TAMPA — Practice had ended, but Sean Murphy-Bunting had to wrap up once more. Weaving his way through bodies, the Bucs defensive back located his mother near the sideline and, with the heat index nearing triple digits, gave her an even warmer hug.
Kim Murphy, wearing a white head band and tank top emblazoned with Successful Jocks, the name of her son’s nonprofit organization, is more than the proud parent of one of the league’s future stars.
She is the Bucs’ de facto Team Mom. The unofficial, unpaid role comes with the title of Parent Liaison. It’s a position that general manager Jason Licht agreed was needed, and Kim was the perfect choice.
Such an arrangement might be suffocating for some, but Sean always has been able to breathe more freely because of Kim’s involvement.
“My mom is also like my best friend,” he said. “She’s been with me every step of the way, obviously. She’s been at almost every game I think I’ve ever played. She was always the Team Mom, and really this is very similar.”
Kim raised four boys as a single mom who were all involved in sports ― Gregory Madison, 28; Sean, 25; Martice Bunting, 20; and Carlton Estell, 16. She was the one who drove her boys to practice. But they all were driven to be good men and athletes.
“I was always that mom that was coordinating everything and making sure everybody had everything and everybody knew where we were and what we were doing,” Kim said. “So, when we got to the Bucs, I was kind of lost.
“(Sean’s) rookie year, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to do things. His focus was, ‘I’m trying to learn the playbook. You figure it out.’ I didn’t how you get a jersey. I didn’t know how you stay with the team. Sean told me, ‘Guess what? I won’t be finding out. That’s what you do, Mama.’”
A guiding hand
After other parents turned to her for help, Kim reached out to Licht.
“I said, ‘I realize it’s somewhat Little League-ish to say you guys need a Team Mom or whatever you want to call me. But it’s needed, because we need that information. We can’t rely on our sons to be able to pass that stuff onto us.’”
So, Kim moved from Michigan to Tampa last year. With a master’s degree in counseling, she was inspired to work with youth and serves as the chief executive director of Successful Jocks. Sean is the president. The organization’s mission is to inspire, motivate and empower student-athletes.
“Some of the things we do and I’m passionate about is making sure they’re successful in the game of life, not just on the field,” she said. “So, one of our programs is called the Game of Life. We work with them on financial literacy, health and wellness and things like that.... Raising four athletes myself, I really got attached to student-athletes and understand their needs.”
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The organization will team with Neiman Marcus to host a private fundraising event, Stepping into a New Season: Football, Fashion and Food, Aug. 14 at International Plaza (5-8 p.m. general admission $250, VIP Meet & Greet access $500).
“It’s been great,” Sean said of the support for his foundation. “Of course, I love working with kids and showing them what is possible. You want to be a role model, you want to be an inspiration and let them know they should dream big.”
Successful Jocks partners with a lot of organizations that work with foster children, including New Life Village, Celebrate Birthdays, the Tampa Bay Youth Football League and the Junior Bucs, to name a few. Working with foster children always had been a big part of Kim’s work professionally.
“For many years, I was a counselor working with kids in foster care, so I went into the homes and provided therapy for kids who were taken away from their families,’’ she said. “My kids saw that. I really connected with those kids and made them a part of my family.”
A shoulder to lean on
Sean needed to lean on his family after he suffered a dislocated elbow during last season’s opener against the Cowboys last season. He underwent surgery and missed eight games.
“I had never really been hurt before,” he said. “I’ve had to play with things, but obviously this was much different. There was a period there where I didn’t know what I was going to do, whether my season was over or if I would have surgery. It’s the first time I’ve had to sit back and see the game from another perspective.”
Kim said the injury also impacted her routine.
“We have this ritual on game day, and I wasn’t able to do it,” she said. “I don’t eat. I don’t talk to people. It was funny, because I got an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, too, and tailgate and mingle and do stuff like that.
“As we shared and talked about my story with other moms, they were able to talk to me about what it feels like when your child gets hurt. It was a learning experience.”
When Sean did return to the lineup, he wasn’t the same player. Physically, he was forced to play with a brace to protect the elbow. Mentally, he also struggled.
“He said, ‘I’m not sitting out. I’m playing,’” Kim said. “It took something very serious to sit him down. That was an eye-opener. I think last year when he did get back in the game, it was still a mental thing. He wore a brace and wasn’t able to let loose like he wanted to. Not wanting to take it off, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
While Sean benefitted from watching future Hall of Famer Richard Sherman play his position, when he returned he wasn’t the player who had three interceptions in consecutive playoff games a year earlier.
“He was banged up all last year, so he didn’t have his health or his speed at that time,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He came into camp in excellent shape. His offseason was good. He’s moving around very well right now.”
Murphy-Bunting’s missed tackle of Cooper Kupp in the division-round game led to the deep ball that set up Matt Gay’s winning field goal in the Bucs’ season-ending loss to the Rams. Murphy-Bunting appeared to slip, giving Kupp a chance to get out of bounds and stop the clock.
“That play was unfortunate,” Sean said. “Of course, it hurt to lose that game, especially the way we did. But you can’t take anything away from (the Rams). They’re Super Bowl champs. They made plays when they had to.
“As a defensive back, you learn to go onto the next play. That’s what I’ve done. There’s nothing we can do about that game. You turn the page.”
An extra hug from the Team Mom helps, too.
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