By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His temper rising, he pounded out e-mail after e-mail, copying all of his lacrosse teammates at UVa, raging about what he perceived as a lack of commitment from some of them. Finally, a couple hours in, Bray Malphrus checked his phone and saw the text message from his classmate John Haldy.
“He said, ‘I love you, man, you’re a good friend of mine, I’m on the same page with you, but you’re scaring the troops a little bit.’ “
Malphrus, a senior defenseman from Chevy Chase, Md., smiled sheepishly after recounting that story. He’s keenly aware of his flaws, on and off the lacrosse field. He knows he can be too intense for some of his teammates. At 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 211 pounds and now sporting a mohawk, Malphrus is an imposing figure, especially to the younger Cavaliers.
Consider UVa freshman Pat Glading, who like Malphrus attended Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md.
“Pat said he was scared of Bray in high school, and he said he’s still scared of him right now,” Haldy said with a laugh. “Not much has changed.”
Virginia coach Dom Starsia will tell you, however, that Malphrus has changed.
“Bray has been one of the characters in my career, and I use that in an affectionate way,” Starsia said. “He is someone it’s really been an adventure and a joy to get to know. I think he was someone who had a very black and white view of the world when he came here, and from early in his career I’ve always kind of seen it as part of my mission to soften his edges just a little bit.”
Malphrus said: “UVa has made me somewhat more liberal in my social life. It’s been great. In high school my work ethic was unparalleled, but I don’t know that it was entirely healthy at the same time.”
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He was a boarding student at Georgetown Prep, whose track was near his room. So was the weight room. Every night before turning in, Malphrus said, he would run 2 to 6 miles or pump iron — or both.
“In high school, I never went to any of the social events,” Malphrus recalled. “The first time I went to the prom, it was my senior year, and I went by myself.
“I just had this crazy mentality. I liked — and I still do — working out when I know that everyone else is out doing something else that isn’t conducive to winning. I like to think that’s where I’m getting my edge, whether it be three hours on a Friday night that I’m sacrificing or not going to the basketball game on a Tuesday night.”
Malphrus’ work ethic soon became legendary at UVa, too.
“There were days early in his career, in particular, when I can remember driving home, going over the railroad bridge up here and looking out on the [University Hall] Turf Field and seeing lacrosse balls strewn everywhere and saying, ‘What the heck is going on there?’ ” Starsia said. “You’d look over in a corner, and there would be Bray, scooping up 200 lacrosse balls after practice.
“He’s probably in a very select group of the hardest working, most dedicated, most focused athletes I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”
One of his goals, Malphrus said, is to “physically exert myself to that point at which I pass out. I want to know where that limit is. I haven’t been able to find that yet. I want to run till I drop. Literally. And so, yeah, is an Ironman in my future? Absolutely.”
In his immediate future is the NCAA tournament, which for seventh-seeded Virginia (9-5) starts Sunday with a 3 p.m. game against Bucknell (14-2) at Klöckner Stadium. Graduation is also this month, and Malphrus, who once was pre-med at UVa and still takes biology courses, will receive a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs.
After the season ends, he’s likely to enter the military.
“My ultimate goal is to get into counter-terrorism and get in the counter-terrorism community,” Malphrus said. “How to get there, I’m still trying to figure out.”
His father, Steve, is an Army veteran, and both of Malphrus’ grandfathers served in the Navy. His paternal grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor.
“I don’t want to sound clichéd,” Malphrus said, “but I think there are great people who have come before us and put their lives on the line so that we can afford the freedoms we have today.”
On the night when news of Osama Bin Laden’s death broke, Malphrus was studying outside Clemons Library. When a friend texted him with the news, Malphrus recalled, “I was like, ‘No way. I don’t know if I believe this. This has got to be hearsay.’ “
So he ran into Alderman Library, where he found other students starting to gather around the flat-screen TVs in the lobby.
“Finally I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t care if I look like a complete idiot,’ ” Malphrus said. “I pulled up a chair and stood up on it. So I’m standing on a chair in Alderman Library watching these TVs, and word finally came that the president was going to come out and make the announcement.”
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine that I’d find myself standing on a chair in the middle of Alderman Library at 12:30 on a Monday morning, chanting ‘USA!’ “
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Virginia’s captains are Malphrus, Haldy, senior goalie Adam Ghitelman and junior attackman Steele Stanwick. Given his nature, Malphrus would take his role seriously under any circumstances. But the past year has been an extraordinarily trying one for Starsia’s program.
In May 2010, Yeardley Love was found dead in her Charlottesville apartment. She was a senior on the UVa women’s lacrosse team, and a member of the men’s team, George Huguely, was charged with her murder.
On a team that has been closely scrutinized since Miss Love’s death, Malphrus’ leadership has been invaluable, Starsia said.
“I know that Bray can come across as being pretty tough on people,” Starsa said. “For this team, at this moment in time, he has been almost a gift that was sent here to help us get through the year. He’s unwavering in his commitment to what we’re doing and to the welfare of the team.”
