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Sonny — a coach's story

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Ralph Murphy survived a rough upbringing in New York City and moved to the Hudson Valley where he landed a spot on the Millbrook NY High School football team.

Murphy's life changed dramatically again in 1994, when he was shot in Poughkeepsie NY while picking up dinner.

Paralyzed from the wasit down, Murphy now cares for himself and for an entire Pop Warner football team, the Tiny Mites, as their coach.

November 7, 2008

Coach Sonny teaches lessons in life

Youth football instructor inspires from a wheelchair

By Sean T. McMann

Poughkeepsie Journal

Sonny wears a whistle around his neck on this practice field, though he rarely needs to blow it.

His voice reaches every corner of Eastman Park.

"Matteo, run him over!" the City of Poughkeepsie football coach implores, before one of his young defensive players recovers the fumble he caused. "That's what we want!"

Seemingly everything that comes out of Sonny's mouth is an exclamation -not just a declarative sentence, but an exclamation -backed with energy and vigor.

"I don't want an old-man run! Pump your arms, Clark!" the coach instructs his Pop Warner Tiny Mites, their little heads bobbing under their helmets, as they begin a recent practice with sprints -run forward down the field, then come back running backwards. "Lean your head forward so you don't fall back!"

The head coach and his assistants have spent their autumn teaching the young Mites more than just offensive and defensive principles. The team runs only five plays when they have the ball -"We mainly use three of them,"

he says, "and I'm not going to tell you what they are" - and the tackling has taken some work.

But whether they know it at their fresh, young age or not, these Pop Warner players are learning just as much about life -if not more -than football from their head coach.

Sonny shares his time on this football field, barking out the plays from his motorized wheelchair, to give Poughkeepsie's Tiny Mites something they need, something he never had at their age: structure.

"I grew up abandoned. I set my own rules," he said. "I didn't have people telling me, 'Hey, you get in trouble and you're going to go to jail.' I had to listen to other people tell their kids.

"Being abandoned, that's a tough thing here, and I tell them, 'You can move on. If you don't want to be here, you can go home. You've got to be here to learn. You have to be here to grow.' "

n n n

As long as anyone can remember, Ralph Murphy has been Sonny. Just Sonny.

He's a New York City kid who made his way through a rough upbringing to become the 45-year-old football coach who sought refuge in the Hudson Valley decades earlier.

"I was born in Harlem, and grew up in Queens," he said. "Then the lady I was living with caught breast cancer, and we had to go to a group home."

Life didn't get any easier from there.

When the city school Sonny attended closed down, he looked north for his next opportunity.

"I told them I was going for a job, (and) missed the bus on purpose so I could stay here," he said. "I stayed up here because it was quiet and so I can live and have an education."

Sonny eventually found himself in Millbrook, where he starred for the local high school's football team, No. 32 on the scorecard.

It was a second chance for Sonny, a football field in eastern Dutchess County. Just 90 miles north of his former haunts, but seemingly a lifetime from what he thought would be his fate.

"I'd probably be dead down there," he said, thinking of what likely would have awaited him back in the city. "Seventeen, 18, I probably would have been dead."

n n n

The City of Poughkeepsie's Tiny Mites are just like the NFL guys who play on Sunday. Except they're, well, tiny when compared to those behemoths -these Pop Warner warriors range in age from 5 through 7 -and they're just learning the game.

But they hit and tackle with just as much intensity and heart as the big boys. Winning eight games this season while losing just one proved that.

With such unbridled enthusiasm, it takes special people -be they coaches on the field or parents at home - to wrangle the little rookies into a cohesive unit, one capable of running and passing its way up the field or stopping the other guys from doing the same.

"They're young, and they're learning," said Dave Brown, Poughkeepsie's Pop Warner president, who looks for as much support from the young players' parents as he does from the coaches. "You don't give up on them because it's something that's really good for them, and the kids love it."

Making the Mites' first football experience a safe one, local officials provide the players high-tech, lightweight helmets and pads, perfect for their young and developing frames.

Instead of playing the standard 11-on-11 with 22 young Mites running all over the field for four quarters, the local kids play the season with a more manageable eight players on a side.

Adding to the safety of the program, Brown says he runs background checks on all the volunteers who help.

"People are willing to step up when they see you're doing something good for the kids," said the president, who adds running the city's Pop Warner system is a year-round job. "It makes me feel good when I get to see the end-product of everything.

"Or now, I go to (Poughkeepsie) High School and some of the players that I helped coach, now they're starting to play high school ball. That's my reward, to see I kept them off the streets, in a good program. Now, they're going to high school and they're learning. The next step is going to college and being productive in society. That's what the ultimate goal is."

