It is hard to imagine a calamity that takes away one’s mobility as being the best thing that could happen to a person. But that is what Michael Murphy, MA History ’12, believes about the 25-foot drunken fall off a roof that shattered one of his vertebrae and left him a paraplegic.
“It was a weird twist of fate that turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me,” says Murphy. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
Murphy, who uses a wheelchair, is pursuing a spot on the 2022 U.S. Paralympic team as a monoskier (skiing on a chair attached to one ski). He speaks to church groups and high school and college athletes about his recovery.
He also has written a book—When I Fell: How I Rerouted My Life and Found Strength in a Severed Spine (Morgan James Publishing, April 2021). It is, Murphy says, an avenue “to teach readers how to hit home runs when life throws them curves.”
Murphy credits his time at Mason with giving him the writing and research skills that turned him into an “amateur academic,” which he needed to be to write his book.
“The perspective of the last 13, 14 years, it’s surreal,” Murphy says. “It’s tough at times, but I’m truly blessed.”
Originally from McLean, Virginia, Murphy was a junior at Randolph-Macon College studying history in April 2007, when he and a friend at a house party decided to catch the view of campus from the roof.
Murphy slipped from the pitched roof and landed on his back. The fall shattered his T-9 vertebra and cracked several ribs. He was in the hospital for five weeks—one week in intensive care and four weeks in inpatient rehabilitation—and came out with two titanium rods and 12 screws to stabilize his spinal cord.
Murphy rehabbed four days a week that summer as an outpatient. He was inspired by the book Gimp by Mark Zupan, a college soccer star who became a quadriplegic after a car crash and became captain of the U.S wheelchair rugby team in 2004. In 2008, Murphy says he watched the Beijing Olympics on television and internalized the stories of hard work and determination.
“I would look at the podium, and [I] realized they are not much different than I am,” Murphy says of the medal winners. “I have just as much determination inside. I can work just as hard. That was a big part of getting me out of some dark times, realizing I had new goals and a new story to tell. I can do new things and be a new person.”
Still, it was not an easy realization.
“I definitely asked, ‘Why me?’ a lot of times,” he says. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But if you stay in those dark moments, it’s dangerous.”
So Murphy went about brightening his world.
After graduating from Randolph-Macon in 2008, he enrolled at Mason to get his MA in history. A former baseball and football player at Macon, Murphy tried adaptive sports such as handcycling, quad rugby, sled hockey, and wheelchair basketball.
In 2013, Murphy addressed a physical therapy class at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. That’s where he met his wife, Casey, with whom he now lives in Denver along with their 1-year-old son, Dylan.
“From the moment we met, there was something different about him,” Casey says. “His situation wasn’t something that got him down, and it doesn’t stop him from living life. Just a better energy coming from him that immediately attracted me to him.”
Christopher Hamner, an associate professor of history at Mason, remembers Murphy as high energy and upbeat.
“He was open to being challenged and open to learning,” Hamner says. “He was a great example of somebody who took every advantage of his opportunity.”
“Mason really helped me because it took my reading and writing to another level,” Murphy says. “Especially as a researcher, going through the archives, chasing the footnotes and reading up on history and seeing how the schools of thought have changed.”
One school of thought Murphy embraced is that of post-traumatic growth, which was put forward in 1996 by Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, psychologists who teach at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte.
The concept is identified as a positive change experienced as a result of a struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event, and it plays an important part in Murphy’s book.
“As you struggle through all the life-changing events, there are positive effects that come from it,” Murphy says. “It can be new opportunities or new relationships and communities. It has given me an inner strength. I want to get that message out to the people.”
by Damian Cristodero / adapted from Spirit magazine, Fall 2021 issue