The House That Jimmy Built: From Sea Isle Summers to Ronald McDonald Houses, Ex-Eagle GM Tells His Story
By Mark Eckel
Ronald McDonald along with Jim Murray and Dr. Audrey Evans
Ronald McDonald and Jim Murray get some help from TV personality Willard Scott and one of the first Ronald McDonalds to dedicate a new house in 1986.
Jimmy Murray had three titles in mind for what would become an autobiographical look at his life and the founding of the Ronald McDonald House. There was his favorite, “It’s a McMiracle,’’ as well as “Great Things Start in Philadelphia” and “Life Is an Audible.’’
“Any one of the three would have worked,’’ says Murray, who made his name as the Philadelphia Eagles’ general manager under Leonard Tose in the 1970s and into the ’80s. “They really loved ‘Life Is an Audible,’ so that’s what was decided.’’
“Life Is an Audible,’’ co-written with Steve McWilliams and released in April, is Murray’s story. He grew up in Philadelphia and went to West Catholic High School; was expelled from a seminary in Staten Island and landed at Villanova, where he also became the sports information director; worked in minor league baseball for a team called the Atlanta Crackers; was hired by the Eagles as a PR guy, and eventually became their GM.
In between all of that, he also ran a restaurant to the stars on the beach in Malibu and spent 40 summers at his beach house in Sea Isle City.
Murray’s story isn’t just interesting beyond anyone’s wildest dream. The man is a character among characters.
“Four decades,’’ Murray says of the house on 1st Street in Sea Isle. “It was heaven. We were poor growing up, so to have a beachfront house in Sea Isle was paradise. Some great memories there, mostly because we had the chance to share them with everybody. It was one of the greatest things we ever did.”
“And just like the title of the book, it was an audible. I went down there one day, talked to a guy, and next thing I knew I had a place on the beach.’’
(For those unfamiliar with football vernacular, an audible is a substitute play called at the line of scrimmage.)
Murray’s place with the Eagles, where he was GM from 1973-84, reached its peak on the field with the 1980 NFC championship and berth in Super Bowl XV.
It was under his watch that the team traded with Cincinnati for linebacker Bill Bergey, the leader of the team’s defense; and with the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Ron Jaworski. And it was Murray who not only persuaded Tose to interview and hire coach Dick Vermeil, but who also persuaded Vermeil to leave UCLA for the Eagles, and Philadelphia.
“Probably the biggest thing was when we had to get a new coach,’’ Murray says of his time as Eagles GM. “We interviewed a lot of people: [Norm] Van Brocklin [who as quarterback took the Eagles to the 1960 title], Joe Paterno. Joe Restic, a Villanova guy who was at Harvard, he almost got the job.
“We go out to Beverly Hills, and of course I’m with Leonard so we stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where our room-service bill was more than my first house. We’re going to meet with Hank Stram.’’
The original check presentation in 1974 with Leonard Tose, Frank Rizzo, Bill Bergey, Harold Carmichael and Tom Brookshier, among others.
Stram, who had won Super Bowl III with Kansas City, was doing television but wanted back on the sideline. He had all but accepted a job with New Orleans but used the Eagles for a little more leverage.
“We’re out there and we’re watching the Rose Bowl [where Vermeil and UCLA upset No. 1 Ohio State and Woody Hayes],” Murray says. “We called [Vermeil] and he basically said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Holy cow, the guy doesn’t even want to talk to us. Few minutes later, he called back and said, ‘I’ll come over.’
“We talk, and at the end I say to him, ‘Do you have any questions?’ He says, ‘I have one: Why would I come to Philadelphia? Those fans!’
“I told him, ‘Coach, I’m going to be Jeremiah [the prophet]. I’m going to tell you three things. If we hire you and you come to Philadelphia, not only will you come here, you will move your family to Philadelphia. Not only will you move your family to Philadelphia, you will stay in Philadelphia for the rest of your life. And not only will you stay in Philadelphia the rest of your life, you’ll become a household name.’ I was Jeremiah.’’
Murray calls it “the best sales job of my life.’’
After hiring Vermeil, Murray became what Eagles radio play-by-play man Merrill Reese describes as “the buffer’’ between the sometimes-volatile owner and the fiery head coach.
Jim Murray’s roots also run deep at Villanova. Here he is in 1979 with Wildcats track coach Jumbo Elliott (left) and Villanova track medical adviser Dr. Ted Berry (right).
