TAMPA — Fort Hays State receivers coach Al McCray arose Monday morning to discover a text message as cryptic as it was courteous.
O.J. Murdock had sent it at 3:30 a.m.
"It was like, 'Coach, I appreciate everything you've done for me and my family,' " recalled McCray, a former longtime high school assistant in Hillsborough County. "At the end of the text he said, 'I apologize.' I figured he's apologizing because he texted me so early."
Hours later, Murdock was pronounced dead of an apparent suicide, and McCray — like many others close to the sleek former Middleton High athletic star — was awash in confusion and grief.
Murdock died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. According to a media alert sent out by the Tampa Police Department on Monday morning, Murdock, who signed a free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans a year ago, was transported to Tampa General Hospital in critical condition. He was found in his car in front of Middleton High School around 8:30 a.m.
Murdock, 25, died at 10:43 a.m. Funeral arrangements are pending.
"I spoke to him about a week and a half ago. He was in good spirits, really excited about being able to help his mother out," said McCray, who watched Murdock set Fort Hays State's single-season record for receiving yards (1,290) and yards per catch (21.5) in 2010.
"And the people in Hays (Kansas), gosh, they love him so much. If he wanted to run for mayor, he would've won in a landslide."
Murdock, on injured reserve last season with the Titans after injuring his Achilles, did not report to training camp Friday with the rest of the Titans. When asked about his absence, coach Mike Munchak told reporters it was for "personal reasons."
"In his brief time here, a number of our players, coaches and staff had grown close to O.J., and this is a difficult time for them," the Titans said in a statement. "…Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."
Murdock initially landed at South Carolina after high school but was dismissed from the squad by coach Steve Spurrier after being charged with grand theft. After a year of junior college he resurfaced at Fort Hays State in 2009.
With his fleetness energizing the passing game, the Tigers made a quantum leap offensively. The year before his arrival, FHSU averaged 15.91 points (132nd nationally among Division II teams) and finished 2-9. In Murdock's first season, 2009, it averaged 33.18 (29th) and went 6-5. The next season, Murdock's last, FHSU set a program attendance record.
"I lived and saw what impact that kid had on this community," McCray said. "It was unbelievable."
Ricky Sailor, founder of a local non-profit service (Unsigned Preps) that helps high school football players get into college, said Murdock had been an active volunteer in his organization.
"That's something I know people are not reporting, but O.J. was doing things in the community that went quietly," said Sailor, adding he hadn't seen Murdock in about a year. "He understood that these guys need opportunities."
Several dozen of Murdock's friends and relatives gathered Monday night at the home of his mother, Jamesena, located exactly a mile and a half from Middleton High. Jamesena Murdock declined comment.
"We're all taking it bad right now," said Delmar Shorter, 22, who played youth football with O.J. Murdock in Temple Terrace. "Can't put it in words. …Nobody saw it coming."
As a high school senior, Murdock was ranked the nation's 10th-best receiver by Rivals, and chose South Carolina over Florida. He was the Tampa Bay Times' top bay area prospect in the Class of 2005, after catching 58 passes for 831 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. Murdock was also a state track standout that year, winning gold in the 100 and 200 meters.
"That just knocks me off my feet," said Harry Hubbard, who coached Murdock three seasons at Middleton and last saw him at a Blake-Middleton football game in October.
"I'm going to always remember his smile and just his warmth. Every time he would see me he would always have a big smile and laugh when we talked and everything. …Truly, he was probably one of the best athletes that I've ever coached. Personally, I always remember that smile."