me I wasn’t good enough in sports,” he said. “Going back to junior high school even, it was the first time.”

He was stung. His pride was bleeding.

The phone rang.

It was the Dallas Cowboys. . . . Whispers become cheers

The story line on this Super Bowl is deja vu, already been here, repeat and repeat. Same teams as last year. Same coaches. Same big stars.

But Murray and Kosar represent a small minority of players who floated down to Atlanta on a thankful cloud. When the season began for each of them, the idea of making a Super Bowl was laughable. Now, here they are, in the Georgia Dome, talking to reporters from around the world.

“I’ll be starry-eyed all week,” Murray says.

Of course, the greatest irony is that either one of these two might win the game for the Cowboys. Kosar came in for an injured Troy Aikman in Sunday’s NFC championship and threw a touchdown pass that iced the victory. Should the slightly woozy Aikman get knocked out again, Kosar would suddenly be Super Moses, asked to lead the Cowboys to the promised land.

And Murray? Well. You know how kickers are.

“Would you want this game to come down to a last-second kick for a win?” he is asked.

“Absolutely,” he says.

What could be better? Most of the time, football is about people far stronger than us, more powerful, seemingly invincible.

Here, then, is a Super Bowl with a subplot for the Everyman. All of us have been cut at some point, all of us have been told we’re not good enough. Keep your eye on the sidelines Sunday, for couple of guys with diminished skills. They might just teach what by now should be obvious: Sometimes, it’s not the skills that count the most, it’s the heart.

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