Navy Offensive Lineman Lirion Murtezi Epitomizes the American Dream

From humble beginnings in war-torn Kosovo to a captain on the Navy Midshipman football team, Lirion Murtezi epitomizes the American Dream.

In many ways, the American Dream is a complicated concept, especially at a time when stories of economic hardship and social persecution are easy to find around every corner. Yet, the idea that anything can be achieved, no matter where your journey starts, is still admirable even in the modern landscape.

Few people epitomize the American Dream more than Lirion Murtezi, a Navy offensive lineman. His family fled war-torn Kosovo in the late 1990s in pursuit of a better life. Now, he is set to be the starting center for the Navy football program—a service academy that played an instrumental part in his family’s story.

Navy Offensive Lineman Lirion Murtezi Epitomizes the American Dream

“It was a horrible start,” Murtezi says in a voice that hides the fact that he arrived in America as a five-year-old kid without the ability to speak a single word of the language. The Navy offensive lineman joined College Football Network to talk about his—and his family’s—journey that epitomizes the American Dream.

“It’s never about where you start, it’s about where you finish. Being able to come here, seeing my family’s sacrifices pay off, me being able to come to an institution like the Naval Academy and graduate here next year, and continue to help others in the way Navy and the military has helped me and my family. That’s a full circle, and I think that’s definitely the American Dream.”

“We started from nothing,” Murtezi continues. “Being able to be where I’m at today and achieve so many things, I think that’s the perfect example of the American Dream in my opinion.”

For some, the American Dream is complicated because it has its roots in the pursuit of economic improvement, such as the Californian gold rush of 1849 or Ownby’s four dreams of consumerism. Yet, for the Murtezi family, there was something much more profound to their pursuit of a better life—a life that started with nothing and led Lirion to playing football for Navy.

Growing up in Kosovo

On February 28, 1998, war broke out in Kosovo, a small country with a population of less than two million, landlocked by Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. The conflict centered around the persecution of Kosovo Albanians, just like the Murtezi family.

The war was finally ended in 1999 through NATO intervention, but during the conflict, over 350,000 Kosovar Albanians were displaced, including the Murtezi family.

Lirion wasn’t born until 2001 but is acutely aware of the perilous situation faced by his parents, Ismet and Fatime Murtezi, as they sought a better life for all their children.

“We definitely talked about it growing up,” Murtezi explains. “It was a hard time not just for my parents, but for Albanians in general. I’ve had many stories told to me about the hardships that my family went through to get to where we are today.”

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The family fled to America in 1999, spending time in Fort Dix and New Mexico before eventually returning to their homeland. However, upon their return, they found a country crushed both economically and physically. As Kosovo was rebuilding and experiencing a rebirth, Lirion was born in the capital city of Pristina. Yet, his father knew that greater opportunities awaited them outside their home country.

“I think that’s when he made the decision to come back to the United States to create the best opportunities for us,” Murtezi explains.

Ismet returned to America with Murtezi’s older brother and sister, settling in Pittsburgh, while Fatime raised Lirion and another sister in Pristina. For a young child, the war-torn landscape in the small Kosovan city was the norm, and Murtezi didn’t know any different. However, he remembers the separation vividly.

“It was hard,” Murtezi recalls. “They would come to visit us, and I remember talking to them over the phone. But it was hard. Being at a young age, you’re kind of lost and don’t fully understand the details of everything. Now that I’m all grown up, I’m thankful for everything that my Dad was able to do to provide for us even when he was in the United States and we were still in Kosovo.”

Murtezi Finds Football on the Path to the American Dream

In 2006, the rest of the family made the journey from Kosovo to Pittsburgh to begin their new life in the United States. Even though he was just five years old, Murtezi vividly remembers his first impressions of the country and the early struggles of adapting to life in a place far removed from where he had grown up.

“The biggest challenge for me was that it was a whole new language,” Murtezi explains. “That was definitely crazy to me. Then, Kosovo is just a small country with small buildings. You come to the United States, and everything is enormous, especially in Pittsburgh. I had never seen anything like it; I was just in awe.”

America has been home since 2006. However, that doesn’t mean that Murtezi has forgotten his homeland. At this point in his life, where he can reflect back and also look forward, he is excited about how he can use the platform afforded to him by football to make a difference in Kosovo once his service with the Navy—and playing career—has come to an end.

