6:00 AM ET
Josh WeinfussESPN Staff Writer
- Covered the Cardinals since 2012
- Graduate of Indiana University
- Member of Pro Football Writers of America
Whenever Murray has a break from his duties as Arizona Cardinals quarterback and heads back to his home state, he stays with his parents. And every time he’s back home, he sees that picture.
It’s a reminder of how Murray lives his life in the ethos of Lee, the martial arts master who died 49 years ago.
Murray’s mom, Missy, tells her youngest son to always make sure the picture is straight before he leaves his room, otherwise, the zen — Bruce Lee’s zen — will be off. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to disturb in the Murray family, it’s Bruce Lee’s zen. It’s everywhere, Missy said, from the material — a Bruce Lee blanket that once hung in Kyler’s Oklahoma dorm room, now folded in his closet — to the ethereal — Missy preaches diversity and cultural awareness in her house and uses Lee as an example of someone who helped break cultural and racial barriers throughout his short life, including by marrying outside his race.
Missy stoked Kyler’s interest in Lee with books and movies, and now Lee has become an integral part of Kyler’s life. Kyler has become a Lee disciple, using his philosophies, teachings and techniques in football and life to help unclog his brain, calm himself and find perspective.
Those philosophies might prove crucial for Murray as he prepares for the first playoff game of his career on Monday when he and the Cardinals face the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Murray connected to Lee through a shared mental fortitude, a shared ability to reach success and a shared Asian heritage. Murray is one-quarter Korean and Lee was of Chinese descent.
Lee’s philosophy involves “fulfilling your potential,” said Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter. Bruce called it “self-actualizing,” she explained, and it’s a combination of discovering one’s self, knowing yourself and then working to improve yourself to “become the best, most whole, most alive version of yourself that you can be.”
Murray has embraced this mantra. Ahead of a Week 6 game against the Cleveland Browns, Murray’s mind was crowded. He was concerned about facing the Browns’ two talented pass-rushers, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, while also looking across the field at his friend, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
To help him, Murray relies on Lee’s philosophies.
“If I have a situation that’s tough or going into a game, it kind of calms you down,” Murray told ESPN. “… Bruce’s philosophies, it kind of mellows you out. You mentioned trust your judgment, your instincts, your skills, everything you’ve worked on. It just kind of gives you a sense of confidence and, like I said, it calms the mental down for me.
“It slows s— down because you got a lot of things going on — or I do, personally — going into a game.”
To Murray, Lee’s philosophy means he has “no limitations.” The foundation is one of Lee’s most famous teachings: “Be water.” Murray wears a gold bracelet on his left wrist with the words inscribed on it.
“It’s kind of like, don’t put yourself in this box despite what everybody says, is basically as simple as I can put it,” Murray said. “You gotta be as versatile as possible.”
“Be water” has helped the undersized quarterback flourish on the field. Murray is acutely aware his size is supposed to put him at a disadvantage. He’s 5-foot-10, far shorter than the “prototypical” quarterback standard, but Murray labels himself as a “different type of player” because of his ability to make plays with his arm and feet.
It’s another way Murray finds motivation from Lee, who stood 5-foot-8 yet performed beyond his size, much like Murray has throughout his career.
When he’s asked which quarterbacks he looks up to, Murray gives some of the obvious answers: Michael Vick, Russell Wilson and his father, Kevin Murray, who was a star quarterback at Texas A&M during the 1980s. Murray uses those comparisons primarily because he’s built like them, but, as Lee taught, Murray feels like he can be formless.
“I have the capability to kind of be my own mold of a player,” Murray said. “As far as, like, the philosophy goes, I got it on my deal — be water. I live by that. … I’m playing against 6-5, 300-pound [defenders]. I’m going against these specimens and I’m the smallest dude on the field most of the time. So, it’s like, kind of f— with everybody, f— everybody, and it’s like, go do you and just be water, be formless, don’t care what everybody says.
“That’s how I see it.”
Bruce Lee would be a fan
Living the philosophy like Murray does is very Bruce Lee of him, said Shannon, who thinks her father would be a fan of Murray’s if he was still around. Bruce died in 1973 at 32 years old, when Shannon was 4. Earlier this year, Shannon was going through her father’s library to prepare it for a move to the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle when she unexpectedly found two books about football.
Shannon, whose mom is a big sports fan and who grew up watching Monday Night Football and going to Dodgers games, doesn’t think her dad watched much TV, but he was interested in physical movement. Even though his focus was combat, he loved talking to people who did other types of physical disciplines, Shannon said.
Football, in a way, is like organized combat, Shannon pointed out. It includes the art of movement and has parts she thinks Bruce “would have really loved.”
Which leads back to Murray.
“He would think he was awesome,” Shannon said. “Why wouldn’t he?
“He would love to see how he’s applying himself, mentally, physically, spiritually.”
