- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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They left for college on an early summer day, bound for a five-story dormitory on Blossom Street. It seemed fitting that Columbia, S.C., is called The City of Dreams. The freshmen at East Quad came early because they couldn't wait to be stars. One was all-county, another all-state, and the third ran so fast he could've been an Olympian. Who knows if they were nervous, or if they felt the eyes and hopes of their hometowns following them all the way to the University of South Carolina. One thing seemed true: These were three of the finest receivers in the country in the Class of 2005, and they could not fail.
Carlos Thomas was the first to drop his bags, dreadlocked and full of cocksure. The four-star recruit did just about everything with his shoes untied. His dad hugged him, said goodbye and told his youngest boy to focus. Thomas was concerned with just one thing that summer of 2005: himself. But soon, he would care just as deeply about his roommates at East Quad.
Teammates would come to call Thomas, Kenny McKinley and O.J. Murdock the Three Amigos, and it was surprising how they bonded so quickly. When one of them picked a fight with a 315-pound lineman, the other two freshmen jumped into the scrum. "Brothers stick together," Thomas said.
That first night on campus, none of them could sleep. They sat in the living room of their four-bedroom dorm suite and made plans. To take over the football program. To make it to the NFL together, three first-round picks from the University of South Carolina.
Then they walked out into the night, through the courtyards, past the palmettos and pines. It was 3 a.m.; they were strong and naive and 18 years old. Time didn't matter. They had no way of knowing that time already was running out.
It's just after lunch hour on an autumn day in Atlanta, and Carlos Thomas agrees to meet at a Red Lobster near his gym. The dreadlocks are gone -- those were part of his younger days -- and his nonchalant swagger has been replaced by a purposeful gait.
He's 25 and married now, to a girl he's known since elementary school. They're thinking about having kids but it's tough. He spends nearly half the year playing football in Canada; she's at their home in Atlanta. The CFL was supposed to be a quick detour, but now it's a long interstate stretching out four years.
His NFL dream dims with each year that passes, and Thomas, a cornerback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, knows that. But he spends most days rehabbing his shoulder and training for another shot. "I know that's where I belong," Thomas says.
He spent a spring and summer in 2009 with the San Francisco 49ers, made it through training camp, and when Thomas got an interception in a preseason victory over the Oakland Raiders, he thought for sure he'd made the team. He was cut a week later. Thomas believes, in his heart, that he's so close and just needs one break.
The waitress comes, and Thomas orders scallops, shrimp, lobster and a piece of cheesecake, which he eats first. He pokes a fork through his food and leaves nearly half of it.
Where does he start? How do you sum up friendships and dreams and what life does to them? What Thomas had with Murdock and McKinley is rare, he says. Maybe it's the kind of friendship that he'll never have again, the kind that comes only in college, when dreams are young and life is uncomplicated.
"Our first night ... that kind of brought us together," Thomas says. "I was like, 'OK, these are the boys I'm going to ride and die with through my college career.'"
They were part of Steve Spurrier's first recruiting class at South Carolina, one that still goes down as possibly his best. There was so much potential that year, so much fun to be had. They'd sneak out on Friday nights before game day, clubbing all night, slinking back to the team hotel just before wake-up call. And then they'd run routes in those games, bodies be damned, flying off talent and fumes.
There was no pressure back then. Freshmen aren't supposed to carry a team, so whatever good came their way was gravy.
Everything after that got complicated. This is what Thomas has a harder time talking about, so he generally doesn't.
"I'm fine, you know," he says. "I haven't asked myself why. Why they did what they did.
"We came in together, but now I'm the only one left."
Their dorm suite was surprisingly orderly and clean. Had their parents popped in for a surprise visit, they might have been convinced that McKinley, Murdock and Thomas were perfect roommates. In theory, it made sense to house them together. They were all receivers, so they'd be in the same meetings and run the same drills. Maybe they'd study their playbooks together.
In reality, it was as unproductive as all-day recess.
The team had summer conditioning workouts each morning, bright and early, and McKinley, Murdock and Thomas slept through all of them their first week on campus. After a few days of this, assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr. had had enough. He went to their rooms, woke them up and barked something to the effect of, "This ain't no summer vacation."