“Jimmy played a large role in allowing Dick Vermeil to coach with the freedom of not having any owner interference,’’ Reese says. “Not that Leonard wasn’t a passionate owner who would have spent anything to help the team be successful, but he was also a guy who could fly off the handle. Jimmy kept Leonard under control.’’
Reese, who also says Murray was instrumental in naming him the play-by-play man in December 1977 after the death of Charlie Swift, adds: “Jimmy is one of the greatest speakers I’ve ever heard. He just captures the entire room.’’
“Life Is an Audible’’ captures all of Murray’s wonderful stories, as only he can tell them, but a majority of the book tells of the most important thing he did as Eagles GM.
No, it wasn’t trading for Bergey or Jaworski, or hiring Vermeil. It was the founding of the Ronald McDonald House.
“We had a tight end, Fred Hill, good guy,’’ Murray says. “He learns his daughter, Kim, has leukemia. Stan Lane, a friend and neighbor of the Hills, and another guy, started a charity called Eagles Fly for Leukemia. I failed biology three times, I couldn’t even cut the frog open. But God had a plan. The charity is having a fundraiser, a fashion show, to help out. Leonard, being Leonard, calls me and says, ‘You have to go to this thing, it has our name on it.’ ’’
Murray and Tose don’t do things in a small way, as you learn in the book if you didn’t already know. So Murray, with Tose’s checkbook in hand, takes it a few steps further.
“First thing I do is go to St. Christopher’s Hospital to see the doctors and see what they need,’’ Murray says. “I take a tour, and they tell me, ‘We need everything, but there’s a greater need. There’s a doctor, Audrey Evans, she’s at Children’s Hospital [of Philadelphia], go see her.’ I drive to CHOP and I learn she’s a sister of mercy.
“I come in all chipper, ‘Hey, Dr. Evans, I’m Jim Murray from the Philadelphia Eagles.’ She says, ‘What are they?’ ‘You don’t know what the Eagles are?’ She says, ‘No.’ Strike one. I say, ‘We’re on TV every week.’ She says, ‘I don’t have a television.’ Strike two. I say, ‘Look, we have money.’ She says, ‘Step right in.’
“Finally, I bring her to Leonard. They talk and he says, ‘What’s your biggest need?’ ‘A life island [a sterile room to do the tests on the children].’ ‘How much?’ She doesn’t hesitate, ‘$50,000.’ Leonard says, ‘How many rooms?’ She says, ‘Two.’ Old math says that’s $100,000. Leonard, who took a hit with 18 at the blackjack table, says, ‘How much for a whole floor?’ She doesn’t hesitate again and says, ‘A million dollars.’ Leonard says, ‘The Eagles will pledge a million, and Jimmy will raise the money.’ ’’
The Murray family on the beach in Sea Isle City.
Getting the first $100,000 wasn’t too hard. But Tose had pledged a million. And once again, Murray delivered.
“When I learned more about the kids and the families,’’ Murray says, “I realized they needed a house.’’
So he called an old colleague, Don Tuckerman, an account executive for McDonald’s, who referred him to Ed Rensi.
“I’m talking to Rensi and I ask him what’s their next promotion,’’ Murray says. “He says, ‘Your guy, St. Patrick, Shamrock Shakes.’
“I ask, ‘Can I get 25 cents for each Shamrock Shake?’ He says, ‘If we give you all the money, can we call it the Ronald McDonald House?’ I said, ‘You give us all the money, you can call it The Hamburglar House. I don’t care what you call it.’ And that’s the real story. It was a McMiracle.’’
The first Ronald McDonald House opened Oct. 15, 1974. Today, there are 365 houses across 43 countries with more than 525,000 volunteers. When that first house opened, less than 5 percent of the sick children survived. Now, more than 84 percent do.
“I read a book called ‘Green Bananas’ by a guy named Steve McWilliams,’’ Murray said. “I didn’t know him, but he takes care of all the special-needs kids. He was in the seminary like me, and didn’t stay, like me. When I read his book, I said this was a guy I have to get to know. And we were perfect together.
“I’m pro football but I also procrastinate, so it took 4½ years to get done. But the story isn’t me, it’s about the goodness of people.’’
“Life Is an Audible” can be purchased online at lifeisanaudible.org.
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