“I would 100% love to go back home,” Murtezi tells me. “There’s no place like home. I’d love to return and get involved with things there and make the community a better place, whether that’s through football or anything else I can do. I think that would be awesome.”

While Murtezi’s story of realizing the American Dream, coming from Kosovo to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, is, in many respects, more than football—and his commitment to service is a commitment to something bigger than himself—his introduction to the game at a young age certainly helped direct him to where he is now.

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Like most Europeans, his understanding of football was “soccer,” and his understanding of the American game was non-existent. His brother, who had a five-year head start on exposure to the game, introduced him, and a spark was ignited during games of catch out on the street.

Murtezi now stands at 6’3″ and 315 pounds, a perfect combination of size and a lower center of gravity that allows him to manipulate leverage in the phone booth of the interior offensive line. It was the beginning of that growth that facilitated an introduction to organized football in the seventh grade.

Despite his late introduction to playing the game, Murtezi showcased natural ability. By the ninth grade, he was playing on North Hills’ varsity team—a rarity in the talent-rich state of Pennsylvania.

While that was an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the following season reinforced the belief that perhaps his path along the American Dream was rooted in the national sport.

“Ninth grade was a great opportunity to play varsity and compete against better competition. But then, I saw that I could really do something with this. In tenth grade, I started pursuing football more seriously in everything I did. I began receiving interest from different schools and going on various visits, and that really sparked something within me to keep pushing.”

Bigger Than Football. Bigger Than Yourself.

There were different offers. There were different visits. However, none of them struck the same chord as when Murtezi stepped foot inside the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The offensive lineman describes his many visits as “awesome” and imagined receiving an offer to join the program.

When that offer came, Murtezi called it an “easy” decision to commit. Nothing about his journey from Kosovo to the United States has been easy, but the Midshipman offensive lineman knows that his journey, his story, his pursuit of the American Dream, has been made possible, made easier, by the Navy’s involvement in the NATO campaign that ended the Kosovo war.

The walls of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium are adorned with plaques and the names of battles in which the Navy or Marine Corps has been involved. It serves as a reminder of the dedication, service, and loss that many have endured in pursuit of a greater good. On the southwest wall of the stadium, one word is more noticeable than the others: Kosovo.

“Seeing Kosovo there,” Murtezi explains the importance of the sign and his pride in wearing the Navy uniform on Saturdays.

“If it wasn’t for Navy,” he pauses somewhat poignantly. “Navy played a big part in the role of NATO when they were in, so it’s definitely special knowing that Navy made a lot of sacrifices, and now I get to wear that on my uniform. It’s humbling.”

“Humbling” is a word that is a constant theme when Murtezi reflects on his journey. It’s not a word that you often hear referenced alongside the American Dream, but his journey from Kosovo to Annapolis has taught Murtezi humility, honor, and gratitude.

These are characteristics that undoubtedly contribute to his selection as a leader of the Navy football program, as one of the offensive captains for the 2023 college football season.

“I was very humbled and honored,” Murtezi says upon finding out he had been made a team captain. “It’s really important to me because the team chose. It was a player vote. Knowing that my teammates have that trust in me, it’s definitely a big thing. I don’t take it lightly. I’m very humbled and honored, and I’m excited for this year.”

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Being an offensive captain, traveling back to Europe when Navy takes on Notre Dame in Ireland to open their 2023 college football season, a fresh start with a new head coach, and a full-time starting role—there are lots of things to be excited about during 2023. Yet, it’s what comes afterward that Murtezi is perhaps most excited for.

Freedom is a key cornerstone of the original American Dream.

The armed forces are seen as the protectors of that freedom. Lirion and the rest of the Murtezi family have been on the receiving end of that protection. Once his playing days are over, whenever that may be, he’s excited to embrace the true intent behind attending the Naval Academy.

“It’s a lot bigger than football,” Murtezi begins. “That’s what I love about this place. Life, in general, is a lot bigger than football. Football’s a small part of everyone’s decision to come here.”

“You start to realize that life is bigger than football. You spend four years playing football, but then you have five years of commitment to the country, and that’s awesome because you’re doing something bigger than yourself.”

While football may have enabled Murtezi to live a life that most in his home country can only dream of, his story is bigger than the sport. It’s a story of sacrifice, bravery, perseverance, and gratitude.

Murtezi may see his commitment to serve as being bigger than himself. However, his story alone is one to inspire and reassure anyone, from anywhere, from any walk of life, from any background, that anything is possible in life.

Now that, that’s the American Dream.