EDITOR'S NOTE — This story has been corrected since it was first posted. See a note at the bottom for a full explanation.
GAINESVILLE — Louis Murphy Jr. has been preparing for this leadership role since he was 6 years old.
It was then that Louis Murphy Sr. would wake the future Florida receiver somewhere around 5:30 a.m. and go for 1-, 2- and eventually 3-mile runs around the neighborhood.
"Very early on, I wanted to teach him to be responsible, to take ownership of the decisions that he made," said Murphy, 50, now senior pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. "I encouraged him to be a leader, not a follower. And I wanted him to have a good work ethic."
The former Lakewood standout is now a Gator senior preparing to step into perhaps his most important role yet: team captain, respected leader and go-to player on a team with national championship aspirations.
"He's the leader of my position group," Florida receivers coach Billy Gonzales said. "As Murph goes, the rest of the group goes. You always have a guy that sets the pace, and this year it's Lou. Players see him working hard, and they also hear it from him. They respect him and what he has accomplished."
Out of the shadows
Murphy began his career on special teams in 2005 but didn't catch a pass. In 2006, he caught two passes for 42 yards and admittedly at times was frustrated. In last year's breakout season, he played in all 13 games, starting 10. He had 37 receptions for 548 yards and averaged 14.8 yards per catch — both eclipsing receiver/running back Percy Harvin.
But on a team with Harvin and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. Murphy doesn't mind.
"What I want is for our team to be successful," Murphy said. "It doesn't matter if I get a lot of recognition or if people talk about me, it's about the team. I want to do the best I can to help this team win and get to the ATL (Atlanta for the SEC championship game). If we do that, everything will take care of itself."
In the midst of his accomplishments last season, Murphy was in tremendous personal pain while dealing with the terminal illness of his mother, Filomena.
On Feb. 14, Murphy's mother died after a long battle with cancer. Murphy said he isn't able to talk about her death but added, "It'll be all right."
"He's very strong," said receiver Deonte Thompson, who describes Murphy as "a big brother."
"A lot of guys wouldn't be able to do that. They lose their mom and they'll fall apart."
Murphy drew strength from his faith and his extended family. Florida coach Urban Meyer, who lost his mother to cancer, was a "tremendous help," Murphy Sr. said. But, eventually, it all caught up to him.
"He handled it all pretty well, the wake, the funeral," Murphy Sr. said. "But I was worried. I was doing a lot of weeping, and he wasn't. So I was worried because crying can be a release. After the Georgia game, he got a concussion, then the headaches got worse (during spring practices). I think it was then he realized his mom was no longer there for him and he couldn't just pick up the phone and call her. I got a call from Tebow's dad, and they wanted me to come up and be with him. He had finally lost it. It was a delayed reaction, but we got through it all. He's better now, and I'm better now. It never goes away, but it does get better."
Ready to shine
Murphy's final season begins Saturday, and this time around, he's no role player.
"It's hard for me to say he's not the go-to guy," Meyer said. "Of course you've got Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow, two of the finest players in college football, but Louis Murphy is going to be the go-to guy. … We're really proud of him. I love Louis Murphy."
Murphy, an Eagle Scout who is one internship shy of his December graduation, admits that at times he looks around and feels "like an old man." But at 21, he's having the time of his life.
"It's all good," he said. "I'm just enjoying everything and taking on this role I've got to take on."
A role the Gators say is critical.
"Last year he was a great player," Tebow said. "This year he has become a leader. He understands how to lead and get guys going. He's taken the next step in being a great leader for us."
Just as his father prepared him.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.
CORRECTION: Murphy's mother died on Feb. 14, 2008. An incorrect date was reported in earlier versions of this story.