Murray has shown Shannon that Bruce Lee’s philosophy is timeless. He’s 24, right around the age when Lee was in the middle of developing his philosophies.
To Kyler’s mom, Missy, who was introduced to martial arts as a young girl in South Korea, it’s like her world has come full circle. The more she learned about Lee growing up — how he was the child of immigrants, how he embraced multiculturalism while still honoring his own Asian heritage, how he wanted to control his own destiny — the more she admired Lee. Now the man she grew up admiring is being admired — practically beloved — by her famous son, who counts Bruce Lee’s daughter among his followers on social media.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Missy said. “It really is.”
Shannon is grateful Murray has embraced her father like he has, but Murray’s appreciation for Lee goes beyond his practice. He dresses like Lee, and was in ESPN’s 30 for 30 film about Lee, “Be Water.” He has worn a Lee pendant, and he wears custom thigh pads with Lee’s image.
“It’s, like, mind-blowing to see this young football player, who you wouldn’t think would necessarily be a Bruce Lee fan,” Shannon said. “I mean, who isn’t a Bruce Lee fan? Because people are like, ‘Oh, Bruce Lee, he’s cool.’ But, like, usually that’s a bit the level. But like to really see that, it is in part mind-blowing and part heartwarming.”
Bruce Lee for the next generation
Murray has long embraced his multiethnic heritage.
His dad, Kevin, is Black. His mom, Missy, is half Korean and half Black. His understanding of race, ethnicity, culture and how they all relate to each other and within the confines of society, started at home. Missy never shied away from talking about race and racism, and preached acceptance.
“More so for me, being Korean, being Asian is a big deal for me to show that I’m not just African American, I’m both, so I represent both sides,” Murray said.
Murray doesn’t shy away from showing how much of a fan he is of Lee, which is also a public embrace of his Asian heritage.
He showed up to the Cardinals’ Week 5 game against the San Francisco 49ers wearing a black tunic with a Mandarin collar and trousers that were similar to what Lee would wear. The first time Missy saw the outfit on Kyler was when he tried it on. She nearly fell to her knees.
“I’m like, ‘You have to get this suit. I don’t care if this is the last one and it doesn’t really fit. You have to get the suit,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘This is the Bruce Lee suit.’ He was like, ‘Mom, I know.’
“The suit melted my heart.”
Murray knows he’s exposing Lee to people who might not know who he was or might not know a lot about him. However, he’s not doing it out of a sense of responsibility to carry on Lee’s teachings due to their shared Asian heritage.
Murray does it for himself.
Lee’s philosophies have been his guiding light, his North Star, for football and life.
“People look up to me so they’ll obviously start to, ‘Oh, let me do this, let me do that,'” Murray said, “So I think that’ll pump his philosophies. People will watch his YouTube videos, movies and stuff like that, but nah, I don’t do it for anybody else other than my mindset and what I go through throughout the day.”
Handling the noise
Stephen Baca has been Murray’s trainer since his sophomore year in high school. Murray doesn’t talk about Lee’s philosophy or teachings in the gym, but he makes it known he’s a fan of the martial artist through, for example, T-shirts.
Baca has seen Lee’s philosophy manifest itself in how Murray handles the outside noise.
“The Bruce Lee philosophy is the opinion of people that are not in your circle, they don’t really matter,” Baca said. “That doesn’t mean that those people don’t matter. It just means that their opinion shouldn’t have a way to affect you one way or the next.
“If they say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this or that because you play bad, you play not to your standards,’ and people are gonna say what they say negatively, it’s the same thing. You’re like water. If something gets thrown in water, the shape of water doesn’t change, right? It stays the same and you can’t mess with the piece or structure of it, at least not for too long. It ripples and then it sits back to calm and I love that.”
The more Kyler’s mom thought about how much Lee has impacted her son, the more obvious and clear it became.
“Do you see Bruce Lee’s philosophy in Kyler today? Absolutely, 199%, yes,” she said. “Because he’s so calm. This child is so calm that sometimes I interview him after games because I’m just like, ‘How do you remain … When you had two seconds left on the clock, how did you … What were you thinking?’
“I’ve always called him my little ninja. We never put them in martial arts, but he just adapted to watching Bruce Lee.”
Shannon has been impressed with how much Murray has embraced her father and how he implements his teachings.
“Kyler is accomplishing at such a high level and really utilizing it with so much depth, these words and things, I, certainly at 24, wasn’t doing that,” she said. “It is impressive and I think he should be applauded for that because it takes a lot of drive and desire to apply these types of things at such a young age. You haven’t lived as much of your life yet.
“You have to have depth, in a lot of ways, to key into the philosophy in the way that he has. … It requires a lot of awareness and it requires a lot of effort, and it requires taking thoughts and words, and translating them into action.”