Of anyone on this practice field, Sonny knows most how imperative it is to keep Poughkeepsie's kids productive and off the streets.

n n n

"It'll just be a few minutes," they told 30-year-old Sonny when he ordered a family meal at Kennedy Fried Chicken on Main Street on the night of March 10, 1994.

That was just enough time for his life to change forever.

Before that order came up, a young assailant pumped a bullet into Sonny's back.

He only got a glimpse of the gunman who paralyzed him from the waist down. He'd never seen the guy before, hasn't seen him since.

"What happened to me, I don't wish on nobody," Sonny said. "The pain and suffering I went through I don't even wish on the kid who shot me in the back."

That shooting -the city's sixth in the first two-plus months of 1994 -was only the beginning.

Sonny spent months in St. Francis Hospital, calling Room 513 home while suitable housing arrangements could be made; his third-floor apartment was rendered obsolete since it couldn't accommodate his new wheelchair.

Three years after being shot, Sonny suffered complications from his injury that put him in a coma for 10 days. Following a fall from his wheelchair a year later, Sonny had his right leg amputated.

"God put this in my hands because He knew I'd deal with it. And I'm doing a fine job," he said, quickly turning his attention from his plight to his players. "It's not easy, but you've got to stay on it. If I can stay on it, I can stay on them."

Oh, he does stay on the Mites.

" 'I can't eat after 4 if I have practice at 5,' " Brown said, recalling what his son and daughter have told them they've learned at practice. "'We can't go to McDonald's because Coach Sonny says it's not good for you.'

"He's a great coach for them to learn from," Brown added. "He teaches them a lot of things about listening, about respect, teaching them about nutrition."

And he's ready for anything the Mites throw at him.

"They're not going to wear me out. I've got too much energy," Sonny said. "I've got to get them to stick together, play together."

n n n

Sign on to coach 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds how to play football and you become part coach, part teacher, part traffic cop. Hence the whistle.

Little bodies, clad in shoulder pads and helmets, run all over Eastman Park here, banging into each other during tackling drills, for example.

"You have to have a lot of patience," Brown said. "They're young and some of them, they have a hard time listening."

Someone has to rein them in, show the kids how to do things the right way.

"It's not wrestling," Sonny said as he watched his Mites go through tackling drills. "Don't try to slam him. Fall and let your weight take him down."

The Mites' head coach breaks down the fundamentals of the game in terms the youngsters can easily comprehend.

Take those tackling drills again.

"Raquel, I want you to go lower," Sonny implores a young player. "Waist, not head. Hug him. Squeeze him."

When verbal instructions just aren't enough at practice, Sonny leads by example.

Using the joystick on the left armrest of his Teknique GT to drive the wheelchair across the grass, the coach lines up opposite the left tackle, taking his place at defensive end.

"The kids relate to him," Brown said, "because he's at their level, eye to eye."

He matches their enthusiasm level, too.

Jamar Anderson is one of Sonny's assistant coaches; everybody calls him "Pops."

Anderson said just like the Mites he helps coach, he draws inspiration from Sonny and his spirit.

"He's phenomenal. I'm amazed at how he's able to work with the kids," Anderson said. "I've found it rewarding just to come down here and work with him. We're just like a big family."

That respect is reciprocated, as Sonny knows how much his assistants help.

"They're the bodies ... and sometimes part of the brain."

n n n

Sonny takes his kids' futures personally.

He knows the time and effort he puts in today can yield positive results for years to come; his dream would be to see each of his Mites get a full ride to play football in college. He knows what happens to many kids who don't have the structure at an early age that he tries to provide.

"You won't get no scholarship being a thug," Sonny said. "They're going to give you a pistol."

That's what motivates Sonny to keep at it, always getting to the practice field early while never letting his players know the rigors it takes just to travel the half-dozen blocks or so from his Livingston Street home.

"They don't see that when I run out of power, I've got to charge up at Rite-Aid to get here," he said. Instead, Sonny uses the Mites themselves to instill values in each other through teamwork. "We teach them responsibility, the right way to play, trust your teammates."

Again, he's not just talking football. He's talking life.

Sonny plans on making the most of his, while helping current and future Mites do the same.

"I've got to keep doing it for a long time," he said. "As long as I stay healthy, I can be here."

What's the biggest lesson Sonny can teach, the one that will serve his Mites well long after the final whistle?

"The day is long enough to help one person," Sonny said. "The respect is giving, not receiving."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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