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Roster story not always about numbers

Rico Murray

There is a story behind every NFL roster battle that is more riveting than the battle.

This is Rico Murray's story.

He thinks about his uncle every day even though it has been a long four months since lung cancer did what the Big Ten running backs and the bad guys on the Ann Arbor streets couldn't do and cut down the man with the big shoulders and even bigger smile.

Murray, the second-year Bengals safety, especially thinks about Vada Murray whenever he pulls on his shoulder pads. So he'll be thinking about him Thursday before the Bengals 7 p.m. preseason finale (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium.

He was 20 years younger than his uncle. But he's the reason Murray followed him to Cincinnati's Moeller High School ("I always embraced the blue and gold"), where he would pull out the grainy VHS tapes with legendary coaches Gerry Faust and Steve Klonne, and a fly-around safety named Vada Murray that was in the senior class that brought the Mighty Men of Mo their last state title in 1985.

Two years before Rico Murray was born.

"Whenever I put on the pads, it takes me down memory lane," Rico Murray is saying this week in the PBS locker room. "I think about anybody I idolized as a little kid who paved the way before me."

Vada Murray taught his nephew so many things that he was more like a father, or maybe even a big brother, before he passed at 43 years young in mid-April and mid-life. Rico can still hear his voice on the phone that day two years ago, not long after he'd been diagnosed, and Rico had been released from the Bengals in the last cut.

"It was the next day and I didn't want to talk to anybody," Murray says. "People were calling me saying, 'That's bull,' and 'How could they do that?' And he calls me and says, 'You better not be sitting on that couch right now.'

"He said, 'I know how hard you work and you better not be sitting on that couch because in the next week or two, someone else is going to call you and you better be in shape. That's the way football works."

Murray said it seems like only a couple of days, but it was actually two weeks when the Bengals called him back for the practice squad. He ended up playing down the stretch in 2009 and playing in the Wild Card game.

He got released again on 2010 Cutdown Day, but this time the Bengals called the next day for the practice squad and even though he got cut again in midseason, they brought him back and he played four games before suffering an ankle injury.

Now here he is again. Another Cutdown Day in 72 hours and the Bengals are filled to the brim with safeties. Murray is a factor because he can also play cornerback and special teams as a versatile, effort guy that always seems to do something positive and the big lights don't faze him.

But he is also a former college free agent on a roster with six DBs that were drafted in the first or second round. That's OK. He knows all about odds. Murray has gone from Moeller to Kent State to the NFL playoffs, and it doesn't matter if he got drafted or not.

And he can hear his uncle.

"I'm not as stressed out as I was my rookie year," he says. "I understand if you put your best on film no matter what the circumstances be, if your intention is to put your best out there, that's all you can do for someone to see."

If Rico Murray can still hear his uncle, Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations, can still see him.

"Every time I look at Rico," Lippincott says. "He has Vada's eyes."

Lippincott had to pull over his car that day two years ago on a Friday he spoke with Vada on the cell. Big strong Vada Murray that everyone was drawn to inexplicably had cancer in his lungs. He didn't smoke. His parents didn't smoke. But the doctors opened him up and the only thing they could do was sew him back up.

And now they both wept.

"A special guy, a special guy," Lippincott says. "Gave back to the community. A policeman. He was the straw that stirred the drink in his family. And he meant a lot to my family."

Lippincott coached that Moeller defense that went all the way and they stayed in touch when Murray went to Michigan and played for three years. When Murray became an Ann Arbor policeman and settled there with his wife and three children, he'd bring them down to visit Lippincott at PBS. Lippincott's son David, now a Bengals assistant coach, wore No. 27 at Moeller because of Murray.

"I'd be up there staying with him for a few days, helping him," Rico Murray says. "He'd get bad cramps, and the hardest thing was to get him out of bed and up walking. There were times I was there and Coach Lip would call and be on the phone."

Vada and Rico were tight, no other way to put it. Even with the age gap. But if you saw Vada before he got sick, he kept himself in such good shape you'd swear he could still play. Vada was outgoing, Rico is quiet. But they were tight.

"Throughout high school I'd take a week or two to go visit him," Rico Murray says. "He'd take me to the Michigan football camp and we'd work out together. Being an Ann Arbor policeman, he worked out all the time.

"The things I remember him telling me weren't really about sports at all. As far as being a man. Just make sure … you can't help others unless you take time to help yourself first. Stand on my own two feet as a man. Attack everything with the purpose of getting it done, whether it is school or work or even the game of football."

Rico Murray has to laugh. He's got those Moeller tapes from the '80s but it looks like Vada Murray and his guys are in a home video. He's got a couple of his game tapes from Michigan and he watches them, too, from time to time.

The last time was just before this training camp.

"It gave me a little something to think about: motivation," Rico Murray says. "Remind me to come out and put my all into everything because the time we have here you can't take it for granted."

But there would be no home movies on Wednesday night before this one.

"Have to watch tape of the Colts," he says with Vada Murray's eyes.

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