Football is a metaphor for life. The ultimate team sport, football is dramatized shorthand for the real world's adversity intersecting with the triumph of strategy within the framework of unit cooperation, preparation and execution.
In the vein of that symbolism, the abrupt ending of Aaron Murray's career was all too appropriate, even if undeserved. The final play of Murray's record-setting career was a brief, painful snapshot of his four years as the leading man for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Maligned by pressure for much of his entire career, Murray was met with defensive contact in under three seconds following his last collegiate snap. His final pass was thrown with the accuracy that typifies a player who completed 62.3 percent of his career attempts, but it went through the hands of a receiver in a manner that was sadly familiar.
Rarely a benefactor of good fortune, Murray's final throw as a Bulldog ricocheted off its target and into the hands of a Kentucky defender for an interception. Murray never saw his opponent cradle the pass; he was brought to the ground with an unquestionably late hit. It was the type of unnecessary roughness that Murray faced throughout his career (see the Nick Fairly hits in 2010 and the helmet-to-helmet block against Alabama in 2012). Of course, the hit was not flagged.
All of this occurred with the Bulldogs comfortably in the lead (Murray won 35 games as a starter). More noteworthy, this fateful play happened in truly gritty Murray style, 13 plays after he tore his ACL.
Murray's career ended with a comfortable lead and a busted left knee as he threw an accurate pass that bounced off a receiver's hands into the grasp of a defender while being brought to the ground with an unflagged late hit.
Put plainly, it was the most Aaron Murray play ever. It encapsulated his entire career as a Bulldog. He did all he could, but ultimately broader, more maniacal forces won out. The symbolic correlations were fitting for what one expects from a game that is metaphorical in nature.
But reducing football to a metaphor for life is insulting to players like Aaron Murray, because players like Murray—rare as they may be—transcend simile. His tenure as the quarterback of the Georgia Bulldogs far surpasses mere symbolic nuance. Put in no inexact terms: Aaron Murray was the best to ever play the position in the University of Georgia's storied past. This much is indisputable.
He did not represent, symbolize or approximate the best. He was the best. Period.
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Statistically, no player in Southeastern Conference history holds a candle to Murray's production as the league's all-time leader in passing yards, completions, passing touchdowns and total offense. Other Georgia quarterbacks have won more, but what shortcomings in the win column can be placed on the shoulders of the conference's best-ever passer?
Buck Belue won a national championship for Georgia in 1980. Plug Aaron Murray into a supporting cast that featured Herschel Walker and a defense that allowed just 11.4 points per game, and he'd win a national title (or two) as well.
David Greene won 42 career games and an SEC Championship. Georgia's worst defense (as measured by points per game) during the Greene era was better than any defense during Murray's tenure.
Matthew Stafford was the top pick in the National Football League's draft in 2009—his collegiate performance pales when compared to Murray’s.
And yet, the statistical comparisons and situational equivalencies don’t tell the whole story of Murray on the football field. What most accurately defined Murray was his ability to rise to any challenge that the game and critics set before him.
After opening his career with a meager 6-9 mark as a starter, he led the Bulldogs to 10 consecutive wins and a trip to the SEC Championship Game in 2011.
When a record-setting sophomore campaign was relegated to wins against poor opposition, Murray rallied the Bulldogs to within five yards of the BCS National Championship Game as a junior.
When Murray was mistakenly labeled as unable to win “big” games, he led the Bulldogs to wins against Top 10 LSU and South Carolina in 2013 and three consecutive victories in Jacksonville against the vaunted Florida Gators.
No task on the field was too big for Aaron Murray, but more importantly, he didn’t shy away from tall orders away from the gridiron.
Off the field, Aaron Murray won’t stick around Athens to collect his undergraduate degree—he’s already earned it. Murray graduated with a 3.4 grade point average en route to earning a degree in psychology. He received that diploma more than 18 months ago. He’s currently working on his doctorate in industrial psychology.
He balanced his academic course load and the leadership role of one of the nation’s premier football programs while still finding time to give back to the community that leaned on his every move.
Laura Whitaker, the Executive Director of Extra Special People (an organization with which Murray assists), describes Murray thusly: “The arm is firm, the mind is wise, the heart is a leader but the soul has made a difference.”
Football can teach us a lot about the game of life. At least that's what we tell ourselves to avoid the masochistic truth that forces us to admit to being little more than fans—or, more accurately, fanatics.
But with Aaron Murray, that’s simply not true. Murray has given his heart and his soul to the game, the University of Georgia and Bulldogs fans around the country. And yet, I can’t help but believe those contributions far outweigh what he has received from the game.
Aaron Murray’s ability to effectively lead and communicate with teammates stems from the close family ties that the Murray family so clearly portrays. Aaron’s older brother Josh and younger sister Stephanie followed him to UGA, and his parents rarely miss a football function.
It's not a leap to assume that Murray’s poise under pressure is the same resolved composure that his father showed when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2012.
Undoubtedly, Murray’s time spent refining his game on the practice field, in the film room and in the weight room was not self-inspired. Rather, those preparations were the practical application of the work ethic he witnessed from his parents, his coaches and other leaders.
Football is not a metaphor of life for Aaron Murray. That notion sells both the game and Murray short. Football is an expression of life for Aaron Murray.
And that’s why it was such a delight to watch him play for four years. That’s why he will, as his Twitter feed indicated on Sunday, come back stronger than ever.
Thank you for all the prayers over the past few hours. Gonna come back stronger than ever! Dawg for life. Truly love you all #GoDawgs— Aaron Murray (@aaronmurray11) November 24, 2013