OXFORD – Contrary to widespread public opinion outside of town, Oxford High varsity football coach Jeff Clarkson did not open his home to Niko Murray as a thinly-veiled attempt to keep the Pirates’ star player in the fold and away from other teams.
Clarkson, born and raised and still living in Oxford, may not realize it, but he saw part of his own past in Murray’s future and he didn’t want any member of his team – star player or seldom-used reserved – to go through the unhappiness he went through many years ago.
“I think for Jeff it’s tied to his upbringing,” his wife, Dawn Clarkson said matter-of-factly. “It’s a totally different set of circumstances, but for his freshman year in high school Jeff went to St. John’s. He told me he missed his friends so much that it was one of the more difficult years of his life. ‘It’s a great school but I missed my friends,’ he told me one night. Jeff’s roots were, and are, here in Oxford.
“So Jeff understood when Niko said he wanted to stay in Oxford and at Oxford High because all his friends were here now,” Dawn Clarkson continued,” Jeff realized from talking with him that Niko’s roots were now here in Oxford, too.”
Murray, who grew up in Fitchburg, came to Oxford in 2014. The Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (DCF) classified Murray as a ward of the state and placed him in the George Bernardin Oxford House, a long-term residential group home for boys ages 11-18. The facility is run by YOU, Inc.
Murray and the Clarkson Family
Upon arriving in Oxford, Murray was enrolled in the eighth grade. The Oxford School Department applied for, and received, a waiver so he could play football at the high school and he joined the football team that fall. The first day of practice he met Joel Erickson and Ryan Walsh, two classmates and teammates he now refers to as his best friends.
“Some of the kids (at the Oxford House) were talking about going to Oxford High and playing football and I was interested in that because I played football in Fitchburg growing up,” said the outgoing and always smiling Murray. “I didn’t know anybody when I got here and started the eighth grade, but my first day here I made a bunch of friends. Joel was the first guy I met and he introduced me to Ryan. Joel and Ryan became my best friends.”
Murray played on the varsity team as an eighth-grader, splitting time between quarterback and running back. He started about half the games that year. Murray was the starting quarterback when the Pirates’ faced Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in the Thanksgiving Day game between the teams. Murray was a member of the varsity football team as a freshman as well.
Statistical records from those two years are spotty at best. As an eighth-grader Murray appears to have rushed for 52 yards and four touchdowns, including a 12-yard touchdown against Ayer-Shirley, and a two-point conversion. As a freshman Murray gained 198 yards and scored two touchdowns on 41 carries, had three pass receptions for 86 yards and another TD, returned four kicks for 57 yards and kicked two extra points. The team was 1-9 in 2014 and 0-11 in 2015.
Murray has come into his own on the gridiron the last two seasons. As a sophomore he gained 1,265 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on 162 carries. He also returned a pair of kicks for scores. Last year was Murray’s breakout season as he rushed for 2,040 yards and 30 touchdowns on 160 carries. He also caught five passes for 88 yards and three more scores. Murray finished the year with 34 touchdowns and 204 points.
Jeff Clarkson and Nike Murray
Jeff Clarkson remembers meeting Murray – sort of – when Murray was an eighth-grader.
“I went over to the middle school to watch the middle school basketball teams play – my daughter Olivia was on the girls’ team. In middle school the boys’ and girls’ teams would play back-to-back,” Clarkson explained. “After one of Olivia’s games I see Niko waiting around but I don’t know who he’s waiting for or what he’s waiting for because I don’t know anything about the kid other than the fact he had played varsity football and he had started at quarterback in the Thanksgiving Day game.”
At this time Clarkson had no connection to the Oxford High football program – he was a youth football coach in town.
“I had just seen him play middle school basketball and I could see what an athlete he was even though he was only in the eighth grade,” Clarkson continued. “So, I went over to him that day at the middle school, after the games, and I said to him, ‘hey, you’re a good athlete, I’ve seen you on the basketball court and I’ve heard good things about you. I saw you play on Thanksgiving. Stay out of trouble. One of the keys to being a great athlete is staying out of trouble.
“Then, and I have no idea why I did this, I said to Niko, ‘Just remember, you never know, down the road, who your coach will be,’” Clarkson said. “I just threw that out there. There was nothing even on the radar about my becoming coach at that time. I mean, I had always thought about it, but the position wasn’t even open at the time (Mike Adams was the coach for Niko’s eighth-grade season). Then we shook hands and he told me he had to go, that his ride was here, and I see the gray van that is famous for being the Oxford House van, pull up and Niko gets in and off he goes.”
