The Mississippi Mud Volleyball Tournament is an annual tradition for the Murphy family, spanning three decades and multiple generations. This year is different than any other.

“This Fourth of July is bittersweet.”

Those were the words shared by Kevin Murphy just days before the 39th annual Mississippi Mud Volleyball Tournament hosted by the Y Men's Club. 

This year the organization plans to honor a longtime team, the Murphy Mudders, for three decades of participation in the downtown Hannibal event that has become an Independence Day staple. 

“This is not about that team name,” explained Kevin, the youngest of four children. “It’s about my mom and dad.”

Upon finding out his family would be recognized, Kevin proceeded to rush back to his parents' home to let his dad know the news.

“I asked him if he thought he could make it to the Fourth,” recalled Kevin, whose dad had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and spent the entire month of December in a St. Louis hospital. 

“I think I'm going to make it,” Jim replied. 

Ten days later, the situation took a turn for the worse. 

Jim passed away May 7 in the home where he and his wife welcomed a houseful of guests for the tournament every summer since 1987.

“He will be there with us for sure, but it won’t be in person,” Kevin said.

How it started

Jim Schroer came to Hannibal from Cleveland, Ohio, to visit his sister, Pat, in the summer of 1986 – two years after the Murphys moved to town. Schroer, looking for something fun to do, asked his brother-in-law what else was going on.

Jim Murphy, or Murph as his friends called him, proceeded to take Schroer to the foot of Cardiff Hill and showed him mud volleyball for the first time. 

“They're all crazy,” Schroer told the Courier-Post in 2001, remembering his initial reaction to watching the tournament. “Who wants to go out and play in two feet of mud and say they are having fun?” 

The answer, it turns out, was Schroer himself. 

Schroer's Slingers entered the next year's tournament, and the Murphy Mudders formed soon after. A family tradition was born. Since that summer it is estimated the Murphy household has hosted more than 1,000 different participants in the Y Men’s event. 

But this year, the two men who shaped future Independence Day celebrations for so many Murphys and their extended families and friends will not be in attendance.

Schroer and Murphy will instead be watching from somewhere else. 

“They loved this club and this tournament,” Kevin said. “But I am sure they’ll be having a beverage and watching from above.”

'A second Christmas'

Kelly Whittemore views coming to Hannibal every year around the Fourth of July as her second Christmas.

“Besides Christmas, it's the time of the year we look forward to the most,” said Whittemore, Pat and Jim's eldest child who lives in St. Louis with her husband, Jeff. “When you think of Christmas, you think of family, and this really is family even though half the people that come aren't really family.” 

Blood relation is not necessary to be considered a Murphy. Friends are treated like part of the family. The door to Pat and Jim's house has always been open.

There were years when as many as 60 people would stay overnight at the household three miles west of the Mississippi River.

“Safe to say you could not walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night without stepping on at least five people,” said Patty Daus, a longtime family friend. 

Pat took it upon herself to cook as many as three meals a day for those staying under her roof the weekend of the tournament.

Each night guests were in town, the Murphys would put on a party — never running out of food and always having a steady supply of gin buckets. Portapotties, tents in the backyard, you name it, the Murphys valued taking care of their guests.

Being home at the Murphy house all day was never allowed, however.

“Everybody who stayed here with us had to go watch whoever was playing,” Pat said. “That was one of the rules.” 

The Murphy involvement in mud volleyball grew to the point that the family once hosted seven different teams competing in the tournament.

“Friends just kept bringing friends every year,” said Que Ferrel, a friend of the Murphys since childhood. “Nobody ever felt uncomfortable here unless they were uncomfortable with crowds.”

The Murphy Mudders enjoyed a successful run on the court and won championships in 2002 and 2006. 

But the most coveted memories transcend the sport itself. 

“My college buddies have become my sister's friends' buddies,” Kevin said. “That's just the neat fabric of what the Murphy mud volleyball experience is.”

Love in the mud

Steve Cox is one of many people who for years has made the annual trip to America's Hometown to visit the Murphys over the Fourth. 

Cox was an original member of the Schroer's Slingers. He has fond memories of spending July nights in the nooks and crannies of the Murphy household — on the floor near the air conditioning unit, in the family room or in the basement under the ping pong table. 

“Now I'm married with kids and we always still come up for mud volleyball,” he said. “My kids refer to them as Grandma Pat and Grandpa Jim. I'm not sure until a few years ago that my kids even knew they weren't really their grandparents.”

Cox's marriage is thanks in part to the Murphys and mud volleyball. 

