ST. PETERSBURG – When Louis Murphy, Jr. was six, he told his father he didn’t want to join the Boy Scouts because it was for white kids.
His dad, an executive for the Boy Scouts of America, was startled. But when he saw how bedraggled his black scouts looked with their makeshift uniforms and camping equipment, he took action, tirelessly raising money, recruiting boys to join and cajoling adults to help.
“It paid off,” said Louis M. Murphy, Sr. When he left his scouting job four years later, the region had grown from 15 or 20 black scouts to more than 500.
One of them was his son, now 28, who eventually became an Eagle Scout, scouting’s highest rank. Murphy, Jr. also starred in football at Lakewood High School and the University of Florida before moving to the National Football League, where he plays wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The scouting experience was pivotal for his father, too. Because it forced him to refocus his life and help others, Murphy, Sr. said, scouting became his “springboard into the ministry” and his job as senior pastor at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
“The Boy Scouts was like a ministry in itself, with helping inner-city youths to do something positive with their lives, to develop values, morals (and) skills … so that they can be productive citizens,” said Murphy, 56.
Mt. Zion, which claims the largest African-American congregation in St. Petersburg, makes children and teenagers a key focus of its ministry.
At its sprawling campus at 955 20th St. S., it offers daycare, pre-kindergarten, a school for grades K through five and free after-school tutoring for grades K though eight. It offers a summer camp, sponsors Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and runs a drum line and color guard for ages seven through 21.
Mt. Zion also counsels unmarried couples during pregnancy, in the hope that fathers-to-be will stay involved in their children’s lives.
Murphy, Sr. said he knows what it’s like to grow up without a father. His dad left after his parents divorced when he was eight. He made mistakes early in life, the pastor said, and he was just as hardheaded as some of the children he mentors today.
He said he tried to use his own experiences to help guide his son through college and now in the pros. And he uses the example of his son to show what young people can achieve with the right values and adult leadership.
Murphy, Jr. is one of the few professional football players who is an Eagle Scout, a distinctive that makes his dad proud.
Louis Jr. “is a devout Christian,” Murphy, Sr. said. “Is he a saint or perfect? Nope. [But] he’s a believer, absolutely.”
Murphy, Sr. said he remembers coaching youth football and being on the sidelines during his son’s years as a Florida Gator. Most of the players were black, he said, but the percentage of involved fathers was minuscule.
The role of fathers is “critical, it’s absolutely critical,” Murphy, Sr. said. “And that’s why we try to get the fathers to stay involved. L.J. (Louis Jr.) screwed up sometimes, but I was right there to catch his behind and make him do the right thing.”
Before the 2009 NFL draft, Murphy, Sr. said, he bought a Bucs license plate that read “LJ2B” – for “Louis Jr. to be a Buccaneer.”
“When he was a junior in college at the University of Florida, it was my vision that he would be with the Bucs,” Murphy, Sr. said.
Instead, the Oakland Raiders selected the UF graduate in the fourth round, 124th overall. But after three seasons, Murphy, Jr.’s playing time decreased and he became a free agent.
In 2014, just as his father once predicted, the Bucs signed Murphy, Jr., then released him before the season opener.
He had offers to join Cincinnati and Chicago, his father said, but he urged him to wait. He had a feeling the Bucs would re-sign him.
And on Sept. 23, 2014, they did.
On the final drive of his first regular-season game as a Buc, Murphy, Jr. caught a 41-yard pass that led to the game-winning touchdown over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was signed to a three-year extension at the end of the season.
To honor his mother Filomena, who passed away in 2008, Murphy, Jr. started an organization, 1st Downs for Life, to help teach children fundamental football and cheerleading skills and life lessons.
“I guess sometimes it’s a test of your faith, and sometimes you have to go through things and it really makes you stronger, makes you better,” Murphy, Sr. said.
When the Mt. Zion congregation honored him last month on his 16-year anniversary as pastor, his son was there.
Murphy, Sr. is unable to attend Buccaneer home games because of the church’s Sunday services, but he said he records every game and prefers watching at home, where he can follow the games more closely.
He also has a new license plate – “LJIS.” It stands for “Louis Jr. is a Buccaneer.”
Andrew Caplan is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Reach him at (352) 476-2830.