ATHENS, Ga. – Aaron Murray was playing cornhole against his sister a while back, and the game was getting competitive.
That’s not surprising, because everything gets competitive in a family where Aaron plays quarterback at Georgia, big brother Josh used to play at Georgia and little sister Stephanie was a flag-football star in high school. But when the cornhole game was down to the final beanbag tosses, Stephanie broke out the sharp verbal instruments.
“Five seconds to go against Alabama, Aaron,” she said. “Make the shot.”
Et tu, little sis?
“I looked at her and said, ‘Really? You’re going to do that to me?’ “ Aaron recalled with a laugh.
That tiny amount of time and small slice of real estate haunt and taunt Aaron Murray. And they have driven him for the past seven months, in search of redemption and completion.
“You come up five yards short,” Murray said, “it’ll give you nightmares.”
It’ll do more than that. The five yards and five seconds that separated Georgia from beating Alabama in a classic Southeastern Conference title game last year, and thus playing for a national title, helped turn Murray away from the NFL draft and back to college for a final season in the red and black.
“That’s the main reason [Murray came back for a fifth year at Georgia],” he said. “To get one more chance to be first. To play for the SEC championship again, and hopefully have a chance to play for the national championship after that.”
Murray has those five seconds and five yards burned into his consciousness. But for those who may not remember, they went like this: trailing 32-28, the Bulldogs were launching an improbable, last-minute drive through the heart of the Alabama defense. Murray completed three straight passes to the Crimson Tide 8-yard line, and hustled his team to the line of scrimmage to squeeze off another snap.
Spiking the ball might have been the better move, in order to regroup, though Murray disagrees.
“We had a great play called,” he said.
The call was a back-shoulder fade to receiver Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone – a play Murray had executed well all year. But when he set to throw, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley leaped and got a fingertip or two on the pass.
Instead of spiraling to Mitchell, it wobbled just a few yards to Chris Conley, who instinctively reacted by catching it as he was falling down at the Alabama 5. That was the ballgame. Murray hustled Georgia to the line in a desperate attempt to spike and get another play, but the clock ran out.
Alabama staggered out of the Georgia Dome and into the BCS championship game, where it destroyed Notre Dame to win yet another national title. Georgia knew that if not for those five yards and five seconds, it could have been the team trampling the overmatched Fighting Irish.
Murray watched the game the next day, then viewed it once with position coach Mike Bobo. After that he put it away for months, before watching it again twice this summer as part of his 2012 season review and ’13 preparation.
Aside from the pain in his gut, the takeaway for the Georgia QB was an appreciation of being in a classic game against a classy opponent.
“Aside from the one play where I got my head blown off [on a hit by Alabama’s Quinton Dial that should have drawn a flag], they were probably the most respectful team we played all year,” Murray said. “I guess that’s a reflection of their coaching.
“I can’t really hate them. I just want to beat them.”
Toward that end, Murray has been immersed in a remarkable leadership program of his own creation with the help of two Georgia psychology professors.
While completing work on his undergraduate degree in industrial-organizational psychology, Murray devised a goals program that basically has overseen Georgia’s summer workout regimen the past two years. Murray worked with professors Brian Hoffman and Karl Kuhnert on a project that began with the quarterback watching mic’d NFL QBs on film, and evaluating their leadership behaviors. From there, Murray solicited leadership feedback from his teammates and coaches through a survey.
(The biggest takeaway from it: Murray needed to be less nice and more demanding of his peers.)
That led to the implementation of the goals program. Murray identified 15 other team leaders, and put them in charge of player groups during offseason conditioning – which position coaches cannot be part of. But the overall leader was Murray himself.
“Aaron was responsible for administering and running the program with his teammates,” professor Hoffman wrote in an email. “He gave a speech to sell the goals program, a tutorial with other team leaders on how to set effective goals, selected the team leaders and assigned teammates to groups, and kept meticulous records of player goals and player daily attendance at the optional workouts.
“Last year I was much more heavily involved in setting up the program, discussing issues with Aaron, and maintaining oversight. This year, I have been less involved, as the program is up and running and Aaron has a handle on things. I worked with Aaron to set his leadership goal for the year, and then have been getting updates on the progress of the program from Aaron.”
I’m not sure how many other college football players have devised and overseen their team’s summer conditioning programs, but I’m guessing it’s a short list. Perhaps a list of one.
But there are reasons why Murray graduated in 3 ½ years with a double major and a 3.5 grade-point average. There is no lack of motivation within the Tampa product.
“Aaron took doctoral level statistics and psychology classes in our PHD program last year,” Hoffman wrote. “Our program is internationally ranked, so he hung in with some of the best students in the nation. He has also delivered multiple conference presentations on his research studies. All of this would be extremely impressive for any undergraduate, much less someone navigating Aaron's schedule. As you can tell, I have the utmost respect for his scholarly efforts.
“He could have taken the easy road with soft courses (which is what I probably would have done in his position), but he wanted to get a feel for whether he would be interested in getting his advanced degree in business psychology for life after football. So, he chose to take PHD-level classes. Suffice it to say that he is as motivated to achieve in the classroom as he is on the football field.”
Let the next egg-throwing Georgia fan keep all that in mind.
That was the other memorable hit Murray took last fall – not a physical one, but an emotional one. After a miserable performance in a blowout loss to South Carolina, Murray returned home to Athens and was told that his father, Denny, was facing surgery for thyroid cancer. He woke up the next morning to drive to Tampa with Josh to see their father, only to find text messages from friends apologizing for whichever knuckleheads egged and toilet-papered his house in anger over the loss.
“Goodness gracious,” Murray thought. “What more can possibly happen in 24 hours?”
Months removed and in the middle of summer, where he is logging eight-hour days at the Georgia football complex, Murray can laugh about it now.
“That was pretty disturbing,” he said. “I was a little bit in disbelief that someone would seek out my house and do something like that. But 95-98 percent of fans are great. It’s just a small percentage.”
If the Bulldogs have the kind of season Murray envisions, he should have a 100-percent approval rating from the Georgia faithful. The offensive weapons at the Bulldogs’ disposal are dazzling; if a young defense matures during a daunting early run (Clemson, South Carolina and LSU are among the first four opponents), a return to the SEC title game is very possible.
And if Alabama is there waiting for the ‘Dawgs, Murray’s redemption quest will have a chance to play out to its ultimate resolution.
The nightmarish memory of five seconds and five yards are pushing him daily toward it.
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