As fate would have it, the Oxford High varsity football job opened up later that year and Clarkson applied for the job – and he didn’t get it.
“I got passed over,” Clarkson said. “Ross Thibault, the principal at the time, calls me and tells me he is going to go with Brian Cain, an assistant coach at the time at Westfield State. Is he a better coach than me, Xs and Os? Probably 10 times better. No doubt about it. Does he know defense better than me? Probably 10 times better. I said to Ross, ‘I think you’re stepping over me.’”
Thibault, however, had a plan. He wanted Clarkson to work with Cain and help coach the Pirates.
“Ross said to me, ‘you bleed orange and black. I know you’re going to stay and help this kid,’” Clarkson recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m not going to. I got my hands full with the youth program.’ Then I said to him, ‘can I talk to you freely? Like I talk to one of my friends?’ And he said, ‘go right ahead.’
“So I said, ‘do you know what you’re doing? This whole town is going to be in an uproar over this thing. I’ve been involved in the youth program since Day One. Everyone in town knows me. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but this is what I’m supposed to do. This job has been waiting for me. This job came up now for a reason.’” Clarkson remembers telling Thibault.
Clarkson said that on paper Cain was a coach. He was coaching at the college level and had coached at the high school level before that.
“I told Ross, ‘from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think this is going to work out,’” Clarkson said.
And it didn’t, because it became apparent that Cain wanted a teaching job at Oxford High to go along with the coaching job, even though the administration had made it clear during the interview process that a teaching job did not come along as part of the coaching position.
Cain, who was hired in May, resigned on July 8.
“He called me that day and said, ‘Jeff, I just want you to hear it from me before all the craziness starts – I’ve resigned,’” Clarkson said. “He told me he had just clicked send on the email and sent it off to the superintendent and the principal. He said, ‘I can’t believe they didn’t hire you. You should have the job. I hope you get it. Good luck. Goodbye.’”
Clarkson acted quickly.
“I immediately sent an email to Ross that said, ‘you have one day to make a decision. If not, good luck. It’s July. I don’t have time to play games with this,’” Clarkson said. “Ross called me as soon as he got the email and said, ‘the job is yours. Let’s move forward.’ So, I kind of got the job by default, which was not the way I wanted to get it, but what are you going to do? I didn’t have time to cry over not being the first choice.”
The more Clarkson got to know Murray – now that he was his coach and interacting with him on a daily basis – the more he liked about him.
“Right from the get-go I realize this kid is a good kid,” Clarkson said. “It made me think, ‘what is he doing at The Oxford House?’ In mid-September I get a call from a DCF worker out of the blue and he says to me, ‘don’t get too attached to this kid. He’s a good kid. He’s progressed out of the Oxford House and we want to get him into a home with a family. He doesn’t belong here.’”
Clarkson went home that night and shared his “news” with his wife.
“I brought it home and put it right on the kitchen table. I said to Dawn, ‘what do you think? Can we try to find someone to take him? Do we take him ourselves?’” Clarkson said. “My oldest daughter, Gabrielle, was at UMass at the time so I knew we had a room if we needed it. I said to Dawn, ‘I don’t think she’ll be heartbroken to lose her room if she knows what we’re doing, bringing a kid in to live with us. Can we do it?’”
As he tells this part of the story Clarkson sounds a lot like a little boy who brings home a stray dog and asks his mother if they can keep it.
“I had actually already met Niko at this point,” Dawn Clarkson said. “He was one of the boys from the Oxford House that had volunteered to work the football camp that we hold every year for the youth program. I saw him playing out on the field and I thought it was very nice that he was out there volunteering his time.
“A couple of weeks later, Jeff said to me, ‘I think Niko is going to be leaving us.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean he’s going to be leaving?’” Dawn Clarkson remembered. “So, Jeff tells me that Niko’s social worker told him that Niko is going back to Fitchburg. Then Jeff says, ‘what do you think about him coming to live with us?’ and I was like, ‘let me talk to the kids first. I’m OK with it, but let me talk to them.’”
Dawn Clarkson said her boys – Quinn, who is now 12, and Kellen, who is 10 – were immediately on board with adding Murray to the family.