The boys laughed after he left. Knuckleheads. That's what they were freshman year. They worked hard but seemed unfocused. They wanted big things but didn't want to sacrifice their fun.
When they finally hit the practice field that fall, McKinley, the least ballyhooed of the three, showed flashes of being a star. Perhaps the recruiting gurus didn't expect it from a 150-pound high school quarterback with the nickname of "Skinny McKinley." But the people of Austell, Ga., did. No one at South Cobb High was tougher than McKinley. He refused to let his high school career end until seven overtimes, when he couldn't do any more in a 70-68 loss. McKinley cried that day, which was kind of a surprise. The happy-go-lucky kid was hardly ever seen without a blinding smile. There's a picture of him on signing day senior year that ran in the local paper. He's wearing a black suit and red tie, cracking a joke to the kid next to him, who's laughing hysterically.
McKinley weighed 130 pounds as a high school freshman, and even then, South Cobb offensive coordinator Derek Cook knew he was going to be something. He took him up to the press box for the varsity opener so McKinley could see what the coach saw on Friday nights.
"He stepped out," Cook says, "and when he came back in, he had a plateful of chicken wings and he was getting after it. He had orange sauce all over his face and clothes. I'm sitting here trying to teach him something, and I'm going to have to give him a bath before we turn him loose with a clipboard."
The next week, McKinley was starting on varsity.
Whatever shenanigans took place that freshman year at South Carolina, they did nothing to sully the opinion of Kenny McKinley in the eyes of the Gamecocks' coaching staff. Spurrier Jr. loved the scrawny, gritty kid who shook when he laughed.
Nothing seemed to get to him. He didn't worry about things. If he dropped a ball in practice, he moved on. That fight freshman season was actually started by McKinley, who tossed a Gatorade bottle that just so happened to hit a sleeping bear twice his size. According to one account, McKinley held his own in the scuffle before Murdock and Thomas jumped in.
The much-anticipated 2005 season started with "College GameDay" in Columbia for Spurrier's debut against Central Florida, and the crowd booed when ESPN analyst Lee Corso predicted a bumpy road with a new coach and so many unknowns. But South Carolina went on to upset two ranked teams that season and finish 7-5, and McKinley was in the thick of it. He played in 12 games and started six, making the winning catch, a 42-yarder, against Arkansas.
All of these developments made the other two Amigos happy. They never considered themselves in competition with one another because they lined up in different receiver spots.
"O.J. worshipped Kenny," says Meghan Azevedo, a student equipment manager for the Gamecocks in 2005 and '06. "They were the same age, but Kenny was like a big brother. Kenny was always kind of like one step ahead."
Murdock ended up redshirting freshman year; Thomas started in three games. Off the field, they were inseparable.
At night, they'd head to Blanding Street to one of their favorite clubs, The Main Event. Thomas claims they didn't go there to drink -- they just wanted to see and be seen. Soon, everyone recognized McKinley. And they loved him. It wasn't just his smile, his charm or his stats.
"He was a warrior," says South Carolina play-by-play announcer Todd Ellis. "He was absolutely the most courageous player I ever saw at South Carolina because of his slight frame and his willingness to go over the middle and give up his body for the team.
"I think that's what endeared people to Kenny. When he played, he really gave it up. He gave up his body for it."
McKinley eventually did accomplish one of the Amigos' goals. He did take over the South Carolina program. His junior year, he led the SEC in receptions and earned the kind of statewide love that can carry a man through a lifetime. He was a god on campus, and Spurrier called him the best receiver he'd ever coached. McKinley hurt his right hamstring his senior year ... and still broke school records for receptions and yards.
But the dream of being a first-round draft pick ended when his hamstring stretched. In 2009, the Denver Broncos picked McKinley in the fifth round, although the low pick did nothing to deter him.
He was going to make it, and he'd take everybody he loved. The biggest man on campus would live large in the NFL.
