Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium serves a purpose bigger than football. Bordering the stadium field is a wall featuring U.S. Navy or Marine Corps battle names. Situated along the southwest portion of this wall is the name Kosovo, to remember the United States and NATO’s efforts in Eastern Europe. For one current Navy football player, this war is extremely personal.
“If it wasn’t for America, my family would be dead,” said Lirion Murtezi, a junior guard for the Midshipmen. “I had other family members, unfortunately, die during the war, but if it wasn’t for the United States and NATO coming in at the time that they did I wouldn’t be here.”
Murtezi’s family is from the Republic of Kosovo, a small country in Eastern Europe, which he describes as being east of Italy and north of Greece. During the Kosovo War in the late 1990’s, Mutezi’s family fled the war-torn country and came to the United States.
“Growing up in the ’90s in Kosovo, going to school, going through war, being persecuted because of my nationality, it was hard,” said Agron Murtezi, Lirion’s older brother. “Seeing people getting killed in the war, seeing massacres and us getting kicked out of the country and America coming in to save us and taking us in as people. I am very thankful to be here, very thankful for the United States, and very proud of this country.”
In the spring of 1999, the family came to Fort Dix in New Jersey before moving to New Mexico. After the Kosovo War concluded, the Murtezi’s moved back to their homeland. In 2001, Lirion was born in the capital city of Pristina.
“When I was growing up, it was right after the war so our country was trying to come together,” Lirion said. “It was pretty much destroyed. What I remember the most is when I was five or six everything was more normal. Not normal to other people, but normal to me.
In 2002, Lirion’s father, older sister, and brother had the opportunity to come back to the United States and moved to the Pittsburgh area. It wasn’t until 2006 that Lirion, his mom, and his other sister were able to rejoin their family stateside.
“It was wild, to say the least,” Lirion said. “Growing up I’d never seen an airplane or anything. When you arrive in Pittsburgh you go through a tunnel and see a huge city. Pristina is the biggest city in Kosovo but there are no skyscrapers. I thought I was living in a dream. It was the first time I’d seen my dad, my brother, and my other sister since 2002. It was the first time I got to see them so it was a great moment for me.”
“It was emotional,” said Agron. “The whole family got together in 2006 and we just moved on from there.”
While getting acclimated to American life, Lirion started to learn about football, a sport he didn’t know before coming to America.
“At a young age my brother always used to watch football,” Lirion said. “It definitely got me interested in the sport.”
“Just the team effort,” said Agron. “It takes 11 guys to make one play. Being in Pittsburgh and seeing the western PA kids play football and watching our teams like the Steelers made us really love football.”
When Lirion entered the seventh grade, he started playing organized football. In ninth grade, he was one of two freshmen to make his high school’s varsity team, a major feat in the football hotbed of western Pennsylvania.
“I was thinking maybe I could do something with this,” Lirion said.
Navy was the first school to recruit Murtezi. It didn’t hurt that Mick Yokitis, Navy’s wide receivers coach, was a graduate of Murtezi’s high school. In 2017, Lirion made his first visit to Annapolis to see Navy take on UCF. Once he entered the stadium, something caught his eye.
“I remember walking to the stadium and I looked to my left and I saw Kosovo there and was like wow,” Lirion said. “Getting to learn more about the school and everything you do after, the opportunities that you have, it was really wild and as I continued on with high school and I looked at all of the opportunities I had school-wise, the Naval Academy had everything. Big-time football and education.”
Since arriving at the Naval Academy in 2020, Murtezi has moved up the depth chart. In 2021, he started three games as a sophomore before getting injured and this season he will be a major contributor as an offensive guard and center.
“He’s a really big kid, he has some talent,” said Ashley Ingram, Navy’s run game coordinator, and offensive line coach. “He’s tough, he’s smart, wants to do well. He has all of the attributes we’re looking for to be a really good player.”
Each time Murtezi enters Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, he gets a chance to see the word Kosovo near the Navy bench.
“Being from there it gives me a huge sense of pride,” Lirion said. “Seeing that sign every time we walk through that stadium, walk out and walk to the left I see Kosovo. It gives me a huge sense of pride.”
“It means freedom and it means that this country was the reason our country is free and my brother gets to give back to the same country that gave us freedom,” Agron said. “I am very proud of him, the whole family is proud of him and it’s a special place for him to play.”
Now a junior at the Naval Academy, Lirion Murtezi, who is a naturalized American citizen, has big goals both on and off the gridiron. Though he is still more than a year out from finding his service assignment, Murtezi knows he wants to give back to the country that has done so much for his family.
“I’m here at the United States Naval Academy which is wild to me,” Lirion said. “For me to look at my story coming from a war-torn Kosovo to being at the number one public school in the country and if it wasn’t for football and the opportunities it’s given me I wouldn’t be here.”
“Obviously it’s kind of the American dream,” Ingram said. “For him to do that and become an American citizen and to make his way to the Naval Academy, I think that’s a great story.”
And as Murtezi and the Midshipmen take on Memphis this Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, No. 73 knows his family will be cheering him from the stands, right by six letters that honor what the United States did for his homeland.
The Kid from Kosovo’s story is far from finished.