“They were excited about the idea of Niko coming to live with us,” Dawn Clarkson said. “There was no trepidation at all. There were no worries about getting along because they had met him and seen him and interacted with him during the football camp. They like him a lot. And they knew him from town playing with the other kids.
“I think my boys were just happy Niko was going to be living with us,” Dawn Clarkson said. “They were happy that he was going to be like a big brother to them. They looked up to him automatically. All the younger kids in town are like ‘Niko, Niko, Niko.’ They love him and he is wonderful with the kids.”
Dawn Clarkson said the decision to open her home to Murray was, in the end, a very easy one to make.
“Niko had built a life here in Oxford and had made friends and he wanted to stay. I think in the end we wanted to give him that opportunity,” Dawn Clarkson said. “He’d been in Oxford for two years. I didn’t want to see him pulled out of here, a place where he had made friends for two years. Jeff and I believed Niko’s roots were now in Oxford so we decided to open our home to him and give him a chance because he’s a good kid.”
With his wife and family firmly on board with the plan, Clarkson met with Mike Roy, Murray’s caseworker to discuss the possibility of having Niko become a part of the Clarkson family.
“Mike told me he would look into it and put a game plan together,” Clarkson said. “So we had a CORI check done and we started in mid-October having Niko come over for dinner on the weekends. He had Thanksgiving Dinner with us, too.
In December Murray began spending his weekends at the Clarksons.
“First it was one night, then two and then it was Friday, Saturday and Sunday and we were bringing him to school on Mondays,” Clarkson said. “Mike told us DCF was still waiting to see if he got processed out to a family looking to foster a kid, but he knew, with Niko being 16, that probably wasn’t going to happen.”
During the winter months Murray began struggling a little with his schoolwork. He was still eligible to play under Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) guidelines, but his DCF worker required him to have a grade average of 70 or higher and Murray had slipped below that.
Murray was a member of the Oxford boys’ varsity basketball team at this point, and the Pirates had advanced all the way to the Division 3 state championship game. But, because his grade average wasn’t at least a 70, his DCF worker didn’t allow Murray to participate in the game.
“Niko’s grades went even further south after that happened,” Clarkson said. “At that point I said to Mike, ‘look something has got happen here. We want to take him. What if something like this happens again during baseball season, or next year during football season, or basketball season? Sports are Niko’s life; if you take that away from him he’s not going to be receptive to anything that you are trying to throw at him.’
“It was really an effort for us to get them to let us take him home to live with us,” Clarkson said, shaking his head at the memory.
With his family on board and DCF seemingly on board, Clarkson decided he better ask Murray if he actually wanted to come live at his coach’s house.
“One day, toward the end of my freshman year, coach Clarkson was talking to me and he just asked me out of the blue if I wanted to come live with him and his family so I didn’t have to leave Oxford because my time at the Oxford House was up,” Murray said. “I had made friends here and I wanted to stay, but I didn’t know how I was going to be able to do that. The more it looked like I was headed back to Fitchburg the more I was saying to myself, ‘I wish I could figure out a way to stay in Oxford. I’m comfortable here; I know a lot of people here.’
“Coach picked up on that and asked me about living with him and his family,” Murray explained. “I wasn’t expecting that, but I was happy he asked. I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to do it. I felt like I didn’t really know him that well for him to do that, and I didn’t know if I wanted to live with my coach. But, I said yes because I really wanted to stay in Oxford.”
Murray officially moved in with the Clarksons on June 6, 2016.
“It was the last day of school his freshman year. The Oxford House packed him a bag and he came to live with us,” Clarkson said. “When I tell you it took hundreds and hundreds of emails to make this happen, it took hundreds and hundreds of emails. I feel like if I hadn’t pushed, he probably would have fallen through the cracks.”
Clarkson smiles when told that folks believe he only went to all this trouble because of Murray’s athletic ability and how important a piece of the Oxford High football puzzle that he is.
“Of course I knew people were saying that, are saying that. I don’t think it was folks here in town. But I heard the talk that was going around. People were telling me what other people were saying,” Clarkson said. “My reaction to all that is this: When the kid was a freshman, if you put a hand on him he went down. His freshman year he was good, he was not great. He was a freshman. Did I see potential down the road? Yes.
