NEW CANAAN — On the field, 2016 was a year to forget for the St. Luke’s football team.

As a private school the Storm go into every season with a thin roster. This year the roster had all the talent of a championship team, but was ravaged by injuries at virtually every key spot.

Those injuries led to a 1-7 season, but what coach Noel Thomas strives for is more than wins and losses, it’s the growth in character of the young men that don the maroon and white for him.

No one better embodies that philosophy more than center and defensive tackle, Ryan Murphy.

The senior captain played every snap for St. Luke’s this season, and despite the score his attitude in games never wavered.

Because of that attitude Murphy was named one of eight finalists for USA Football’s ‘Heart of a Giant’ award—presented by the New York Giants and the Hospital for Special Surgery.

“I was extremely honored to be selected as a finalist by USA Football,” Murphy said. “And I’m thankful for all of the members of the school community, my teammates, teachers and friends who voted for me every day to allow me to become a finalist.”

When Murphy found out of the distinction, Thomas was the first person he reached out to.

“I was actually doing homework when I found out,” Murphy said. “… and the first thing I did was went to coach Thomas and told him I was a finalist — he got very excited and danced a little bit. I’m excited and proud, but I’m also really excited to represent my school. More than this award is about me, it’s about coach Thomas and how he teaches his players it’s all about character and what you do off the field is important.”

To Thomas, that means everything.

While his goal is to win every game, and he is truly effected by every loss, Thomas is first and foremost a developer of men.

That role is vital to high-schoolers going through the biggest transitional period of their young lives, and this nomination was a glowing endorsement to his leadership.

“It means a lot,” Thomas said. “It’s confirmation that what I’m doing is the right thing. We want to win every game, and we have a passion for winning, but you can also win as a man no matter what the scoreboard says and it just means a lot having a kid who definitely lives our mission.

“Our motto is: ‘One line, no gaps and no excuses’ and Ryan Murphy is the face of that. He’s going to be successful in his next step wherever he goes.”

Always looking to give back, Murphy’s next step is to join the armed forces when he graduates from St. Luke’s.

“I feel a strong desire to join the military and give back for the incredible freedom and opportunity that I’ve had in this country,” Murphy said. “I feel it’s my responsibility, and my duty, to make sure others continue to share that same freedom and opportunity.”

Murphy is humble, gracious and soft spoken, and a natural leader. A leader doesn’t always have to be the loudest person in the room, and Murphy isn’t, but his actions speak much louder than words ever could — and that’s what separates him.

“I would never ask a player to do something that I wouldn’t do myself,” Murphy said. “I always try to set the example through my actions more than through my words and I really try to portray the strength and the leadership that I want to see from the younger guys.”

To prepare for his next step in the armed forces Murphy embarked on a fitness journey in the offseason, completely transforming his body.

While that transformation left him undersized on the line, he was never undersized in a fight, something Thomas pointed to as critical in a trying season.

“He was always out-sized but never out-hustled,” Thomas said. “It’s critical having a guy like that as a captain, it sets a great example for the younger guys, and he always kept our spirits up with the heart of a giant. With the situation, it went a long way having such a positive guy leading the way.”

The overall winner was announced Monday, and while Murphy didn’t place first, the distinction of being named a finalist earned $1,500 for the St. Luke’s program.

Murphy, along with the seven other finalists, will be honored on the field of the Giants and Detroit Lions game on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

aparelli@bcnnew.com @reportedbytheAP