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Special Athlete in La Palma Has an Extra Obstacle to Overcome : Kennedy Football Player Wants No Unusual Treatment

October 27, 1987|TOM HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The last thing Jeff Murakami ever wanted was sympathy. All he wanted was a chance to compete in sports like the rest of his friends in La Palma.

Given an opportunity, Murakami learned to excel in baseball and basketball as a youngster. It wasn't easy, but he found that competing in sports built self confidence; it was a way to make friends.

Today, he finds the attention he has received at Kennedy High School a little embarrassing. He truly thinks of himself as simply a member of the team.

Truth is, Murakami is a special athlete.

He was born without a left arm, and competes in football, basketball and baseball at Kennedy.

He has started at cornerback in the past four games and intercepted a pass two weeks ago against Santiago. He was named the top defensive player on the school's sophomore and junior varsity basketball teams.

He pitched on Kennedy's freshmen baseball team and was a first baseman and outfielder on the varsity as a junior.

"I've coached Jeff for three years, and each year I've figured there was no way this kid can start," said Mitch Olson, a Kennedy football and basketball coach. "Every year, he's wound up starting for me. I look at him and ask myself, 'How can this kid be playing?' "

Murakami competes wearing a prosthesis, strapped to his arm, which extends about six inches from his shoulder. The artificial limb, costing about $500, is made of plastic and rubber, with a hinge at the elbow. It had to be approved by the Southern Section before he could suit up.

On the football field, Murakami does most of his tackling in the secondary with his shoulders. He makes catches by cradling the football with his right arm into chest.

"He catches the ball as well as half of my running backs," Olson said. "We were doing punt return drills the other day and the only problem Jeff had was judging the ball in the air. He's amazing."

John Mayberry, Kennedy basketball coach, describes Murakami as an outstanding defensive player who is a deft ballhandler and shooter.

"There isn't anything he can't do," Mayberry said. "He has excellent shooting form. He uses his prothesis as a support and pushes the ball with his right hand.

"You gotta love his attitude. He gets right down on the floor for a loose ball. Sometimes, I have to slow him down in practice because I'm afraid he might hurt one of his own teammates. I honestly never notice that he's handicapped. He's a natural in basketball."

Learning to hit and field a baseball was more difficult. Murakami spent countless hours with his father, Richard, learning to field a ground ball, throw off his glove, grab the ball and make a throw with one hand.

Murakami mastered the technique so well that he was able to play Little League baseball. He also learned to bat with one hand and became so proficient at hitting that he could pull a pitch down the left-field line.

"He was as good as most of the boys and better than some kids," says Jeff's father, Richard. "I told him when he first started playing sports that he was going to have to practice harder and longer than his friends.

"My wife and I always encouraged him to try everything. He always seemed to adapt well. He was never clumsy. There was never anything he couldn't do, even as a small child."

Imagine the Murakami household when Jeff came home one day last spring and told his parents and two younger brothers that Olson had invited him to try out for football.

"Football!" Richard Murakami said. "You're a senior and you've never played the game. You're so small. Are you serious?"

A better question: Was Olson serious?

Olson: "I coached Jeff for two years on sophomore and junior varsity basketball teams. The day I was named varsity football coach, I knew I wanted Jeff on the team.

"I figured he would play some special teams and a little defense. I wanted him to be a part of the team because he has such a great attitude and work ethic. I never dreamed he would end up starting."

Neither did Jeff.

"When Coach Olson suggested I try out for football, I didn't think he was serious," Murakami said. "I knew it was going to be a struggle, not so much physically, but just learning the basics of the game.

"I knew I could play, but it was going to take some time adjusting to a new sport. What's hurt me more than anything else is my lack of experience."

Richard Murakami played football and basketball at Dorsey High in Los Angeles. He had encouraged his son to try out for the freshman football team at Kennedy, but Jeff wondered if he could play a physical sport.

"I didn't think I could do it," Jeff said.

Richard Murakami had to purchase a special prothesis that met National High School Federation standards before his son could play. Olson brings a copy of the certification to each game to ensure its validity.

"I'm not wealthy by any means," Richard said. "But I decided that if my son wanted to play football, I would help out in any way I could.

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