When we enter a coffee shop on South State Street, no one recognizes him.
He picks an open table near the windows on the left and sits down, rubbing his hands together for warmth. Asked if he wants to order something, he shakes his head. He’s not a big coffee drinker.
On the walk over, we talk for 10 minutes before the interview even starts. At this moment, we could be classmates working together on a project, or roommates relaxing on a Sunday afternoon or high school friends catching up.
Walking around Ann Arbor, dressed in a gray pullover sweatshirt, navy blue athletic pants, and blue and white adidas shoes, James Murphy looks like a typical American college student.
You couldn’t guess he’s 4,000 miles from home.
Witney, England is a small town on the River Windrush, 12 miles west of Oxford and a little more than an hour northwest of London.
This is where Murphy, a freshman standout on the Michigan men’s soccer team, calls home.
“Outside of my family, I miss the countryside and being able to walk down by the river the most,” Murphy said. “Not being able to see my family for months on end is very hard, and I miss the home comforts that everyone has.”
Growing up in soccer-crazed England, one of those comforts was developed at an early age. A rite of passage for many young English boys, “the beautiful game” soon became much, much more to him.
Murphy, his brother and his father would sit on their sofa every Saturday and Sunday watching matches. He started playing when he was 5 — by 8, he was playing six-a-side tournaments and was hooked.
At 11 years old, with just one year of local soccer under his belt, Murphy signed with Oxford United’s youth academy and spent three years there before transferring to Reading FC, where he spent the last five years of his young career.
Things only took off from there. Murphy — whose mother is of Irish decent — made his international debut at just 15 years old, when he suited up for the Under-16 Irish National Team against Israel in January 2010. He would later score his first goal in an Ireland uniform in a match against Malta.
“I still remember the exact dates, and it’s something I’ll always remember,” he said. “Not many people can say they’ve played internationally or scored an international goal.”
Murphy’s success caught the attention of Michigan assistant coach and England native Tommy McMenemy. After forming a connection with Murphy and recruiting him against schools like the University of California-Santa Barbara and North Carolina, McMenemy finally got Murphy to sign on with the Wolverines.
“I’ve been (to the United States) a few times before on holiday,” he said. “I’ve been to Florida. I went on a soccer tour with Reading to Charlotte, North Carolina when I was 15. I always wanted to live in America when I was younger. I thought it would be cool to experience a different way of life and get out of my comfort zone.”
But as he would soon find out, the journey across the pond is not always an easy one.
“Oh my God, I’m actually going.”
That was Murphy’s reaction the night before he was scheduled to arrive in Ann Arbor in July. The end of his summer had snuck up quickly, and the reality of the situation had finally caught up with him.
“It didn’t hit me that I was going to America,” Murphy explained. “It seemed like such a long way away.”
Murphy is quick to reference how supportive his parents were in his decision to attend college in the United States, despite the distance he was about to travel.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mom,” Murphy said. “She made a big effort to help. I remember a six-hour day we spent at the U.S. Embassy in England working on paperwork to allow me come here. (My parents) understand what a great opportunity this is for me and that I should take it with two hands. It’s not every day you get an opportunity like this.”
Murphy is making the most of it — and then some.
He embodies the term student-athlete. On the pitch, he is a menace for opposing defenses to handle. He is quick, has a deft touch on the ball and is always one step ahead of his opponents, prompting Michigan coach Chaka Daley to rave about his incredibly high soccer IQ.
As impressive as he is athletically, he is keeping pace, step-for-step, in the classroom as well. He even has aspirations of going to law school.
“Becoming a lawyer has always been a goal of mine,” Murphy said. “That’s part of the reason why I chose to come to Michigan — to get an education that would set me up for that.
“This place speaks for itself. The balance of academics and athletics is the best in the U.S.”
When Murphy showed up on campus, he was ready to hold up his end of the bargain.
Murphy heads down a quiet hallway in South Quad Residence Hall, reaches into his pocket and pulls out his housing card.
