When Latavius Murray and Jonathan Diaz met two decades ago, they weren’t exactly fast friends. The two were classmates in kindergarten in Onondaga, N.Y., which borders Syracuse. One day, tensions boiled over.
“We had a fight, and our parents said, ‘Hey, you guys need to make up,’ ’’ Murray said. “And from that moment, our relationship just kicked off. He became like a brother to me.”
Murray and Diaz were best friends throughout their school years. At Onondaga High School, Murray was the star halfback and Diaz led the way as his blocking fullback. When Murray was taken in the sixth round of the 2013 draft by Oakland and made the NFL, he saw Diaz whenever he could, often flying him to Raiders games.
Then came Nov. 24, 2016, early Thanksgiving morning. Diaz was shot to death at age 26 during a dispute over a woman at a Syracuse bar. The news hit Murray hard. He flew home the following week and, choking up, spoke at his best friend’s funeral.
“It was just a difficult situation,” Murray said. “To lose him, especially at such a young age, it was very hard on me during the season. Speaking at the funeral was one of the tougher things I’ve had to do, but if I didn’t do it then, maybe I would have regretted that as life went on if I didn’t say something or share some moments that we had.”
When Murray signed with the Vikings as a free agent last March, he had an idea how he would continue to honor Diaz. He had worn No. 28 with the Raiders, and Murray had decided he didn’t want that number because it had just been worn by departed star Adrian Peterson, a player he greatly admired.
So Murray decided he would take No. 25 in his bid to become Peterson’s replacement. He chose it to honor Diaz, who had No. 25 as a lacrosse player and No. 15 in football, but NFL running backs can’t wear No. 15.
“I knew that 15 and 25 were both his favorite numbers,” Murray said. “He loved those numbers. Whether it was his AOL user name or his email, he had 15 or 25 in them. I don’t know why he loved those numbers so much, but when I had a chance to chose (No. 25), I thought it was a great opportunity for this new start.”
The gesture moved members of Diaz’s family.
“It was big-hearted,’’ said Diaz’s father, Dr. Felipe Diaz, chief medical officer at Syracuse Community Health Center. “I was touched and my family was deeply honored. Jonathan and Latavius were like brothers since elementary school and they formed a beautiful friendship.
“I consider Latavius to be like a son to me. In fact, Latavius calls me, “Pops.’ I am happy Latavius is keeping Jonathan’s memory alive”
Recovering from March 22 ankle surgery, Murray is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and has yet to practice with the Vikings. But he’s close to returning, he said. Minnesota opens the preseason Thursday at Buffalo, 150 miles west of Syracuse. Murray probably won’t suit up but still hopes to make the trip. It might be the closest Murray gets to the Syracuse area for awhile.
In June, the man charged with murdering Diaz, Sangsouriyanh Maniphonh, 28, was acquitted on a second-degree murder after claiming he acted in self defense. A fight had started after a dispute over text messages Diaz had sent Maniphonh’s wife, and Maniphonh pulled out a gun and shot Diaz twice.
After the acquittal, Murray was scheduled to be a headline attraction at the Central New York Football Academy in Syracuse, a camp the running back had attended the past half decade to work with pre-high school age kids. He cancelled his appearance, writing in an email to a local television station, “Syracuse is not the place I should be right now.”
“It was just a lot of frustration, a lot of emotions, obviously, because of the verdict,” Murray said. “I just thought it was best for me to not go back home at the time. … I also kind of wanted to make a statement. I apologize to the kids because I know they were looking forward to seeing me, and I felt really bad about that, but at the same time I knew it was what Jonathan would have wanted me to do.
“The verdict wasn’t OK. What hurts me the most is that, it was like saying, ‘Hey, this was an accident and that’s all his life was worth.’ It’s definitely disappointing to those who knew him and were close to him. What hurt is kind of the (the verdict) amounted to was his death was so unimportant.”
Murray did slip into town shortly after the verdict, but just a few days to retrieve his belongings. He had been planning to work out in Syracuse prior to reporting July 23 to Vikings training camp in Mankato but relocated to Florida, where he had been training during the winter. Murray’s mother, Tawanna Graham, still lives in the Syracuse area, but Murray doesn’t know when he’ll be back.
“The time is not right for me emotionally,” he said. “There are a lot of memories there with Jonathan. If I went home, I might be thinking that he should be waiting for me in my driveway so we could hang out.”
Dr. Diaz said the acquittal of Maniphonh was “devastating” to the family. “Like killing Jonathan all over again,” he said. He has no issue with Murray’s decision to stay away.
“I respect his decision,” he said. “I think it was courageous to take a stand, and I respect him for that. I’m disappointed in that it will limit the amount of time that we get to see him, because he’s part of our family, but I absolutely respect his decision.”
Dr. Diaz, his wife, Evelyn, and one of their sons, John, are planning to be in Buffalo for the preseason game. Dr. Diaz and his wife both have ordered No. 25 Vikings jerseys and hope they will arrive by then.
Murray has started a scholarship fund in his friend’s name at Onondaga High School, which is for $500 this year and could increase. Murray, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Vikings after four years with the Raiders, also has interest in helping fund improvements to the school’s football stadium with one goal in mind.
“Hopefully, we get the opportunity to name the stadium after Jonathan because he did play lacrosse and football there,” Murray said.
Murray had his No. 28 jersey retired by the high school last year. He rushed for 2,194 yards as a senior in 2007 before going on to play at Central Florida. Diaz helped the lead the way as his blocker.
“We ran a lot of ‘I’ formation, and Jonathan was always right in front of Latavius,’’ said then-Onondaga coach Jason Ryan. “And the two made up our linebacker corps, so they had an impact on defense, as well.”
Ryan said the two were inseparable on and off the field.
“They were very, very close,’’ he said. “They were the type of kids where in high school, if you saw one, the other wasn’t far behind. When (Diaz was killed), my heart went out to Latavius because I know how close they were. Their friendship lasted long after high school. They communicated daily.”
Diaz went on to play lacrosse at Brockport (N.Y.) State, then began working as a teacher in the Syracuse area for a program that brings art to the school system. Diaz had been considering becoming a police officer, and took the exam the week before he was killed. Dr. Diaz received the test results in May. His son “passed with 100 percent,” an emotional Diaz said.
When Murray was at Central Florida, Diaz often visited. After he made the NFL, he regularly attended Raiders games. In the month before his death last year, Diaz attended Raiders games at Jacksonville, at Tampa Bay and in Oakland against Denver. The two friends also spent the bye week together in Atlanta two weeks prior to his death.
“There would always be an airline ticket for Jonathan to come to the game when he could,” said Dr. Diaz.
Murray now is working to get healthy and battle rookie Dalvin Cook for the right to replace Peterson. Whenever he takes the field for the Vikings, he said Diaz will be an inspiration.
“I know that he’ll be looking down and he’ll still be cheering me on,” Murray said. “That’s why I’m wearing one of his favorite numbers.”