It wasn't supposed to end this way for Aaron Murray.
Georgia's senior quarterback was supposed to be carried off the field inside Sanford Stadium on the shoulders of his teammates, not by trainers while struggling to put any sort of weight on his left leg.
The season-ending ACL injury Murray suffered in the first half of Georgia's 59-17 victory over Kentucky last Saturday ended a fantastic season and career statistically, while showing just how cruel this sport can be, even to the nice guys. For someone who stood for a lot more than just throwing a football, winning games and breaking records at Georgia, Saturday night served as a cruel exit for a player who should go down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC.
Even with his shortened appearance against the Wildcats, Murray's 183 passing yards through two quarters gave him enough to become the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards in at least four seasons. He also finished his career with the conference record for career passing yards (13,166), passing touchdowns (121) and total yardage (13,554).
And what might be the most heartbreaking aspect about all of this is that Murray put off making millions. He could have left early for the NFL draft last season, but he decided to come back to try to bring a championship back to Athens. Despite a four-loss season, Murray was improving his draft stock this year. Even with all the offensive injuries around him, Murray failed to throw for fewer than 250 yards just three times, including in that first half against Kentucky.
Before Saturday, Murray was on pace to throw for 3,757 yards and about 30 touchdowns. Beyond what he was doing statistically, Murray was making some big-time throws and punishing his own body with clutch runs to win games. Look at the way he performed surgery on South Carolina and LSU (both victories) with his arm, throwing eight touchdowns to one interception. How about the way he orchestrated that game-tying drive with a depleted offense to go to overtime in the victory over Tennessee?
In the last-minute loss to Auburn, Murray did absolutely everything he could to will the Dawgs back to victory. He threw for a season-high 415 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another 37 with two more scores. He tied the game with a 5-yard run that left him battered and bruised at the goal line.
Whatever position people thought Murray was in last year when it came to the draft, he certainly made plenty of strong cases for a much better spot in 2014.
Now, he'll no doubt fall in the draft with a lengthy rehab coming up, and it's just not fair. Not for someone who gave everything to Georgia's football program, with that boyish smile on his face the entire time. The simple fact that he first injured his knee against Kentucky on a 28-yard run on the first play of the second quarter -- and then ran 16 more plays before he simply couldn't stand on his own -- tells you everything about Murray.
Still, some of his work will always go unappreciated.
The stigma of his failure to win the big game stuck with him well into his senior year. People questioned his decision-making skills in crunch time. His house was egged by members of his own fan base. And he never brought Georgia an SEC title or took them to a BCS bowl game.
Georgia fans have always had always had mixed emotions with Murray, but you could see that fading this season. The praise only grew with how he gutted out games with players dropping around him like Jenga blocks. He was in and out of the Heisman talk until the losses started to accumulate in Athens this year, but any talk of Murray not being a gamer was officially squashed.
It should have been squashed well before that, but in a society that thrives on instant gratification, Murray was usually on the outside looking in. It's a sad reality for a player who meant so much and did so much for his program, but Murray never fretted about it.
Murray finished his career with a 35-17 record as Georgia's starting quarterback. He made two January bowl games and played in consecutive SEC championship games. He beat rival Florida three consecutive times and owns several SEC records. But he didn't get the chance to go out the right way.
It's devastating, but he'll bounce back. He always has.