As Reg Murphy sat among a distinguished panel of athletic figures recently in Macon, there was one thought he couldn’t shake from his mind.
“What is a scrawny quarterback from Gainesville High doing here?” said Murphy, who is now 81 and lives on St. Simons Island.
The answer to that tongue-in-cheek question is simple. Murphy, who made his living as a prominent journalist, newspaper editor and publisher at some of the nation’s largest newspapers, has been a continual ambassador for sports throughout the state, even in retirement. In 1994, Murphy, a life-long golfer, reached the pinnacle of the sport and was elected president of the United States Golf Association.
On Feb. 20, Murphy was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, along with names many sports fans would recognize: Charlie Ward, a Thomasville native who won the Heisman Trophy as Florida State quarterback in 1993, and Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz.
As a player, Murphy, a 1950 Gainesville High graduate, said he was nothing to brag about despite being a starter on the football, baseball and basketball teams. In 1948, he played third base and outfield for Gainesville’s state championship program. In football, he was quarterback the year before 1973 Masters champion Tommy Aaron took over as the program’s signal caller. Murphy also had the privilege, he said, of playing all three sports in high school with Jack Roberts, who went on to play at the University of Georgia in baseball and then as high as Triple-A with the Atlanta Crackers.
Roberts and Aaron are among five Gainesville natives who were already in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame prior to Murphy’s induction. Gainesville’s other previous inductees are Alfred Anderson, Billy Martin and Thomas Paris.
While most of those men went on to play sports at the professional level, Murphy went to work as a writer. First, he was a writer for The Macon Telegraph while he attended Mercer University. Even though he never completed his degree at Mercer, Murphy went on to Harvard University for a Nieman Fellowship study.
Murphy said he dreamed of being a doctor when he was younger, but the need to make a living was his most immediate concern as an undergraduate.
“I had absolutely no money back then, so I had to work,” said Murphy, who first refereed football games before starting to write for The Telegraph.
Murphy flourished as a newspaper man. He was political editor for the Atlanta Constitution (1961-64) before returning as editor from 1967-1978. He also held high posts with the San Francisco Examiner and Baltimore Sun, before becoming CEO of the National Geographic Society, where he stayed from 1995-98.
“I really never intended to be a journalist,” Murphy said.
His recent trip to join the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame was a chance to tap into his love of sports once again. Murphy’s passion throughout his life has been golf.
During the two days to mingle in Macon with the sports greats, Murphy, a big baseball fan, got the chance to chat with fellow inductee Schuerholz. Murphy, then the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, shared his experience with Schuerholz of sitting behind home plate at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron hit the record-breaking home run No. 715 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I remember that (Atlanta Falcons linebacker) Tommy Nobis was sitting behind me and when he jumped up and came down, he hit both my shoulders with his hands,” said Murphy. “I thought he was about to drive me through the concrete.”
During an autograph signing for fans the day of the induction, Murphy said he was seated by Ward, who was the star of the event. The former Seminoles quarterback went on to play 11 seasons in the NBA, most of those with the New York Knicks. A question was thrown to Ward, one which he’s probably heard often over the past two decades: “What was it like to leave the state (of Georgia) to play at FSU?”
For Ward, the answer was simple since he grew up only 30 miles from Tallahassee, Fla., much closer to Florida State than the bigger in-state schools.
With his drive toward leadership, Murphy helped chair a committee which turned the athletics programs at the College of Coastal Georgia into a four-year institution.
During Murphy’s career as a newspaper editor and publisher, his driving ambition was for “a clean and decent government,” he said. During that time, it meant taking a stand in the Civil Rights struggle. That stance for equal justice carried over into his role with the USGA, where he prohibited any championship event from being held at a course with a “discriminatory past.”
He also ushered in the USGA’s agreement with NBC on a 20-year broadcast contract. His wife, Diana, currently serves as USGA vice president.
Reg Murphy, while editor of the Atlanta Constitution in 1974, was kidnapped and held 49 hours for a $700,000 ransom.
It was a story of national prominence at the time, and Murphy was freed by the FBI just two days later. William Williams, who claimed to be head of a group called the “American Revolutionary Army,” was arrested for the crime and served nine years in prison.
All of the ransom money paid by the newspaper was recovered following Williams’ arrest.
During his induction ceremony last month, Murphy recorded a 15-minute video interview to be preserved in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame archives. The complete group of new inductees also had a private meal together to swap stories and establish common bonds.
“It really was a splendid treat,” Murphy said.