Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray runs off the field after a victory during his sophomore season in 2011. Murray is now a senior and entering his fourth straight season as the Bulldogs’ starting QB.
ATHENS — Aaron Murray would love to win the Heisman Trophy. He’d love to win a national championship with Georgia even more. But given the current climate in college football, he couldn’t imagine doing either as a freshman.
Johnny Manziel did the former. The Texas A&M quarterback known as “Johnny Football” won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman last season.
Of course, the seven months since have been a whirlwind of controversy and tabloid-type media attention. Much of the conflict, most seem to agree, is the product of the 20-year-old’s lack of maturity.
In Murray, the Bulldogs are represented by the “anti-Johnny Football.”
A fifth-year senior and fourth-year starter who will turn 23 in November, Murray has very much developed into the face of the Georgia football program. And it’s a face of which the Bulldogs are extremely proud.
“I’ll bet he does more community service than anybody,” UGA coach Mark Richt said of Murray. “Just walking down the street for him, going to the grocery store or whatever, becomes a little bit of a community-service project in that people stop him. They want to talk to him, they ask for pictures for their children or for themselves or autographs. He’s a very gracious ambassador for Georgia. He’s a blessing to us.”
Other than Richt, Murray is the most recognizable face at the University of Georgia and one of the more recognizable personalities the football program has produced since Herschel Walker.
Still, Murray has never had to deal with the likes of celebrity that Manziel is at the moment.
“It can be tough just going around Georgia or going out to eat somewhere,” Murray said. “But if you win the Heisman like (Manziel) did, it’s not only Texas, but it’s everywhere in the country he goes that he’s recognized. It’s tough being 20 years old and living like that. It’s a learning experience, and you have to learn from it.”
Murray did. It wasn’t so long ago that Murray was a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time 20-year-old. He has never been arrested or embarrassed the program by his behavior, but only a couple of years ago he found himself having to explain away compromising photos and justifying his presence on another school’s campus.
This explains why he is more wary and cautious these days.
“I can’t tell you the number of times somebody has snapped a picture of me, and I wondered if I was doing something stupid in that instance and all of the sudden that’s going to be everywhere,” Murray said.
“So you can’t even joke around, really, because you’ll end up looking like a fool. You might make a funny face and somebody could take it the wrong way and everybody goes crazy.
“It definitely constricts your personality. You have to know when you can and when you can’t truly relax.”
So Murray rarely does.
Though he has long been of legal drinking age, Murray rarely partakes. And if he does, it is not often in public.
Murray used to live with four teammates — Arthur Lynch, Ty Frix, Christian Robinson and Dustin Royston — and they might host an occasional, invitation-only soiree. But three of them have graduated, and now Murray shares an Athens apartment with his older brother, Josh.
They may have friends over to cook out or watch movies, but little else.
“I try not to put myself in those situations anymore,” Murray said. “Like going out, I try to avoid it at all costs. I can’t even remember the last time I’ve been out. If I go hang out with the boys, we’ll just go to someone’s house. Later, I may drop everybody off downtown and go home. It’s more stressful than fun, so I just don’t put myself in that situation.”
Murray’s existence is stressful enough without adding to it risky behavior.
He’s recognized almost everywhere he goes, whether he’s in Athens or Atlanta or at a nondescript gas station off the interstate in South Georgia.
“We could be in God-knows-where, Georgia, and people are going to recognize him,” Lynch said. “But he handles it well. He never turns down anybody for an autograph or a picture. When you understand how much he gets asked and the toll it takes on him, you appreciate how he conducts himself on a daily basis. That’s in public and behind closed doors. I don’t know if I could do it the same way. I think that’s why he’s in the position he’s in and I’m not.”
Of course, Murray’s personality off the field is enhanced by his performance on it.
He owns Georgia’s career records for passing touchdowns (95) and touchdown responsibility (104). Barring injury, he’ll break all the records for career passing yards and total offense as well — not just in the history of UGA football but in the history of the SEC, too.
He enters his senior season with 10,331 total yards. Tim Tebow’s SEC record is 12,232.
Which is great. But Murray, who graduated from Georgia more than a year ago, said he bypassed the NFL draft only to return for another shot at a championship. The Bulldogs came tantalizingly close with a four-point loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game in December. Anything less this season will be a disappointment, he said.
“Definitely,” he said. “You’re remembered for championships. My only goal is to win one. That’s why I came back, to give myself an opportunity. I’ve won championships at every level in every sport: pee-wee Super Bowls, two state championships in high school. It’s just something you play the game for. To be so close the last couple of years has been tough.
“But it’s definitely been a fun career, I will say that. I don’t regret anything at all. I’ve had a great time, learned a lot, made a lot of friends, had some great experiences on the field. But it definitely would be 10 times better with a championship, a lot better.”