TEMPE, Ariz. — Kyler Murray never played soccer beyond the FIFA video game, but when Real Madrid and its star forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, visited the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to play an exhibition against AS Roma, he made sure he got tickets.
He admired Ronaldo’s dynamism, his goal-scoring prowess, his flair, and in those days, a week shy of his 17th birthday, Murray evoked a schoolboy version of Ronaldo, capable of implausible levels of sorcery every time he played football or baseball. He had already quarterbacked the Allen High Eagles to two state titles (with a third to come), and he knew he could play either game, or both, in college and the pros.
But as he watched some of the world’s best soccer players, Murray pondered an alternate future, not in football but in fútbol. Turning to his godfather, Mark Johnson, he asked how many years it would take him to be as good as Ronaldo, who, after all, had practiced his entire life to get to be Ronaldo. Johnson, weighing Murray’s athleticism against his inexperience, posited four, maybe five.
Nah, Murray said — it wouldn’t take that long.
“And he was dead serious,” Johnson said. “That’s how Kyler thinks.”
The mind of Kyler Cole Murray is a mysterious, wondrous place. It enables him, at 5-foot-10 the shortest starting quarterback in the N.F.L., to foresee certain touchdown passes five days before throwing them and to evade defenders like a motorbike weaving through traffic. It endows him with the confidence and self-discipline to conjure a reality that matches his towering expectations, but also with an aversion to the attention that has come with his rise from multisport phenomenon to N.F.L. superstar with the Arizona Cardinals, who, despite losing their last two games, remain atop the N.F.C. West at 10-4.
Murray celebrated in the end zone after rushing for a touchdown during a game against Jacksonville earlier this season.Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
The only athlete ever selected in the first round of the N.F.L. and Major League Baseball drafts, Murray, 24, is, if not quite a reluctant celebrity, then a reclusive one. From the start, he has unapologetically refused to conform, either to football doctrine or to the perceptions of how a quarterback should act, look and lead.
Murray does not watch much game film. He tends to hold the ball outstretched when he runs, anathema to every coach who has instructed him not to (to which Murray has said, “When they get close, I’ll tuck it”). He is the rare person who didn’t have to adjust his behavior during the pandemic because he preferred hanging out at home anyway. His coach, Kliff Kingsbury, calls him “an introverted cat.” Murray favors the term “low-key.”
“I tell him, ‘God wouldn’t allow me to have your talent, man,’” Kingsbury said, “because I would have been in all sorts of trouble.”
Growing up, Murray knew people who made bad decisions and squandered their gifts. Resolving not to join them, he abstained from party-hopping or anything else that might jeopardize the trajectory he had plotted for himself. More than a decade later, he still does. After completing what has become known as the Hail Murray — a game-winning touchdown pass flung into triple coverage to stun Buffalo last season — he retreated to his residence and played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare over Twitch.
“I don’t want to be the guy out and about, I don’t want to be the guy seen,” Murray said in a recent interview at Cardinals headquarters. “If you see me, you see me. If you don’t, you don’t.” And if he is spotted out, Murray said he is friendly, but acknowledged that people might be intimidated talking to him.
Friends and teammates acknowledge that it takes time to earn Murray’s trust because he makes them earn it. He needs to know, they said, that you want to win as badly as he does, or at least won’t slow him down.
“With Kyler,” said Tejan Koroma, a close friend from Allen, “I’d think you’d have no choice but to follow or get out of his way.”
The next Russell Wilson
The same summer he went to see Ronaldo play, Murray issued another declaration that fascinated Johnson. This one proved more prescient.
“You know,” Murray told him, “I can do what Russell Wilson does.”
Murray wasn’t searching for affirmation or trying to convince himself so much as thinking aloud. Wilson had just won the Super Bowl, in the 2013 season, and his success with Seattle as a 5-foot-11 quarterback heralded a philosophical shift. No longer did an N.F.L. prototype at the position exist. Regardless of height, there was space for creative, athletic, accurate quarterbacks.
It was as if Murray and his father, Kevin, had foreseen this moment.
A former quarterback at Texas A&M and a draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, Kevin Murray is now a private quarterback tutor in North Texas. Under him, Murray learned routes and defenses and proper mechanics. Kevin Murray inculcated such sound fundamentals that college coaches, when reviewing film of Murray shot from behind, marveled how he used his hips and torso to throw.
“They told me that if they didn’t think it would offend the quarterbacks in their room,” Jeff Fleener, Murray’s offensive coordinator at Allen, said in an interview last year, “they would show them high school footage of what the lower half of Kyler’s body looked like.”
