Penn State alumnus and double amputee to be featured in upcoming speaker series

Tom Joudrey
October 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — By his own account, Penn State alumnus Rohan Murphy was beset by an intense self-consciousness as child. His diffidence left him timid and on edge with his peers, more apt to keep company with his mother than to hang out with friends. But even in his loneliness, he harbored a private enthusiasm for sports, often gazing wide-eyed at dazzling feats of athletic prowess on his television that, in his seclusion, seemed worlds away from his own life.

“Kids always ask me what’s my biggest accomplishment. And I look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Graduating from Penn State.’ Education is the great equalizer."

— Penn State alumnus Rohan Murphy

In many ways, this faded self-image is unrecognizable even to Murphy himself, whose achievements — powerlifter, Paralympian, storied Penn State wrestler, subject of high-profile Nike and Sports Illustrated features — have propelled him to the status of nationally sought-after motivational speaker. But in Murphy’s telling, it’s the painful, halting journey of his growth, not the accomplishments themselves, that built the grit and resilience that now define him. In fact, the narrative he recounts to packed audiences is not so much one of triumph as of refusing to take failure as the final answer.

Murphy will offer a window into his story when he is featured in November’s College of Health and Human Development’s Fall 2020 Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series, which is hosted by the college’s Alumni Society Board. Due to the pandemic, the event has been shifted to a virtual format and will be free and open to the public.

Murphy’s virtual speaking engagement will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19. Details and registration information can be found by visiting the College of Health and Human Development event page.

Born to a family in Queens, New York, in 1983, Murphy soon after relocated to the town of Islip on the South Shore of Long Island, where, growing up, he struggled to integrate into the community. One obstacle: he was Black in a sea of white faces, one of only a handful of African-American students in a school of 1200. Still, racial difference was never an overriding anxiety for Murphy because he was what he calls a “double minority” — the sole student in a wheelchair at a time when American institutions were still grappling with the need to accommodate people with disabilities.

Murphy had been born with severe congenital birth anomalies, the most serious of which was an absent hip joint. He underwent seven major surgeries throughout his childhood, one of which included the amputation of his legs at the age of 4. It was not until the first day of the third grade that the prying gaze of his classmates suddenly made him feel like a pariah, he said, and thereafter until ninth grade, he routinely wore prosthetic legs in an effort to blend in with his peers.

Still, Murphy’s irrepressible passion for athletics caught the eye of East Islip adaptive physical education teacher Ron Croteau, who recruited Murphy to take attendance and collect stats as a manager for the soccer team, retained him for the same position for the wrestling team, then made the ask of Murphy he had been plotting all along: inviting him to compete on the mat. Incredulous, Murphy demurred, but Croteau was persistent. He showed Murphy how he could be a formidable adversary, executing moves that other wrestlers had never thought possible, much less encountered. In ninth grade, Murphy joined the team and fell in love with the sport. He finished the season with a record of two wins and 13 losses. After only a year of intense training, he vaulted onto the varsity team and closed the year with a 25–6 record, and would go on to enjoy similar success as a standout varsity wrestler during his junior and senior years.

When Murphy opted to attend Penn State, the collegiate-level weight classes seemed to make wrestling at the elite level unfeasible, but after sedulous weight training his sophomore year, he hit 115 pounds and approached head wrestling coach Troy Sunderland to request a shot at walking on. Sunderland’s initial response was blunt: “You don’t have legs.” Murphy answered Sunderland’s skepticism by asking him to stand up to face off, then brought him down in a matter of seconds.

Murphy had earned his shot.

The very first practice of Murphy’s junior year was a pre-season conditioning workout on a hot, sticky day in August at Tussey Mountain, and Sunderland instructed the team to ascend the mountain. Murphy, determined to prove himself, followed his teammates upward through dirt, grass and gravel, scraping and cutting his hands until, an hour and half later, he heaved himself to the summit. “The story spread like wildfire around campus,” Murphy recounted. “It took the context of wrestling to deliver the realization — finally — that having a unique body with unique capabilities was an asset rather than a liability.”

As he closed in on earning his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 2006, Murphy was still in search of a post-college professional trajectory. That’s when Sunderland pushed him to take his first shot at motivational speaking. Though still socially reserved, Murphy undertook the task with gusto, wowing onlookers at a Penn State event. A high school principal in the audience was so impressed by his bravura performance that he invited Murphy to speak at his school. The seeds of a new career had just been planted.

Now, more than a decade since he first hit the speaker circuit, Murphy has delivered hundreds of talks across 42 states and, as goal-oriented as ever, he’s intent on checking off the remaining eight. In the intervening years, his reputation burgeoned, leading to features on ABC’s 20/20, the CBS News, Sports Illustrated and the “No Excuses” Nike ad campaign. Since the disruptions brought by the coronavirus pandemic, he has retooled his presentation for a virtual platform, amplifying the reach of his message to new venues that hadn’t before been possible.

For all his success, Murphy has not forgotten his formative experience as a Nittany Lion student and athlete.

“Kids always ask me what’s my biggest accomplishment,” Murphy recounted. “And I look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Graduating from Penn State.’ Education is the great equalizer. I’ve used my education to make a great career. Not everyone starts with the same resources — or even the same body — but if you set goals and pursue them relentlessly, you’ll get somewhere.”

  • Rohan Murphy

    Rohan Murphy, who graduated from the College of Health and Human Development in 2006 with a degree in kinesiology.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Rohan Murphy
Last Updated October 26, 2020