"In his own mind, he finally lived his dream," says former Broncos quarterback Tom Brandstater, who was picked 33 spots later in the '09 draft. "Growing up as a kid, you think once you get to the NFL, everything is a cakewalk after that. But we had to learn that we hadn't made it. We'd taken a step, but we hadn't made it yet."
To outsiders, McKinley had struck it rich with his four-year, $1.95 million contract. But it was an illusion of wealth. He'd make the rookie minimum of $310,000 in 2009, plus a signing bonus of $200,200 -- good money but not nearly enough to cover his growing expenses.
McKinley was an impeccable dresser. He liked to drop tens of thousands of dollars on jewelry and clothing. He'd fly to Las Vegas and play high-stakes poker games. Friends say that one lucky trip was probably the worst thing that could've happened to McKinley -- it is believed he won roughly $30,000 on the trip -- because it made him frequent the casinos more. "And then they wanted to get him a private jet," Brandstater says. "It was a trap. People in Vegas, they don't build those casinos because they're losing money. They have ways to make you feel special and to make you feel like you're their guy. But they're really just trying to get you to spend your money."
Back in Denver, McKinley would pick up the tab at restaurants. He'd order a bottle of wine when he wanted only a glass, just so no one else would go thirsty.
Not long after he signed his contract, his agent, Andrew Bondarowicz, worried about McKinley's spending habits. But he couldn't reach out for a couple of reasons. Bondarowicz wasn't certified by the NFLPA as a financial adviser, so he could help only if McKinley asked. And McKinley was prideful. He didn't want anyone to know he was struggling.
"I represent entertainers as well," Bondarowicz says. "Whether it's actors or professional athletes, there is definitely a feeling of isolation because you're supposed to be Superman to everyone else. You're so worried about having anybody see you sweat."
On the football field, McKinley showed promise that rookie season. He played in eight games on special teams and returned seven kicks for 158 yards. But in the second-to-last week of the season, he hurt his left knee and was placed on injured reserve. He injured his knee again during training camp the following summer.
At least one person close to McKinley says it was probably the first time he'd ever had to deal with significant adversity in his life. Publicly, he'd flash his smile and tell a joke. Privately, doubts started to creep into his head. What if he couldn't play football? What if he couldn't pay his bills? McKinley wasn't playing for himself anymore. He had a 2-year-old son, Keon, back in South Carolina to support. He had thousands of others watching.
"He kind of opened up to me a few times about just having trouble coping with the curveballs in life," Brandstater says. "He wanted to do well for his family and friends. He had such high expectations for himself."
Brandstater had very little in common with McKinley, but they'd have deep conversations about life, expectations and reality. McKinley's second knee injury would be costly -- he'd need surgery and would be out for the season, and because his salary wasn't guaranteed, his pay was cut to $240,000.
But like so many other teammates who passed through McKinley's life, Brandstater had his back. He loved the fact that McKinley saw the best in everyone, that he'd help anyone, and he wanted to do the same. Brandstater emptied his bank accounts and lent McKinley $65,000 so he could clear his gambling debts. Essentially, it was the life savings of a backup quarterback who's bounced around five NFL cities.
For collateral, McKinley gave him two watches -- a Gucci and a Breitling -- plus the titles to his two vehicles. Brandstater laughed at the gaudiness of the diamond-encrusted Gucci; there was no way he'd ever wear that. For 10 nights over dinner, they put together a budget and repayment plan. Brandstater thought it was funny that when the bill came for the meal, McKinley always insisted on paying for it.
But that was Kenny. He had bill collectors bearing down on him but still wanted to buy his friends drinks.
In September 2010, there was a notice from the water company taped to the door of McKinley's house in Aurora, Colo., and rent that was past due. He had a court date to increase his child support payments. On crutches, with reality suffocating him, he got on a plane to South Carolina. He went to the clubs and walked the same streets he used to walk with Murdock and Thomas. He went to the Gamecocks' Sept. 11 home game against Georgia. When his face appeared on the big screen, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation. McKinley soaked it in and waved. He was still the biggest star at Williams-Brice Stadium.
He stayed with Terrence Campbell, an offensive lineman for the Gamecocks at the time, and Campbell asked him to hang around in Columbia longer. It would be like old times. McKinley said he had to go. He told Campbell to get to work and focus on his season.