“I remember saying to Niko freshman year, ‘I talked to your DCF worker and he said to not get too attached to you. Do you know what’s going on?’” Clarkson said. “Niko said, ‘yes coach, I know what’s going on.’ So I asked him, coach to player, friend to friend, ‘what do you want?’ He said, ‘I’ve been going here since the eighth grade, I have friends, I have a girlfriend. I’ve had a lot of support here. I really enjoy being here. I’d like to stay here in Oxford. Hearing that, I wanted to help. And I’d want to do it for any kid in his situation whether they played sports or not.”
Dawn Clarkson dismissed the notion that her husband went to all this trouble just because Murray is a good football player.
“That had nothing to do with it,” Dawn Clarkson said. “When you get to know Niko, really know him at his core – his beliefs, his values – he’s a kid you want to help.”
Murray said no one has mentioned to him at any point that his getting to live with the Clarksons is some kind of star player treatment.
“No one has, and even if they did it wouldn’t bother me because I know it’s not true,” Murray said. “I think I’m bright enough to know we have a connection. Right from the beginning he told me this isn’t about football. He told me ‘if you get an offer from a better school and have a better opportunity, I want you to take it. I want you to go.’ It’s all good. I plan on being with the Clarksons until I graduate.”
None of the Clarksons – not Jeff, not Dawn, not Olivia – were worried that there would be any backlash about an African-American kid from The Oxford House going to live with an all-white family in town.
“I wasn’t worried about any of that. It’s Niko, after all,” Olivia Clarkson said with a laugh. “He’s pretty well known in Oxford; because of football, sure, but also because he’s an all-around nice person. He knows everybody in town and everybody knows him.”
Murray didn’t think twice about the fact he was moving in with an all-white family.
“I never even thought about that for one second; this is Oxford,” Murray said. “I never heard any gossip about that, either. I never feel like anyone is looking at me when we were all out together. Again, this is Oxford.”
Olivia Clarkson, who turns 14 next month, was a fifth-grader when Murray started attending family dinners at the Clarksons.
“When my mom first asked me about Niko I didn’t know who she was talking about,” Olivia Clarkson said. “But then my dad started having the football team dinners at our house and I met Niko through those dinners. We talked a little and I got to know him and he seemed like a nice guy.”
Dawn Clarkson said when she asked Olivia how she would feel if Niko came to live with them, Olivia whole-heartedly endorsed the idea.
“By then, after the team dinners and after he came over for dinner with the family a few times and after he stayed over for a few weekends, I had gotten to know him by then so I knew he was a good guy,” said Olivia Clarkson, who looks at Niko as her big brother. “We had nice talks together and we made each other laugh. I thought, at that point, it would be fun to have him around.”
Dawn Clarkson said having Murray join the family dynamic has been an adjustment for both parties.
“Niko’s had a totally different lifestyle than we’ve had,” Dawn Clarkson said. “He has boundaries and rules, and there are expectations on him around the house probably for the first time in his life. We’re very structured while he is coming from a totally different upbringing which is much less structured – if at all. So the process of ironing things out and making it very clear what’s expected and what is not OK, has taken some time.
“He’s very receptive to what I say to him when I need to say something to him and he is very respectful of me,” Dawn Clarkson said. “It’s been a big adjustment for both of us. As you would expect when having a kid who is almost 16 come to live at your house. There’s definitely been a defining of roles.”
Jeff Clarkson said there have been growing pains in his relationship with Murray – as he knew there would be – since the player came to live with the coach.
“We’ve had ups and we’ve had downs, to be sure. It’s been trying and challenging at times. I’ve had him out on the front steps a couple of nights waiting for a ride because I’m not dealing with the nonsense,” Jeff Clarkson said. “But, it’s mostly typical kid stuff that everybody probably deals with. But I do hold him to a higher standard.
“Niko is a good kid that got derailed a little bit,” Clarkson said. “But he’s not a bad kid. Sometimes you deal with bad kids and you have to walk away. Niko isn’t one of those kids. My mother, my sister, my nephew, he calls them his brother and sisters. He calls my wife mom, he calls me coach. Everybody gets along.
Through all the trials and tribulations, all the peaks and valleys, Jeff Clarkson said ft he had it to do all over again, he would.
“Just to see how well he fits in with this community I would do it again,” Jeff Clarkson said. “Just to see the friends he’s made. He wanted to be closer to them. Being at the Oxford House he had to put up a wall. But now, since he’s been living with us, I’ve seen him open up and become a responsible young man with his friends and his teammates. I would definitely do it again.”