As the sun singed exposed skin and the aroma of the annual Vikings alumni cookout wafted over the practice fields, Latavius Murray watched his new team wrap up its final spring practice.
Standing there on the sideline at Winter Park, in his No. 25 jersey, his mind drifted elsewhere.
Back in upstate New York, where Murray spent the majority of his childhood, a tense murder trial was in its early stages in a powder keg of a courtroom. The victim of the November shooting in Syracuse was his best friend, Jonathan Diaz.
The trial brought painful memories rushing back. Murray was still trying to come to terms with his friend’s death seven months later. But he mustered a happy face at Winter Park while chatting with teammates. A couple hours later, when he sat down with a reporter at Bonfire in Eden Prairie, the mention of Diaz turned him somber.
“You’re used to talking to somebody every day, telling him everything and you spent so much time with a person, and then they’re just not there,” Murray said after his lunch of broiled halibut and asparagus was long gone. ”You can call their phone and they don’t answer. It’s an unreal feeling. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Murray has stiff-armed adversity throughout his life, but he had never experienced heartbreak like this before. So he has resolved that any time he carries the ball this season for the Vikings, who coveted him for his straightforward running style and his big heart, he will be driving his legs for Diaz and pushing the pile in his memory.
“Knowing him, he wanted ‘Tay Train’ to be a household name,” said Murray, who wore on his wrist a black rubber bracelet stamped with that nickname. “He wanted to invent or create something that changed the world. He wanted to do something that nobody would forget. So everything now that I do, I try to do it for him, too.”
Murray was in California, stretched out on a massage table, when his phone began buzzing Nov. 23, the night before Thanksgiving. It was a buddy back in Syracuse.
“Jon got shot! Jon got shot!” the frantic friend yelled into the phone. Murray could hear commotion in the background. The friend hollered “Get off me!” at somebody then hung up. His attempts to get his friend back on the phone were unsuccessful.
Helpless, Murray sent his mother, Tuwanna Wright, to the hospital to find out more. His brother later called to tell him that Diaz had died after being shot in the chest.
Sangsouriyanh Maniphonh, a 28-year-old romantic rival of Diaz, was charged with his murder after the two men got into a skirmish around 1 a.m. ET outside of a bar. Maniphonh pulled out his legally-concealed handgun and twice shot Diaz, who died in the hospital later that morning.
“I struggle with it because I don’t know if it was good that I wasn’t there and don’t have the memory in my head,” Murray said. “Does it help me that I don’t live in Syracuse where the majority of my memories involve him?”
Murray and Diaz were friends since kindergarten, when a scuffle between the two resulted in them being pulled into the principal’s office. They were forced to make up and ended up forming a lasting friendship. They were like brothers, Murray’s mother said, and whenever Murray was back in Nedrow, N.Y., he was usually alongside Diaz.
Four days after losing his best friend, Murray suited up against the Carolina Panthers. He rushed for only 45 yards on 19 carries, one of his least productive games of the season. The next day, he attended the funeral.
“I went to work and was a mess. I felt I had no choice. A part of me feels guilty, but what do you do in that situation? It also put it into perspective the game of football,” he said. “I didn’t care for nothing that game. But I had to be out there, I guess.”
Emotions were inflamed last month when Maniphonh faced trial for murder and argued he shot Diaz in self-defense. During the trial a brawl broke out that resulted in three men being charged and two people taken to a hospital.
A week later, an Onondaga County jury found Maniphonh not guilty of murder.
“For the trial to not go the way we all wanted, it was kind of like another stab in the heart,” Wright said. “He’s been torn up about [Diaz’s death]. It’s had a tremendous, tremendous impact on his life. But the fact that he keeps Jonathan’s memory alive, even just by wearing that number, that’s a healing process there in itself.”
A rising star
Within hours of signing with the Vikings, Murray announced on Instagram that he had no intentions of wearing No. 28, the number he wore in Oakland and the one Adrian Peterson, his future-Hall-of-Fame predecessor, donned for a decade here.
Instead, Murray later told reporters he would wear No. 25, Diaz’s old number from when he was a fearless but smart quarterback for their high school team before going on to play at the College of Brockport.
In Murray’s first season playing for Onondaga High, the starting running back was Mike Hart, who would later star at Michigan and play in the NFL. When Murray did get the ball, he made the most of it. He took his first carry 60 yards for a score.
“When Mike graduated, Latavius took over,” said Bill Spicer, who coached Murray through his junior year at Onondaga. “Not that you can ever predict that a kid will go to the NFL, but you could see that he had something special by looking at him.”
Playing alongside Diaz, Murray garnered first-team all-state honors as a junior and a senior, rushing for 58 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards in his final two seasons combined. Murray was also a game-changer on defense, where he was a rangy outside linebacker.