McKinley went back home to Georgia for a few days, watched his old high school team play a football game, then flew to Denver on Sept. 19. He paid his back rent, post-dated a check for October and chatted with his landlord's 11-year-old son, a Broncos fan. McKinley went out that night, then slept in.
Sometime in the early-afternoon hours of Monday, Sept. 20, 2010, he pulled a sheet over himself, put a semiautomatic .45-caliber handgun to his head and squeezed the trigger. He was dead when police arrived at his house on Caley Place. The shades were drawn; the TV was on with the volume down low. McKinley died with the NFL Network on.
When O.J. Murdock received word of McKinley's death, he locked himself in his room for days. He didn't go to school, or football practice, and wouldn't talk. The fastest and arguably most talented of the Three Amigos was also the emotional one.
Their plans to take over the South Carolina program together had ended four years earlier, at a Macy's in Tampa, Fla. Murdock was busted for shoplifting during the Gamecocks' bye week, and that, along with his plummeting grades, sent him packing. Friends called the arrest a rare slip-up for a young man with a sweet smile and the best of intentions. Murdock wanted to make it to the NFL to help his family, who lived in a hardscrabble East Tampa neighborhood called Belmont Heights, and to please the thousands who used to come to Middleton High School just to watch him run.
In East Tampa, Murdock was one of the brightest hopes. He could dunk a basketball by the time he was 13, and at 14 was a national champion sprinter in the Junior Olympics. Aside from the principal, he was the most powerful person at Middleton High. His talent was otherworldly, but he never seemed to flaunt it.
"He ate two dozen chocolate-chip cookies the night before a track meet and ran the fastest time," says Daryl Wilson, an old teammate at Middleton High. "Who does that?"
Murdock was invited as a kid to train with elite sprinters, but it was clear he was never going to abandon football. For starters, it was his easiest path to riches. It was also his dad's sport. Kelvin Murdock was a receiver, too, and was drafted in the ninth round by the New England Patriots in 1982. But he didn't make it in the league, and when his son was born five years later, he named him Orenthal James, after O.J. Simpson. Soon, people started calling the kid Juice.
Throughout Murdock's life, whenever he fell off the path, someone was there to nudge him. There was his mama, Jamesena, a loving, strong-willed woman who ran a day care, who'd do anything for the people she loved. There were his high school coaches, his middle school teachers, his mentors and his neighborhood mentors. This was his village, and they all celebrated when Murdock made it to South Carolina.
But when Murdock left for college, he was on his own. Grades were always his biggest issue. For all the work he put into football, he didn't do nearly enough in the classroom. Some kids, former Gamecocks assistant coach David Reaves says, have the maturity to make an easy transition in their first year away from home. Kenny McKinley was one of those kids. Murdock wasn't.
And unlike the other two freshmen, things did get to Murdock that freshman season. He expected himself to make almost every catch. He wanted to live up to each of his four stars. His bio heading into the 2006 season touted him as a talented redshirt freshman "who looks to break into the rotation this fall." Murdock caught one pass for 8 yards and was gone.
He transferred to Pearl River Community College, broke his collarbone his first week of practice and later made plans to attend Marshall University. But his grades dogged him, and he wound up living on his mom's couch ... for a year and a half.
"When he didn't go through school like he was supposed to," childhood friend Chris Bailey says, "he felt like he was letting the whole city down. He knew everybody looked up to him and expected a lot of him."
In April 2009, Murdock was watching the NFL draft -- McKinley's draft -- and was fixated on another receiver selection. When the Raiders took Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick, it floored him. Murdock had participated in a camp with Heyward-Bey a few years earlier, and he believed that he was better.
Former Middleton assistant Al McCray, who by then was the wide receivers coach at Fort Hays State, reached out and tossed him a lifeline. He'd give him a chance on the team if he qualified academically. Murdock spent months studying and taking online courses, and eventually, he became eligible to play.
This time, he was ready. It wasn't the SEC; it was Division II football, in a Kansas town with a population of about 20,500. But for Murdock, it was perfect. Nobody knew him there, save for McCray, so there were no legendary stories about touchdowns or track meets to live up to. The town, and the journey, were simple now.