He met his wife through work but said he fell in love with her on the mud courts. That's why he proposed to her during the tournament in 1999.

“The Y Men's Club was great about helping me set everything up and calling her up to the center court referee stand,” he said. “They handed her an envelope, and inside the envelope was a poem, but she didn't get a chance to read it because she turned around and I was down on one knee behind her in the mud with a ring in my hand. 

“The only thing she didn't like about it was that she had to take the ring off right away because we had a game.” 

Cox said Pat and Jim are a prime example to follow for a healthy marriage and making the most out of life.

“Pat is a mother that anyone would be proud to have,” Cox said. “And Jim was such a good guy. I tried to be more like him. There were so many things about him that I respected that I wanted to be more like him — a father like him, a husband like him and just a man like him.” 

Support on the sidelines 

The Murphy contingent is regarded as the loudest fan base every summer during the tournament. Jim was perennially planted on the levee overlooking Court C, surrounded by a throng of family and friends.

Any team supported by the Murphys would feel like they're playing a home game.

“One thing I remember early on is we were down there sitting on the levee and all these people were yelling and I realized all those people were staying at my house,” joked Pat. “It was like, 'Oh my gosh.'”

If a Murphy team doesn't reach the championship, rival squads often lobby the family for its support. 

Jim was the most loyal supporter of them all. He played just one year before sticking to the sidelines offering encouragement and advice. 

“You'll never win a championship until you let your girls play,” was the line the patriarch uttered each and every year when July rolled around. Rules require each team to play at least three females.

His family put the quote on the back of custom T-shirts this year to honor his memory. 

The shirts were in such high demand — especially among women — that the Murphy family distributed 177.

Passing the torch

Mud volleyball has become a generational tradition for many of the record 67 teams competing this year in the three-day competition.

The Murphys are no exception.

“Their family is what mud volleyball is all about,” said Darin Powell, one of the tournament organizers. 

Pat and Murph's children — in order of birth: Kelly, Michele, Jim and Kevin — have shared the tradition with their families.

Members of the Murphy bloodline are playing on four different teams this weekend.

“We're moving on to the next generation, which is pretty awesome,” Kelly said. “In my heart, I believe they will carry it on for a long time. They're not just there because their parents are there. They're there because they want to be there.” 

Justin Whittemore, Kelly's son, is the lone Murphy family member still represented on the Murphy Mudders.

“Fourth of July is always mud volleyball, and mud volleyball is always family for us,” said Justin. “No matter what happens down the road, this is always going to be part of me and our whole family.”

Justin explained he has been proud over the years to continue the family tradition with his cousins.

He said he feels as though he grew up in Hannibal even though he didn't.

“We've never had a real Murphy family reunion,” said Justin, who flew in Wednesday from Arizona. “It's always just been mud volleyball for us. The Fourth of July is a time we know everyone will be there. It's a time for all of us to see each other again. 

“That's what it means to me and that's why I'm excited to be back.” 

Kevin beams when talking about his daughter, Kaylee, who likes to play in the tournament, and his son, Kyle, a very capable “bucket boy.”

“As a dad, I love seeing that, and I sit there and I wonder if my dad loved it as much as I do, watching me and my siblings enjoy the tournament,” Kevin said, his voice starting to crack. “I'm sure he did, but it's one of those things where there are all those conversations you wish you had.”

Carrying on a legacy

The tournament will never be the same for the Murphy family.

Family and friends have traveled from all different directions for the annual get-together this weekend, but there will be one unfillable void. 

“Dad not being here is going to be hard,” Kelly said of receiving the Y Men's Club honor without him. “But I think it speaks so much for his character and my mom too because they've always opened their doors to everybody. It will be neat to see.

"I just wish my dad would be here to see it too.” 

Pat can't shake the feeling of how much she will miss her husband when the family receives the award.

“I think we'll be OK once it gets here but the getting there is hard,” she said. 

Pat is hosting family members this weekend. She is attending the tournament. But the days of filling her home beyond capacity are over. Relatives are staying at the house, but many friends are staying overnight at a downtown hotel. 

Nevertheless, the family still intends to host a signature bash.

The gathering will honor Pop Murphy, who while no longer alive continues to have a significant imprint on those joined together. 

“The club will honor him on July 7, exactly two months after he passed away,” Kevin said of his dad. “That's just another example of God having His hand on everything. He was a big part of my mom and dad's life, and that's why their house was always open over the Fourth of July and why so many people came back.

“We just hope to carry on that same loving legacy. That's the biggest thing we can do to honor dad's memory.”