Despite being named the 2007 Gatorade Football Player of the Year in the state of New York, Murray was a two-star recruit who received only five scholarship offers. Seeking a change of scenery, he spurned his beloved Syracuse for Central Florida.
Murray averaged only 2.9 yards per carry as a freshman. He then tore three knee ligaments and dislocated his knee playing pickup hoops the following spring. He returned to rush for 34 scores the next three seasons. His senior year, he averaged 100.5 rushing yards per game.
On Saturday, April 27, 2013, Murray’s mother, his brother and one of his buddies joined him at their house in New York to watch the final four rounds of the NFL draft, during which Murray was projected to get selected.
More than 1,000 miles away, down in Florida, his father listened on a prison radio.
A father’s pride
Murray’s parents, who never married, split up when he was 3. His mother moved Latavius and his older brother, Paul Jr., to upstate New York to be near her parents. After a few years they relocated to the country town of Nedrow, about 20 minutes outside of Syracuse.
Murray’s parents believed it was important that Paul Sr. remained active in the boys’ lives, so they often stayed with him in Florida in the summer months. During the school year, their father would fly up to visit and watch football games.
Murray knew his father had been involved in illegal activities but said “it was a bit of a surprise” when he was busted for trafficking cocaine in 2010. After his father was sentenced in 2013, Murray stood by him, visiting him in prison on his birthday, Father’s Day and non-holidays whenever he was in Florida.
“Though a person may be in there for his or her actions, you still feel bad that they don’t have the freedom you have,” he said. “It was tough, especially early on.”
His father called his arrest “a bad decision.” Paul Sr. had worked as a chef for years before back surgery in 2009 took that away from him, forcing him onto disability.
“That’s a part of some of the issues that I was having, trying to survive,” he said.
The day his son got drafted, he was listening as much as he could on a radio in a common area at the prison. Whenever he was required to be elsewhere that day, his fellow prisoners kept him updated. When the Oakland Raiders finally selected his son in the sixth round, he beamed with pride.
Paul Murray was released in 2016 and now lives with his mother, helping to care for her after her husband recently died, and keeps tabs on his 17-year-old daughter.
He only caught the occasional highlight on television while incarcerated. But last summer, when Latavius played in the preseason for the Raiders, he finally got to see his son play in the pros in real time. He estimated he traveled to eight Raiders games last season and has since swapped out all of his silver-and-black gear for Vikings purple.
“It means everything,” he said of his son’s support. “It means the world to me.”
Murray, after missing all of his rookie season with an ankle injury, was buried behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew on the Raiders depth chart in 2014. In late November, against the rival Kansas City Chiefs, he took a handoff on a counter play, split the gut and slipped a tackle. Once he hit the second level, he was gone.
“I saw the backdoor cut and I just took off and didn’t look back,” Murray said.
That 90-yard touchdown in a rare Raiders win was a breakthrough moment for Murray, who led the team in carries the rest of the season. In 2015, he rushed for 1,066 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Then, in 2016, he scored a dozen touchdowns despite playing most of the season’s second half with a torn ligament in his ankle and helped the Raiders, who went 3-13 in 2014, make the playoffs with a 12-4 record.
Yet the Raiders, whose coaching staff didn’t believe Murray was effective enough as a between-the-tackles pounder, gave little effort to re-signing Murray.
“To be a part of that [turnaround], that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Obviously, that’s what makes it hard, when you invest so much time into something like that.”
The Vikings invited Murray to Winter Park. After a marathon visit that started early one morning and lasted until after 1 a.m. he signed a three-year, $15 million deal in March.
While holed up at Winter Park that night, Murray sat through an online course for his MBA degree at Syracuse. Business is one of his many interests away from football. He might not live the life of the Dos Equis guy — at least not yet — but one can make a case that the 27-year-old is the most interesting running back in the league.
In the 2016 offseason, he was a Syracuse super-fan, following the men’s hoops team throughout the NCAA tourney, attending every game during its Final Four run.
Murray’s Instagram account has photos of him posing on a jetski in Dubai and flexing underneath the Eiffel Tower. This winter, he dove into photography, another reason he has connected with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, his roommate after signing with the Vikings this spring. Murray is intrigued by a future in television and has in recent weeks made a few guest appearances on the NFL Network’s morning show.
And you might catch him belting out Taylor Swift or Celine Dion at a karaoke bar.
“I like to have fun. I just like to live life,” he said, eyeing up a reporter’s fries. “I don’t like to get crazy. But in the past few months I’ve grown to have a better appreciation for the life that I live. So I just try to have fun and enjoy every bit of it that I can.”