Jacen Murphy remembers the day his brother Chace burst into their room and told him they were going to sign up for football.
The two were joining the Gwynn Falls 49ers, part of a youth football league in Baltimore, Md.
Chace, who’s three years older than Jacen, could have picked any sport – even table tennis or badminton – and Jacen would have followed along. That’s the kind of influence Chace had over Jacen. Jacen, a 5-10, 190-pound wide receiver at N.C. Central who just finished his senior season, had friends his own age, but he wanted to hang out with his big brother and his friends.
Sometimes Chace would allow Jacen to tag along, but he also knew when to send Jacen home to keep him from seeing the side of his life that didn’t involve football.
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The family was living in West Baltimore, in an area where trouble was always right around the corner, Jacen said. Chace was the man of the house. He was the oldest of four, followed by Jacen and sisters Lacey and Aceyana. Their father, Ace, lived in Wilmington, so Chace became the male role model in Jacen’s life. Chace, who really wasn’t much older than Jacen, could only be so much of a leader for his brother.
Jacen got into his fair share of trouble growing up. He was suspended from school at least once a year during middle school through his junior year of high school. Fighting, skipping school, being disruptive in class, you name it, Jacen did it and was suspended for it. Chace was in and out of trouble with the law.
But as adults, the two brothers’ paths have taken different routes. Jacen led the Eagles this season in receiving with 60 catches for 742 yards and five touchdowns. His 60 catches rank third on the NCCU single-season receptions list. Chace, who Jacen called the best football player he’s ever seen, is serving the last few months of a nine-year prison sentence for robbery with a dangerous weapon. He was arrested in 2011 at age 19, when Jacen was 16. He’s scheduled to be released in June 2018.
“One thing he would always say was I rather you make it than me,” Jacen said. “It didn’t make much sense to me (at the time), but it makes sense now. That’s one of the biggest things I carry with me every day, not only on the football field but in life period. I don’t want to let that go in vain, the sacrifices he made; it would be disrespectful of me to not take advantage of what I have and what I’m doing.”
If Jacen, 22, didn’t listen to Chace, he could have easily been the one behind bars, he said.
Their last game together
The Murphys moved to Wilmington when Jacen was in middle school.
In high school at New Hanover, Jacen and Chace got to play varsity football together for the first time. Jacen was a freshman, Chace a senior. For one game, Jacen was moved up from the JV team for a playoff game against Richmond County. Because of Chace, Jacen would get a chance to shine. But it was also the last football game Chace would ever play, after tearing his ACL in the first half.
During the game, while on the sidelines, Chace encouraged Jacen to stay close to the offensive coordinator.
“ ‘Stay by Coach Raynor, stay by Coach Raynor,’ that’s all he kept saying,” Jacen recalled.
Eventually, the coach turned to Jacen and told him to go in, just for one play. After that play, the coach asked Jacen if he knew why he had put him in the game against the No. 2 team in the state.
Jacen had no clue.
“He said, ‘because you’re Chace Murphy’s brother and I’ve never seen Chace Murphy scared,’ ” Jacen said. “I was stupid nervous before he said that, but as soon as he said it, the nerves went away. Chace is one of the biggest reasons why I am where I am today.”
The next season, Jacen couldn’t play football. He had gotten into a fight and was suspended. There was a cutoff of how many days of school you could miss before you became ineligible for sports. The suspension caused Jacen to miss the cutoff by a day and a half.
Jacen moved back to Baltimore and enrolled at Friendship Academy before transferring to to Dunbar High School in hopes of being able to play again. But he ended up missing the entire season.
“It just didn’t work out,” Jacen said.
Chace at the time told him: “Everything happens for a reason.”
Despite missing his junior season, Murphy was good enough as a senior to be invited as a preferred walk-on at East Carolina. He redshirted in 2013 as a freshman and appeared in two games in 2014 before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. There, he caught 13 passes for 147 yards.
In January of 2016, Murphy signed with N.C. Central. The following season, as a junior, he caught 10 passes as part of a loaded recruiting corps. This year, as a senior, Jacen was steady, no matter which of the three new quarterbacks was throwing the ball.
“This is my last season, so it’s a different mindset week-to-week,” Jacen said. “I have to make sure I take, not just each game, but each practice every day and appreciate it and make the most out of it. I try to instill that in the guys around me to make sure we get the best going forward.”
Since the time he stepped on campus in Durham, Jacen has tried to be the best teammate possible. Not just an offensive leader, he makes an effort to communicate with everyone on the team.
“I text (kicker) Aedon Johnson all throughout the week,” Jacen said. “Just little things like that.”
The day it all changed
Jacen wants to be not only a good teammate, but a good person and a “trustworthy face.”
That wasn’t always his mindset. Jacen’s days of getting in trouble came to an end in 2011, on the day Jacen, 16 at the time, found out his brother had been arrested.
He returned home from school that day to find his mom sitting on the porch crying. He went to the bedroom he shared with Chace. It was torn apart. His immediately knew what had happened.
“That’s probably one of the most life changing days for me,” Jacen said. “I didn’t know how long my brother would be away, but I knew I had to step up and make some different decisions. Just small things I had to change. I had to fill that void because my brother played such a big role to our family. To a sense, I’m still playing that role now.”
Jacen hasn’t seen Chace free since his arrest. Chace never saw Jacen play college football, only hearing about his younger brother’s accomplishments during their brief phone conversations or through letters. Jacen has visited Chace a few times since he’s been in prison, but it’s been a while with Jacen’s schedule between football and school.
The last time the brothers spoke was in September after their grandmother died. Before the football season, Chace wrote Jacen a long letter, which Jacen said was “everything I needed, everything he’s preached up until this point.”
Jacen scanned the letter into his phone. Occasionally, whenever his brother is on his mind, he’ll go over different parts. Sometimes he’ll go through pictures of the two of them.
On the field, Jacen wore the words “Free Murf” on his flak jacket, a piece of equipment that hangs from the bottom of the shoulder pads to protect the lower back and ribs. Those words are also written in his locker and hanging up in his room, and pretty much everywhere.
Jacen says he plays for the entire family, but it originated with his brother, the former quarterback, running back and wide receiver who Jacen modeled his game after. Football was one aspect of Chace’s life that he didn’t mind Jacen following.
Sitting in a conference room on the second floor of the LeRoy T. Walker Complex, a few months away from graduation and having the best season of his college career, Jacen reflected on just how far he has come and how easily things could have gone the other way if not for Chace directing him.
“That’s one of the things I don’t talk about every day, but it’s something I think about all the time,” Jacen said. “Just to see the things I’ve seen, been the places I’ve been. To know that I’ve avoided so much and made it through a lot of things, that’s definitely something I think about every single day. Those big decisions, those sacrifices he made, I didn’t have to make. I could have easily been a part of selling drugs or in a gang or anything.”