- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Xavier Murphy was born to go to Notre Dame. His grandfather went there, and Xavier soon became a die-hard fan of the Irish. When Xavier's mother, Marcia, was in labor with him, she was watching Notre Dame beat Navy, the eighth of 12 wins in the team's last national title season.
Xavier tried to walk on to the football team his freshman year without telling his parents. He was cut. He became a manager, helping with all sports before being voted by his peers as one of three students to become head managers for football. This year, filling in the newly-created role of team intern, he did laundry, lent a hand at practice and helped load the equipment truck for road games.
He loved his job, all right. When John Hull, his best friend from Ball State, visited Murphy during the Irish's bye week last season, the two woke up early that Saturday. Murphy had a key to Notre Dame Stadium, and he was thrilled to show where he worked.
"We went out on the field and we were the only ones in the stadium tossing the pigskin back and forth," Hull recalled. "It was a really cool day for me."
Murphy gave Hull a team fleece, a few hats and a couple of shirts, one of which -- navy blue, short-sleeves; gold Notre Dame logo on the left corner, Adidas emblem on the right -- Hull wore two Fridays ago to the Robert Loose Funeral Home in Anderson, Ind.
There, Hull paid his respects to Murphy after he died of leukemia at the age of 22. Murphy would have turned 23 this Saturday, when Notre Dame hosts Navy. The Irish helmet will feature a decal with the letter "X" inside of a shamrock for the rest of the season.
Seven-hundred red t-shirts and 1,300 red bandanas stating "Raise an X for X" are being sold on campus this week in advance of the game. Murphy's family is expected to attend the contest. Proceeds from sales will go toward a scholarship at Xavier's alma mater and his mother's employer, Guerin Catholic, along with Relay for Life.
"X was with us every day," said center Braxston Cave, who joined team captain Harrison Smith in wearing those red t-shirts to a press conference Wednesday. "Always a great person to be around, willing to do anything for you. Always had a smile on his face, cracking jokes. He will definitely be terribly missed. Just a great, typical Notre Dame guy."
"X" stands for more than Xavier. When the Fighting Irish band plays the Celtic Chant at sporting events, and when fans correspond by putting up their dukes like the mascot, residents of Zahm, Murphy's former dorm, usually rebel. Each puts an "X" over his head. Don't ask. It's a Zahm thing.
"If you meet a Notre Dame alum, you ask, 'What hall are you from,' not, 'What year did you graduate,' " said Corry Colonna, Zahm Hall rector. "It's part of your identity."
About two weeks before Murphy was set to graduate in May, he noticed his name wasn't on the list of graduation candidates. He freaked out before discovering he was missing a work, leisure and happiness seminar, which was not offered in the summer and could not be completed online. Any hopes of graduate school were put on hold. He had to return to campus this fall.
About two weeks into Notre Dame's season, a day after the Sept. 10 game at Michigan, Murphy called his parents back in Anderson and complained of back pain.
"I just feel crappy," his mother remembered him saying. "I need to go to the doctor."
He was diagnosed with leukemia, and immediately a fifth year at Notre Dame became a blessing in disguise.
Team equipment manager Ryan Grooms, whom Murphy worked for, joined him at nearby Memorial Hospital the night he checked in. School president Fr. John Jenkins sent Murphy a hand-written note, and Murphy was given his diploma. Notre Dame promised to take good care of his younger brother Julian, who is in his fourth year of a five-year architecture program.
Murphy needed frequent blood transfusions as part of his treatment, so Colonna organized an on-campus blood drive for Nov. 7. The blood will go to the Indiana Blood Center, used by Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, where Murphy eventually stayed.
Murphy died exactly one month after he was diagnosed, in the early hours of Oct. 11. He had developed pneumonia that weekend.
Later that Tuesday, the chapel in Zahm overflowed with close to 160 people for a Mass in Murphy's honor. They then proceeded with candles to the Grotto, and many walked with their arms crossed to form an "X" above their heads.
There was a joke Hull told Murphy's mother, his confirmation sponsor, at the visitation three days later, one passed around by family and close friends since. Hull suggested that, had someone told Murphy before he got sick that Notre Dame's helmets would feature decals for him, that coach Brian Kelly would mention him in a press conference, that he would be honored at a game … and all he would have to do is sacrifice his life, he would do so.
"I think there'd be no degree of hesitation," Hull said with a laugh.
The football team has not found a new intern. It has not even bothered to try.
"We may not have even had the position had it not been able to be Xavier," Grooms said. "It just worked out. It was convenient. We wanted someone we knew and trusted. We didn't want to open it up to the outside, and we did not replace him."
Nearly three weeks ago, Marcia Murphy put Notre Dame's game against Air Force on the hospital television for Xavier. He asked her to lie with him. She got in his bed, he fell asleep and Mom cracked a smile.
"I had to learn to love football," Marcia said, "but I remember thinking, Gosh, he finally has his priorities straight: It's more important to snuggle with Mom than enjoy a football game.
"I didn't know that would be the last game I'd be watching with him, but I'm glad we spent it that way."
Three days later Xavier was gone, and Marcia was on the phone with Colonna. The rector told her the hope had been for her son to see the "Raise an X for X" campaign from his hospital bed on his 23rd birthday, this Saturday against Navy.
"And now he'll be able to see it from heaven," she said.