Fort Hays running back James Walker had to go online just to look up his new roommate's bio and see whether he was any good. Murdock was beyond that; he was a professional. He dressed up for the bus trips that took them to road games, and in every way, including practices and warm-ups, he acted like an NFL player.
"That was the only thing he ever talked about," Walker says. "Everything revolved around the NFL. If people walked past his room, the NFL Network was always on."
On Murdock's first play at Fort Hays, he caught a 70-yard pass, and the people of Hays, Kan., knew everything was about to change. The offense that ranked near the bottom of Division II before Murdock arrived became one of the country's best. The stadium that drew a few hundred fans had more than 6,000 on homecoming, McCray says, and the fire marshal said they couldn't let anyone else in.
"That," McCray says, "is the excitement this kid brought to this program."
In a private moment, Murdock told his coach he had one regret, that he hadn't worked harder on his studies. But his slate was clean now. Murdock was invited to the NFL draft combine, and in the spring of 2011, he was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Tennessee Titans.
The second day of rookie training camp, he popped his Achilles.
The NFL life of an undrafted rookie is tenuous, especially when he suffers a season-ending injury. But Murdock seemed upbeat. He went home to Tampa and split his days between grueling sessions at Advanced Rehabilitation and a Powerhouse Gym.
Unlike McKinley, Murdock seemed determined not to go through his injury alone. At Advanced Rehab, he met Tampa Bay defensive end E.J. Wilson, who was also recovering from an Achilles injury. For months, they trained and ate lunch together, and they eventually became close friends. When Wilson's cousin died unexpectedly, Murdock checked on Wilson and helped him feel better.
"If you were close to him," Wilson says, "there's nothing he wouldn't do for you."
Still injured, Murdock went back to Nashville this past spring so he could go to meetings and be around the team. He moved in with receiver Damian Williams, who offered him one of the rooms in his house. Murdock's first night there, he handed Williams a wad of money for rent, and when Williams said it was OK, he didn't need to pay right away, Murdock insisted. "He always wanted to put in a fair share," Williams says. They'd go to Walmart together to shop for groceries, and Murdock would be in the toy aisle, playing with the kids. He seemed happy, carefree and inching closer to what he wanted.
By the end of the summer, Murdock's Achilles was nearly healed, and he was in line to compete for playing time in the 2012 season. He told friends he was excited to finally be able to help his mom out. After bumming rides from friends for years, he had a new car, a silver Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes.
Murdock seemed ready for training camp, his agent, Hadley Engelhard, said. Engelhard texted him just before the Titans were to report on July 28. Go do your thing, Engelhard said.
YES SIR, Murdock texted back.
But he didn't show up for camp. He told the team he was dealing with personal issues and would be in Tennessee in a few days. On the morning of July 30, Murdock parked his new car down a dead-end road facing the football field at Middleton High. He put a 9-mm pistol to the right side of his head. He fired one round into his temple. Murdock was pronounced dead less than three hours later at Tampa General Hospital.
Thomas was in Canada when he found out from Stoney Woodson, who played with them at South Carolina. Woodson sent him a link to a story about Murdock's death, and Thomas read it on his phone.
"Not O.J.," Thomas thought to himself as he scrolled through. "Not another one."
In the early-morning hours of July 29, Meghan Azevedo received a Facebook message from Murdock. It was stamped at 1:09 a.m.
I'm so sorry meghan... Thanks for all the memories..... Be blessed
Azevedo got the message when she awoke, and knew exactly what it meant.
"I didn't know what to do," she says.
She sent him a message back, asking whether he was OK. Murdock didn't reply. She scoured the Internet and found a story that said he hadn't reported to camp. She sent him more messages. She told him she cared about him, that a lot of people cared about him, and that he needed to let them help.
"Just tell me you're OK," she wrote.
They were close friends at South Carolina. It seemed like yesterday that she met McKinley, Murdock and Thomas, the freshmen everyone was talking about at South Carolina. "They were total clowns," she says. Being a young female student manager surrounded by sweat and testosterone wasn't exactly easy. But Murdock, she says, was different. Special. He had deep feelings and cared about people.
