ATHENS, Ga. — Aaron Murray was playfully defiant before his last night between the hedges.
“They may have to send a police escort to come and get me off,” Murray told radio host Charlie McAlexander before Senior Night. “I’m not going to want to leave that field.”
Instead it was two Georgia trainers who carried a crying Murray off – hanging from their shoulders before the first half finished. His final home game ended with the one hardship Murray had avoided in four record-shattering seasons at the Bulldogs helm – injury.
As if he and his fellow Bulldogs hadn’t endured enough. His last official play in Sanford Stadium was an interception on a deflected pass.
Murray has never known how to quit. That’s what cost him Saturday night.
He already had four touchdown passes against Kentucky and had the Bulldogs driving again with a 28-10 lead. Murray was in obvious discomfort with a leg injury suffered on a 28-yard run the previous possession, and backup Hutson Mason started running onto the field only to be waved off by the senior who hadn’t missed a snap all season.
A few plays later, Murray was viciously flung to the ground (a tad late, it seemed) after his pass got tipped by his receiver and was intercepted. Bulldogs fans were stunned to even realize they had seen the last of him between the hedges to give him a proper standing ovation for services rendered.
"It was just sickening," said head coach Mark Richt of watching Murray get carried off the field. "I really had a hard time enjoying the rest of the game. ... It's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through."
Having already rewritten all of the passing records in the Southeastern Conference, perhaps the last achievement of Murray’s collegiate career should be redefining the terms of “legacy.”
The four-year starting quarterback returned this season for one last try to earn the only accomplishment missing from his collegiate resume – a championship. If that is the mandatory prerequisite for success, then Murray will leave Georgia a failure.
But judging from the warmth and emotion that poured over Murray throughout his last short night, Bulldogs fans have accepted Murray into the fraternity of “Damn good Dawgs” reserved for the school’s most cherished elite.
As it should be. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to a couple other members of the club who happen to own those coveted championship rings.
“I think his legacy is going to be not just as one of the best at Georgia but one of the best who came to the SEC,” said former Bulldog quarterback D.J. Shockley. “What he’s done has to put him in the top three if not the best because of what he’s done and what he’s meant to that program.”
“I think Aaron will go down as one of the most beloved ‘Dogs of all time. I really do,” said David Greene, himself one of the most beloved Bulldogs of all time whose school records Murray mostly broke. “Not only just because he’s broken every SEC record but I think the way he’s represented the University of Georgia on and off the field. He’s the ultimate competitor and his character really showed last week with the way he fights and competes. For all the adversity that he and this team have been through, I admire the way he plays the game.”
The “last week” Greene was referring to was a stupefying 43-38 loss at Auburn that buried Murray’s final hope to win that ring he so desperately wanted and committed another season of uncompensated risk to attain. Yet it was in defeat that Murray illustrated that perhaps there’s more to success than can be measured in wins and losses.
Murray didn’t just lead Georgia back from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to take the lead in the final minutes – he willed them to the front with heart and talent and an unhealthy willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. His 5-yard tuck and run on fourth down, fighting four Auburn defenders to barely cross the goal line for what should have been the winning score, was the capstone.
It deserved to be a signature moment for Murray’s swan-song season – ranking even higher than his late heroics against South Carolina, Louisiana State and Tennessee already this season. Instead a flukish fiasco on defense erased it all through no fault of his own.
“There’s been a couple of times throughout his career where I felt like he had some defining moments really taken away from him,” said Greene, who had a handful of “hobnail boot” kind of moments in his own storied four-year tenure. “Last week would have gone down as one of the greatest fourth quarters in Georgia history. The way he brought them back. And for them to turn around and Auburn to come back and win the game, it goes from one of the greatest comebacks in Georgia history to one that they’re not going to want to talk about anymore. That’s what you hate for the guy.”
But then what you love about Murray is the way he responds as he had after every low moment through four seasons. In a pregame feature, Murray’s mother – who, along with his father, survived cancer – lauded her son’s relentless optimism in the face of hardship.
“He always gets up,” she said before Saturday night when for the first time in his career he didn’t.
A day after the heartbreak in Auburn, Murray was back in Athens spending his free time with developmentally challenged kids in the Extra Special People program.
“He has his priorities in line,” Greene said. “There’s probably not a better player to represent our university than him.”
Critics who claimed Murray couldn’t win the big games were the ultimate point-missers. Greene won a big one when Georgia’s defense only yielded three points to Arkansas. Shockley earned his in his only season at the helm.
Murray got two SEC title shots against two of the best teams in SEC history – losing to Louisiana State when his receivers dropped several perfect touchdown passes early that may have altered the game’s trajectory and to Alabama with the clock ticking out on the Tide 5.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” Greene said. “You can have great players but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to accumulate into championships. For that I feel bad because he’s fought tooth and nail to bring Georgia a championship and done his part.”
Murray keeps in close contact with his predecessors. In text messages and weekly conversations, Shockey has talked to Murray specifically about legacy.
“People are going to remember the things you did last,” Shockley said. “This year is special with all of the injuries and things that have happened offensively for them and the defense has given up a lot of points. He’s really put this team on his back pretty much every game and kept them in it and definitely tried to bring them back. You can’t ask for much more than what he did in that Auburn game to give them a chance to win. LSU game. South Carolina game. He’s played phenomenal this season giving this Georgia team a chance to be in every game with everything going on.”
By the standards of what was expected from this Georgia team as late as September, this season has been a wash. Four losses and the only thing to look forward to being a second-tier bowl might have caused some seniors to mail it in.
Not Murray, who refused to quit even when he probably should have Saturday night.
His legacy is secure – and you can leave off the asterisk.
"There's no question in my mind he's the best quarterback to ever play here," said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a Georgia quarterback from 1995-97. "He's just meant so much to this program in how he carries himelf and how he prepares."