From early on, he wasn’t like the other kids. While other youth football teams focused on rushing, Murray’s offense split four receivers wide. He was 9. In middle school, he would gather teammates at his home for extra practice, then call plays during games that he devised. At 15, with his heels planted on the 45-yard line, he would, by rotating his upper body and flicking his wrist, loft spirals flat-footed into a 50-gallon trash can situated in the back corner of the end zone.
“His go-to line was always, ‘It’s easy,’ but he never bragged or showboated about any of it,” Kendall Clinton, an Allen teammate, said. “It’s like he was born to do what he does. I used to look at him like, you know, maybe I should be more like him.”
That line — “It’s easy” — has been Murray’s Twitter bio for years, co-opted from the basketball player Quincy Miller, whose BallIsLife videos he devoured on YouTube. To Murray, sports are to be conquered, not played. He did not just learn chess as a boy, he won elementary-school championships. When his longtime trainer, Stephen Baca, beat him in the board game Sequence, Murray took the game home to improve. After the Oakland Athletics drafted Murray with the ninth pick in 2018, they invited him, as part of introductory festivities, to take batting practice. To prepare, he hit for three hours on three consecutive days.
“I knew what I wanted to do in my life,” Murray said. “In order to get there, going out and doing drugs, none of that was for me. I’ve never smoked in my life. I want to be the greatest to ever play. That’s always been my mentality.”
Probing deeper into that mentality, one M.L.B. team, while scouting him heading into the draft, developed a psychological profile. The results revealed traits that signified an elite mental makeup: intense competitiveness and both an inability to understand losing and cope with it. This didn’t surprise Johnson, who said he used to have a running joke with Murray’s mother, Missy: A career in sports better work out for him, they said, because otherwise, he wouldn’t make a very good employee.
“Some of those qualities that you have as an athlete, if you carried them into your personal life, you might be a bad human being,” Johnson said. “Kyler doesn’t have the ability to be empathetic out there. If you don’t want to win, if you don’t want to compete, he literally doesn’t understand it. It doesn’t compute in his brain.”
Murray started 43 games at Allen. He won them all. Before his final college season, at Oklahoma, he confided in a few people that he would win the Heisman Trophy, which he did. As a reward, Murray went No. 1 overall to the team that had lost the most games in the N.F.L. a season before.
‘It’s going to be different now’
Murray arrived at rookie minicamp in 2019 and texted Johnson to say how much harder the N.F.L. was. At Oklahoma, he didn’t have Aaron Donald calling out Arizona’s plays at the line of scrimmage, nor did he have older teammates whose livelihoods depended on him. At Allen, he could remark that the other team was “trash” and promise to throw for 400 yards — then go out and do it.
But in the N.F.L., everyone was bigger, stronger, faster. He felt like he had to prove himself, to gain credibility, before he could tell teammates what to do.
As the Cardinals spiraled in Murray’s rookie season, dropping seven of their final nine games to finish 5-10-1, he told Chase Edmonds and another teammate, Christian Kirk, that he wouldn’t tolerate any more losing. That they would make the playoffs the next season.
“When he said that, it was like, ‘I don’t know what you all have been doing here, but it’s going to be different now,’” said Edmonds, one of Murray’s closest friends on the team. “He doesn’t come off as standoffish or arrogant, but I think he got humbled.”
Even though Murray said he never changed who he was, people around him have noticed an evolution, as a player and as a teammate. He has started telling receivers before every game, “We’re the best, be the best,” and has become a fixture at offensive line dinners, held at guard Justin Pugh’s house.
Murray credited the presence of Colt McCoy, the veteran backup he said he didn’t even realize he was missing until McCoy joined the Cardinals this year. McCoy, in his 12th season, said he has never played with anyone who has as much intuition or feel at the position. Other young quarterbacks might overthink; Murray, he said, plays with an uncluttered mind.
As an example, McCoy mentioned Murray’s Week 4 touchdown pass against the Rams to tight end Maxx Williams. The first option, McCoy said, was Edmonds, coming out of the backfield. But Murray knew the Tuesday before the game that if Los Angeles presented a certain coverage, he would throw over the middle to Williams. Murray was so confident that, when the ball was snapped, he never even looked toward Edmonds.
“I think I was blessed with the cognitive skills to just go out there and just see it before it happens,” Murray said. “I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team and that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much.”
Sometimes, when he needs a break, he turns his eyes elsewhere, either to video games or to his favorite movie: “The Great Gatsby.” It inspired the pink pinstriped suit he wore to the N.F.L. draft. The first time he saw the film, he said, he was hooked. The themes of hope and love and the American dream resonated for Murray. So did the title character, Jay Gatsby, a complex and inscrutable stranger.
“The fact that he could throw these huge parties, nobody’s ever met him, nobody knows who he is, nobody knows what he looks like,” Murray said.
“That, to me, was so, so cool.”