“Just so you know, they’re probably playing FIFA in there,” he says.
They are. Teammates and fellow freshmen Zach Hager and Nick Iacobellis sit on the small couch pushed back in the middle of the room.
“We always play FIFA,” Murphy says. “It gets very competitive.”
Zach and Nick nod in agreement over their XBox-360 controllers. The room itself looks like any other college freshman’s. The walls are littered with flags, banners and posters. The Union Jack hangs proudly above the television. On the wall above the couch hangs a poster with a map of the London Underground rail system.
These are little reminders of home, but he’s also put the effort in to fit in with his American teammates.
“I’ve really gotten into American football,” Murphy says. “Zach has been teaching me the rules. Tyler (Arnone) got me into supporting the Jets, which has sort of upset some of the guys on the team from (the state of) Michigan,” he says with a smile.
He’s also embraced the culture of the university as a whole, doing his best to assimilate outside of the soccer field.
“A lot of people are very enthusiastic here,” Murphy adds. “They support things a lot more than we do back home. I went to my first ever American football game versus Air Force … and it was incredible. I’ve met so many of the freshmen (football) lads who live in South Quad with me and they’re really friendly. I try to support them as much as I can.”
But it’s always been European football first.
Immediately to the left of the door, there’s a single poster next to his bed with a simple slogan: “Keep calm and support Chelsea.”
When asked about why he likes Chelsea, he lets out a little laugh.
“It’s always been them,” he says. “I think when I was born my dad put a Chelsea jersey on me.”
The central-London-based soccer club is one of the most prestigious, successful and recognizable teams in the world. Last May, Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League tournament as the best club in all of Europe.
“Growing up, I fell in love with Gianfranco Zola,” Murphy says. “I’ve always been a huge admirer of him. When I got older, it was (current Chelsea midfielder) Frank Lampard. I try and play my natural game, but if I can learn some things from top players like him, then that’s great and I’ll try to implement them in my game.”
Despite contributing just three goals and an assist thus far, Murphy has played in 17 games this season and has found his footing in the starting lineup for a team eager to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament. And in the quarterfinals Wednesday night in Evanston, Illinois, he stepped up. With the game level in the 68th minute, Murphy found the breakthrough to give Michigan a 1-0 victory over Wisconsin and vault the Wolverines into the semifinals on Friday vs second-seeded Northwestern.
Not coincidentally, in a time of such transition, more so than he had ever experienced before in his life, Murphy has fittingly turned to soccer to help ease the adjustment.
“I think (soccer) makes you very driven as a person,” Murphy said. “It’s so competitive. It gives you that winning edge that you need in life if you want to be successful.”
His teammates also play a big role in making sure he feels as close to home as possible.
“They have helped me and included me, and living in the dorms has been a great experience,” Murphy said. “They’re not seeing their families either, so we try to have a lot of fun together.”
Still, part of what makes the adjustment so difficult, Murphy said, is not having people around who have had the same experiences growing up. Not surprisingly, then, Murphy has been doing his best to reach out to fellow English students.
“Lauren (Thomas), who plays on the field hockey team, lives about 20 minutes away from me back home,” Murphy said. “I was shocked when I first saw that. It’s nice when you come from the same place and have those inside jokes that no one else understands.”
As we exit the coffee shop and make our way back down State Street, Murphy isn’t prepared for the cold. He shoves his hands in his pockets and slightly zips up his jacket.
We talk for the next couple of blocks, and at times it feels like he’s the one conducting the interview. He doesn’t speak like an 18-year-old kid. We discuss Hurricane Sandy among other things and he asks, concerned, how my family is doing on the East Coast. His demeanor is mature and focused, as if our exchange is as important as a game itself.
We let our conversation stray away from soccer, but he brings it back just for a moment.
“Perhaps in the next couple of years (Michigan) could compete nationally,” Murphy says. “Even this year, we’ve proven we can compete with any team in the country. It’s been up and down, but we’re in the right place.”
And, most certainly, so is he.