They Know Him Now

ATHENS – The cold night air in Athens seemed particularly bitter as Aaron Murray was helped off the field for the final time.

It was sad. It was poignant. But I actually think it showed who and what Aaron Murray is and has become once and for all.

The senior quarterback literally left it all out on the field – wrecking his knee and returning to the surface he has shined on so many times before to lead his team down the field as long as he could not knowing which snap would be his last, but knowing for sure that it was all coming to an end sometime soon.

What must he have been going through his head?

Murray knew he wasn't going to lead his red-clad bunch in Athens ever again after Saturday night. But in a twist that was particularly cruel and probably as indicative of the storyline of Georgia's 2013 season – Murray's final night was cut short by a knee injury while he was running for a slew of yards.

Murray tearing his left ACL in the open field (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

I knew after the next snap that Murray wasn't right. He watched Rantavious Wooten take a reverse 11 yards down the field and squatted down to gather himself as Kolton Houston looked back to see what was going on.

A play after the injury Murray was noticeably slowed (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Two plays later Murray threw the final touchdown of his record-breaking career. Having photographed Aaron Murray since he was a junior in high school I know his mannerisms after a score: pistols firing with his index fingers in the air. Touchdown? It was time to celebrate – find an offensive lineman and party... sometimes a Ric Flair-like "Woooo!"

Murray's typical celebration after a score (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

This time was different. He put his head down and looked at the turf where he had lost only three games in four years; the place where his teams had reversed the failures of a mediocre program to one that was steps away from a national title; the dirt beneath is feet had been good to him, but by his own hard work not by any sort of luck.

His time at Georgia was going to end Saturday night, but he was going to have to be pulled off that field… and sadly he would be. What I didn't know – and I think no one else knew – was that he had already torn up his knee… but he didn't say anything as he returned to the sideline.

Murray after the final touchdown of his career (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

"I saw it and think he just didn't want come out," said one of Murray's closest allies through the years. "The guy just didn't want to quit."

This wasn't the Aaron Murray who struggled to compose himself after the 17-6 loss at South Carolina in 2010, or the guy who tossed too many interceptions in big moments in 2011. This was the guy that had earned respect nationally the hard way – by taking it after the doubt had seemingly cemented against him.

"Aaron Murray can't win the big game… he just can't" was the rally cry of the idiot class of media and fans who ignore facts on the ground and go with the narrative of the day. Aaron Murray certainly changed from the time he arrived from Tampa in 2009. This was not the one who fought off Zach Mettenberger, but the one who beat him years later in one of the classic games ever played Between the Hedges. This was the Murray people had finally learned to appreciate. The guy who struggled to meet lofty expectations as a freshman was gone.

The world was on Murray's shoulders back then, and at times he tried to do too much. The program was struggling, and Murray was in the spotlight growing up – and that's never fun.

Years later, and all grown up, Murray was the one leading a surging Georgia down the field against LSU, Tennessee, Auburn and, of course, Alabama, in the final moments of games. This was the Aaron Murray who wasn't so scared of Jadeveon Clowney after all. But the scars remain – particularly the one on his chin courtesy of Nick Fairley's dirty play at Auburn in 2010.

This is was the guy who led the Dawgs past the Gators once and for all three times in a row – and that's what matters the most.

An emotional Murray before the game with his family (Ethan Burch/Dawg Post)

Still, Murray, injured or not, had been around the block and had seen a few things through his career – including crazy comebacks. Georgia was up 28-7, but Reggie Davis fumbled a punt return, and Kentucky kicked a field goal to get within 18… Murray had seen that big leads are meaningless in the SEC this season – he was going back in.

Mark Richt tells Murray: "You're out dude". Murray replied: "No. No way." (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

What was Murray thinking? It certainly wasn't of his future. It obviously wasn't of the pain he was suffering. During the break he hopped on the stationary bicycle and started peddling and convinced offensive coordinator Mike Bobo that he could and would be going back into the contest.

Murray convincing Bobo he was fine (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Murray got off the bike, jogged toward the student end zone and made the effort necessary to convince Bobo to allow him to go back into the game – grunting once, which probably no one heard because of where he was jogging. And so Aaron Murray entered between the lines at Sanford Stadium one final and fateful time.

Georgia zipped down the field. Four first downs later Murray was sacked by Donte Rumph. He got back up. Two plays later he fired an interception and was thrown to the ground by Za'Darius Smith. This time he didn't.

It looked like Smith had caused the injury, but we now know better. Murray was already hurt, but this time the pain was too much.

"I knew it had to be the worst possible situation," Murray's ally said. "He hides things well, and he couldn't hide that."

No, he couldn't.

Murray leaves the field with the help of trainers (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Aaron Murray's career at Georgia officially over, but he couldn't walk any more, so he had to be taken off the field one way or another.

It took me back to the time I visited Murray during his high school days. If one thing was clear it's that Aaron Murray and the Murrays stick together big time. In 2008, Plant High School was playing a rare Thursday game at home – giving me a chance to watch him play. He left the field that night on a golf cart – breaking his leg during the second quarter of Plant's win.

His younger sister, Stephanie, went to see if she could help her brother in any way. She was in tears – distraught seeing her brother's senior year damaged that way. But ever the fighter, Murray came back weeks later to guide his team to a state title.

Murray's older and protective brother Josh was so proud of his younger brother the day he committed to Georgia that it brought tears to his face. Josh has always been on the lookout for his little brother.

Murray's parents have been fixtures at Georgia games through the years, and his mother accompanied him out of the Bulldog locker room and up a slight hill and into a Georgia State Patrol Car that was waiting to take him to St. Mary's Hospital for tests.

But the power of the Murray family isn't just in times of peril – it is in times of joy, too.

A few hours before the injury that ended Aaron's days playing in Silver Britches, the Murray family waited, only ten yards from where Aaron would leave it all on the field one final time. The senior quarterback, who had come back to win it all, was the last player called in senior introductions and the Sanford Stadium crowd's appreciation was evident. Decked out in black, the partisan crowd wildly yelled for a player they had grown to love by watching him take baby steps over four years – until he could take steps no more that Saturday night.

Murray entered field – helmet in his left hand and high over his head and football in the other – and turned the corner to see his family and girlfriend on the field. I don't personally know the Murrays, but have been around long enough to see the obvious they are close… very close.

His family was waiting for him in the end zone. He avoided eye contact with them until the one-yard line. By the time he crossed the end zone the emotions were too much to hold back.

Murray before the game with his mother and family (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

It was a Murray party in the end zone again, but this time the appreciation for Aaron was full throated from everyone in the stadium.

For much of his career, Georgia's fan base didn't appreciate Aaron Murray quite the way they should. He didn't have the arm of Stafford or the rings of Greene or Shockley, so he was the guy who "couldn't". That may have been more about the time that Murray took over as starting quarterback than anything else. But that was a lie – an oversold exaggeration – that had been proved false once and for all by the time that cold November night ended in Athens. Aaron Murray has always been tough – a fighter to the end.

"I wish people knew him like we do," said one of Murray's closest confidants on Sunday.

They know him now.

Murray leaves the locker room with his mother, girlfriend and team chaplain (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

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