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Catching up with broadcaster John Murphy as “Voice of the Bills” comes back from stroke

Catching up with broadcaster John Murphy as “Voice of the Bills” comes back from stroke

Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy delivered a signature phrase that captured the excitement of game day when he asked his Buffalo Bills players in the pre-game huddle: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

There is no place John Murphy would rather be Monday night than in the visiting team’s radio booth at MetLife Stadium describing the action for Bills fans for a 37th season.

Instead, my friend Murph will watch the action from a comfy recliner in the living room of his Orchard Park home as he continues to recover from the stroke he suffered New Year’s Eve. Watching from afar as a spectator rather than a broadcaster is likely to be fraught with emotion. He might even shed a few tears. But it also could serve as further motivation because even in the down times of an arduous rehabilitation program he’s followed religiously for more than eight months, the carrot he dangles in front of himself hasn’t changed. Murph is spurred on by a fervent desire to return to the booth as the Bills play-by-play man – a position he’s held since succeeding late friend and idol Van Miller in 2003.

“That’s the goal,’’ he told me in a recent phone call. “Don’t know if it will happen, but we’re going to keep trying.”

Murph has made remarkable progress, although he doesn’t always notice it as he goes through the day-to-day grind that comes with stroke therapy. Setbacks and plateaus add to the frustration. Happily, he has recovered physically and mentally, and is justifiably proud that he’s dropped 75 pounds.

“Not exactly the diet plan I would recommend,’’ he jokes, flashing his trademark sense-of-humor. “But if you are looking for a positive …”

What hasn’t come back fully yet is his speech. In a cruel blindside, the Voice of the Bills is attempting to recapture the mellifluous tones that have provided narration for generations of fans. In my conversations with Murph in recent weeks, I’ve noticed significant progress. With each phone call, his voice sounds stronger, more assertive. It’s not radio ready, but if he continues moving forward, who’s to say he won’t be sitting behind a microphone again, painting word pictures during Bills games? He’s obviously grateful the Bills have kept the door open for him. As he did late last season, Chris Brown will pinch hit, with the hope Murph returns sometime this season or by the start of the 2024 campaign.

Murph and I go back a long, long way. He took over as Miller’s color man in 1984. The following year, I began covering the Bills for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. We forged a friendship along the way. I stopped covering the Bills regularly about five years ago, and kind of lost touch with Murph, but we rekindled our friendship a year ago, when we began collaborating on a newly published book titled, “If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills.”

Over the course of several months, I met Murph at his home and recorded my interviews with him. I call them interviews, but they really were conversations between old friends. We spent a lot of time laughing and shaking our heads as we recounted stories about players, coaches, front office staff, and owners we had interacted with through the years. It was great fun strolling down this 100-yard-long memory lane. John told some humorous and, at times, poignant behind-the-scenes stories. He was wonderful and easy to work with. I like to use the term “sherpa” to describe these collaborations on “as-told-to” books. It’s my job to lead first-time authors, such as Murph, up the mountain of book-writing.

We had submitted 95 percent of the manuscript to our publisher, Triumph Books, by last Halloween, with the proviso that we would add a 5,000-word chapter or two shortly after season’s end. There was hope those chapters would detail how the Bills won their first Super Bowl. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, we chronicled the most emotionally draining season in franchise history; a season filled with tragic events involving everything from the racist murders of 10 Buffalonians, Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience on the field, Kim Pegula’s cardiac arrest, and Murph’s stroke.

Since the disappointing ending to the Bills Super Bowl aspirations — a lackluster and decisive loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium in the playoffs — we’ve been treated to Hamlin’s unbelievable return to the football field after his heart stopped beating during a late-season game.

As we write in the book, Murph finds hope in Hamlin’s story.

“It’s been wonderful to see him recover the way he has, and to see so many people from around the world rally around him. Although his situation is different from mine, I have taken inspiration from it. Miracles happen. He’s living proof.”

I believe in miracles. And I’m hoping another one unfolds. I’m hoping my friend’s dream comes true soon. There’s no place I’d rather be than right there, right then, when John Murphy makes his triumphant return to the booth.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. Scott, John Murphy, and former Bills Pro Bowl center Eric Wood will be signing copies of the recently published book, “If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills,” on Saturday, September 16 between 3-5 p.m. at the Bills Store next to Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park. They currently are working on several other signings in the Buffalo and Rochester area.