Murdock seemingly fell off the face of the Earth when he left school in 2006, and they didn't communicate for four years. Then McKinley committed suicide, and Azevedo reached out to Murdock on Facebook. She told Murdock that he was the first person she thought of when she heard the news. She knew Kenny was his best friend from nearly the day they arrived on campus. McKinley had the biggest and brightest smile; Murdock's was a close second.
Hang in there, she wrote Murdock, and Murdock wrote back.
It's so hard, Meghan. I can't stop crying.
She told him that it was OK to cry and that she was always there to talk. She sent him another message a week later asking how he was doing. Murdock never responded, although they had a conversation in 2011, just before he went to the NFL combine.
He didn't write back until July 29. All day, she braced for the worst. She knew he saw his messages; he was exchanging notes with others.
Around 10 that night, Murdock called Wayne Shepheard, a former teammate from Fort Hays. Shepheard was one of those friends Murdock could talk to about anything. Once a week, they'd talk for hours about their lives, their jobs and their relationships. Shepheard was a couple of months from getting married, and he wanted Murdock to attend the wedding, although he knew it probably wouldn't be possible because he'd be playing football. When Murdock was having problems with his girlfriend, he'd open up to Shepheard. During one conversation over the summer, Murdock told his friend, "I wish I had what you have."
Shepheard was taken aback.
"What are you talking about?" Shepheard said. "You're in the NFL. You've got it all."
On the night of July 29, Murdock was crying when he called. He sobbed the entire conversation, which lasted 15 minutes. When Shepheard repeatedly asked what was wrong, Murdock said he had a lot on his mind and didn't know what to do. He wouldn't explain. When Shepheard pressed, Murdock said it wasn't life or death.
The morning he died, Murdock was wearing a long-sleeved Tennessee Titans T-shirt. To his right were the metal bleachers that he used to fill on Friday nights; straight ahead were the starting blocks for the 100-yard dash. The Summer Olympics had just begun as Murdock's life was ending. Thirty-two NFL teams had just started training camp.
"I can't think of what was going through his mind," says Daryl Wilson, his old Middleton High teammate.
"The only thing I can say is maybe [the high school] brought him peace. This is a peaceful spot for him, just thinking about the good times at Middleton."
About a month after Murdock's death, Wilson and two of their old teammates, Chris Bailey and David Lee, drove to their high school and walked down the dead-end road. It was the first time they'd been back to the scene. They talked about the time Murdock told the whole track team that practice had been canceled, so they didn't show up and had to run extra laps the next day while Murdock watched and cackled. They talked about football practice, and how it was humid and blazing hot, but that it never seemed so bad because they were all together.
There were probably 20 of them -- 20 -- who still consider one another best friends. Murdock was the leader of the group. He rounded them up on his 25th birthday this past spring, and they spent a few nights clubbing, laughing about old times, and they knew, that night, that nothing would ever change. They would always be friends.
Their football coach, Harry Hubbard, used to huddle them together and thank God that they had one another, that they were the right people in the right place at the right time. They all knew what Coach Hub meant. They were put together to help one another.
The place where Murdock shot himself has no flowers or memorials, which, sadly, makes sense. Everyone who knew the legend of O.J. Murdock here is gone. Coaches have left for better gigs; all but maybe one or two beloved teachers have moved on. He didn't come here for help.
But he did say goodbye, to some people. Coach McCray got a text, at 3:30 in the morning. Murdock thanked him and said he was sorry, and McCray figured he was apologizing because it was so late. A.J. Jones, another high school friend, got one, too. It came the day before Murdock killed himself. I'M SO SORRY, BRO, it said.
At first, Jones didn't reply. He figured it wasn't pressing. After a little while, Jones texted him back. WHAT'S UP, BRO?
Murdock never replied, and Jones has agonized over that, why he didn't reply sooner, why he didn't just pick up the phone and call. "But who could've predicted that?" Jones says.