Malphrus said: “There is this kind of preconceived notion that lacrosse players are crazy on and off the field, and from the get-go I haven’t really liked that image. It’s something I’ve worked over my four years here to eliminate.
“I like to let loose and have fun, but I think there’s a time and place to do that. And I feel obligated to give Virginia everything I have. Coach Starsia and Coach [Marc] Van Arsdale, they took a gamble on me, and I’m very appreciative of them for it. Knowing that, I wanted to make sure that I fulfilled my end of the deal here, and I think part of that is taking this thing very seriously.
“It’s what [the coaches] do. And if you start to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s not all about lacrosse, it’s also about partying and having fun,’ you start to trivialize what they’re doing in their livelihood. And so I have great respect for the coaches, and I’ve worked hard over my four years here to eliminate that perception of lacrosse players as these crazy party animals.”
Before the season, the players adopted an alcohol policy stricter than the team had had in recent years. Malphrus and his fellow captains made clear to the rest of the team that the Cavaliers’ conduct had to be above reproach.
“I was very good friends with Yeardley, and I think it’s almost disrespecting her if you don’t change something,” Malphrus said. “It really is spitting on her grave, and I was not about to let that happen.
“We expect a great deal of maturity, and it’s difficult … A lot of [players] are like, ‘Why can’t I do what Johnny DKE brother does?’ Well, he’s trying to achieve a different end than we are. He doesn’t every day walk out on the practice field and say, ‘I want to win a national championship.’ “
The Cavaliers have won three national championships under Starsia, the most recent coming in 2006. In each of Malphrus’ first three seasons, UVa was ousted in the NCAA semifinals.
“It’s something I struggle with a lot, because in my mind we haven’t been successful,” Malphrus said. “At least in my immature mind I think we haven’t been. I’m starting to realize that success isn’t so much defined by what happens at the end of the day on the field. Ideally, you want every year the 10 kids who came in as freshmen to walk away from their fourth year as better individuals morally than they were when they first walked in the door. We’re teaching life lessons here. It sounds clichéd again, it sounds very idealistic, but I like to think that I’ve come to realize that this year.
“My first and second years, and even last year, after we lost in the Final Four I was inconsolable. Beyond distraught. I was a mess, like I thought my world had ended. And then something happens like [Miss Love’s death], and it brings some perspective to your life, and you start to realize it’s not necessarily all about winning and losing.
“I’m not trying to trivialize winning and losing on the field, but at the same time, at the end of the day is it more important that we win the national championship or we develop the character of the 40 kids on the team? And I would rather lose with 40 kids of high character than win it all with 40 kids that I think are morally backwards.”
His first two seasons at UVa, Malphrus backed up Mike Timms at long-stick midfielder. Malphrus started at that position in 2010 and for most of this regular season. The loss of Matt Lovejoy to a season-ending injury, however, prompted Starsia to tinker with his lineup, and Malphrus recently moved to close defense.
“I love it,” Malphrus said.
Whatever position he plays, his commitment to the team is absolute. No one knows that better than Haldy, a senior midfielder who has lived with Malphrus for three years.
“He just cares so much about all this, and he’s so passionate about this,” Haldy said. “He tries to get everyone to share the same passion that he does, and to the credit of our team, everyone does. It’s just that some kids do it in a different fashion than he does.”
Haldy has a knack for calming his volatile roommate. Sometimes Malphrus can’t help himself. He’ll start questioning why some Cavaliers don’t seem as focused on lacrosse as he is, “and Haldy will remind me, ‘It’s college, and part of college is going out there and mingling, meeting girls, having fun. Ever heard of that?’ ” Malphrus said with a smile.
“He’s super laidback. It’s a great complement to me, because I’ll hear a story, or I’ll come back from a practice or a game just fuming and all fired-up and just spewing hatred all over the place, and Haldy will sit there, and he’ll listen for a little bit, and then he’ll say, ‘All right, man, deep breath. Let’s relax. Just realize that we’re only 22 years old here. This isn’t the end of the world.’ “
The ‘Hoos began the season with a lineup that included All-America midfielders Shamel and Rhamel Bratton, classmates of Malphrus and the other seniors. Much has changed since then. Starsia dismissed Shamel late last month for violating team policies, and Rhamel was suspended indefinitely. Rhamel won’t play Sunday but, if Virginia beats Bucknell, might start practicing with the team next week.
Even without one or both of the Bratton twins, Malphrus believes UVa can contend for the NCAA title.
“I’ve had to remind myself of that too,” Malphrus said, “because we’ve lost more games this year than in any of my previous years here. There was a time, after [a one-sided loss to] Duke, when I was like, ‘Man, what is going on here? Am I failing as a captain?’ Because it was just such unchartered territory. But then you step back and you realize, ‘Hey, the goals that we put out and set at the beginning of the year, they’re still on the table. They’re still out there for the taking.’ “