But Murdock had support from everywhere. So did McKinley. Tennessee tight end Jared Cook, who played with both of them at South Carolina, says Murdock used to think about McKinley and get sad. They all did. But McKinley's death obviously affected Murdock deeply.
He would bring up old times and the fun they had together at East Quad. He'd say he missed McKinley and wished he could call him and talk. He'd say he just wanted one last conversation, and then maybe he could stop him.
In the days after McKinley's death, Murdock eventually went to Coach McCray to talk.
"Man," he asked him, "why do people commit suicide?"
The Tampa police released a report on Murdock's suicide in October. It said that Murdock called his middle school track coach, Aesha Bailey, on the morning of July 30 and said he was at Middleton. He told her he was sorry. He didn't say anything else. Bailey rushed to the school and found the tinted driver's-side window shattered. Murdock was unconscious and covered in blood. The gun was still in his right hand.
The police report said Kelvin Murdock "believes his son was very sensitive to all of the things that he accomplished in his life as well as his public failures." It said that Murdock had been having problems with his girlfriend, Ashley Armour.
Armour declined interview requests. She still isn't ready to talk to the media, said her mother, Jovannie. Four and a half months later, it's still too hard. The couple met as teenagers, competing in sports at different high schools, but didn't date then. Jovannie says they'd been together for at least two years.
She wouldn't say whether the couple was having problems. "He loved her dearly," she says. "And she loved him." Jovannie considered Murdock a son. When he stayed over, he'd sleep on an air mattress on the floor. He called her "mom." He loved strawberry cheesecake. She still can't bring herself to throw away the cheesecake that's still in the freezer.
Murdock gave her husband a helmet autographed by all of the Titans for Father's Day, only there was one signature missing: O.J.'s. Jovannie starts to cry. "He was a humble, normal guy," she says.
Murdock left a suicide note, but its contents have not been made public. It was not included in the police report, and none of the friends, former teammates or coaches interviewed for this story knows what it said.
"I know in my heart he didn't do this because of problems in their relationship," Jovannie says. "O.J. was so much bigger than that. I don't know why this child did this. None of us do.
"I just wish someone could've reached out and snagged him."
The Arapahoe County (Colo.) Sheriff's report on Kenny McKinley's death is in black and white and covers 131 pages. It lays out his gambling problems, his mountain of debt and his way out. McKinley gave hints of the darkness that surrounded him that September. In the weeks after his second knee injury, he casually told friends that maybe things would be easier if he just committed suicide. No one believed he was serious.
He was 23, and he was Kenny McKinley. He had his whole life ahead of him.
How does a man who felt the love of 80,000, who was showered with a standing ovation, end his life nine days later? How does the kid with the brightest smile and the biggest dreams lose hope in his second season?
Maybe the answers were never that deep. Bondarowicz, his agent, wonders whether four or five things hit McKinley all at the same time, the worst time, when he was in a weakened state. Police noted a strong odor of marijuana in McKinley's home when his body was discovered. Maybe, Bondarowicz says, it was impulse. Impulse with a gun he bought for protection and by his bathroom sink.
"Kenny was actually pretty strong-willed," Bondarowicz says. "I think he just got trapped.
"You look at what was going on that year. Professionally, he was going on injured reserve. He knew he had the debt hanging over him, and he was counting on a certain amount of money coming in. He was at South Carolina, and he was 'the man.' Everybody loved him. He went from that to being a guy in Denver. With the host of injuries, he became irrelevant almost."
McKinley had at least one known concussion in college. It came in his sophomore season during a 52-7 victory over Middle Tennessee State in November 2006. A story posted to GamecockAnthem.com said the team emerged from the game relatively unscathed. It said McKinley had suffered a mild concussion but returned to practice that Monday night.
Spurrier, the website said, was dumbfounded at the hits McKinley took that game. "He just got knocked woozy," Spurrier said in the report. "He went back in on the punt return, and I'll be dadgummed, we open the gates and the guy clobbered him catching the punt."
In his one season in Denver, McKinley did not appear on an NFL injury report with any head-related ailments. But when news broke of his death, CTE speculation quickly ensued. His father, Ken, signed the papers to donate his brain to Boston University for its study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a syndrome that is caused by repeated blows to the head. A recent study by the Boston group found 28 new cases of CTE among deceased football players, including 15 who played in the NFL.
Ken McKinley declined to confirm whether his son was among the confirmed cases.
"I don't want to talk about it," he says. "I just don't want to relive all that. If I had some information that I thought would be beneficial or helpful, I would say, 'Let's talk about it.' But I really don't."
Murdock's family also donated a sample of his brain to Boston University, the Tampa Tribune reported. The family declined interview requests.
Before McKinley's death in 2010, the last known suicide of an active NFL player was in 1993. That December, Houston Oilers defensive tackle Jeff Alm, drunk and distraught over wrecking his car and killing his best friend, shot himself in the head near the accident scene. Now there have been three suicides in the past three seasons. On Dec. 1, Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, then killed himself in a parking lot outside the Chiefs' practice facility.
The elder McKinley says he's followed the news and sympathizes with the families. "I don't know if any of it is related, but who knows?" he says. "Maybe with all the studies they're doing and the money they're spending on different things, maybe they can figure something out. But I really don't know."
Kenny McKinley's funeral was on a Monday in the middle of football season. All over the country, young men of varying degrees of success skipped practices and headed to Austell to attend. Cory Boyd, an old teammate from South Carolina, dropped to his knees and wept at his casket. Boyd was one of McKinley's best friends. Many people from South Carolina called McKinley a best friend.
Carlos Thomas flew in from Canada; Sidney Rice came from Minnesota. It was the first time so many of them had been back together since college. Freshman year, Rice occupied the fourth room in their dorm suite at East Quad. He was a year older than they were and more like a big brother. Rice spent a lot of that year simply watching them and laughing. He didn't skip workouts, didn't go clubbing before game day -- "He was the smarter guy," Thomas jokes -- and two years later, Rice was a second-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings.
He's been in the NFL six years now, and in many ways, the life they all wanted is his. He played with Brett Favre in Minnesota and went to the Pro Bowl in 2009. Last season, he signed a $41 million deal with Seattle. This year, he's on highlight reels, diving for touchdown catches on a Seahawks team making a surprising run at the playoffs.
Rice wasn't there that night the freshmen made their pact. But when he got drafted, Thomas said that it was one down and three to go. Rice saw McKinley in Vail a month before his death. "Same old Kenny," he says, and when they parted, Rice told him he'd see him next time.
At McKinley's funeral, Rice and Thomas spotted each other and talked, mostly about small stuff. While Murdock sought answers after McKinley's death, others didn't. They didn't want to know why. They didn't want to talk about it, or picture their very best at his very worst.
McKinley died, and the other Two Amigos didn't even call each other. They didn't mourn together. "It's not something you enjoy talking about," Thomas says. "You just lock it away and put it in the back of your mind."
Maybe in the macho world of professional sports, it didn't feel right. Azevedo, who received one of Murdock's final messages, is convinced he never would've opened up to her about McKinley had she not reached out first.
"Men have a tendency, athletes especially, to internalize a lot of things," she says. "They just take it as a part of life. I think they're kind of wired to turn the other cheek and move on and deal with it inside however they can."
Murdock was laid to rest on a Saturday. Family and old high school teammates packed a tabernacle in Florida. Thomas didn't go. He was in Canada playing football, and they hadn't talked in years. They'd drifted apart. It happens when people move away and have families, new jobs and new friends. Murdock left South Carolina, and Thomas kept in touch with him for maybe a year. Then he didn't know where he was. He had no idea that Murdock was out of football for a year and a half.
"Just because we hadn't talked doesn't mean the relationship I built with that guy faded," Thomas says. "We were just at different places in our lives."
Everything changed after that freshman year. It was the last year of their youth. Thomas moved over to defense at South Carolina, and he and McKinley eventually got different roommates. They grew apart, and chased their dreams alone.
But Thomas always carried that time and place with him. For a year, they were the best friends he had. He's grown up. He says his family -- not football -- is the most important thing to him now.
But he wakes up every morning, wanting the same thing.
"I can still do it," Thomas says. "I can do it for all of us."
9hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
5hMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins