TAMPA — Aside from an eight-week stretch in 2008, an ocean of disparity has separated Aaron Murray and Terrell Owens.
One's a Dawg, the other a diva. One has movie-star looks, the other reality-star eccentricity. One is a Deep South matinee idol, a hero to dads and heartthrob to daughters, both a playmaker and honor roll maker. The other is T.O.
Put them on opposite ends of an elastic spectrum, and you couldn't stretch it far enough to illustrate their contrasts in character. Yet the story of Murray, Georgia quarterback who once hobbled his way to a state title and South Tampa lore, is incomplete without Owens.
For a two-month spell three seasons ago, T.O. was Murray's inspiration.
"Yes, he was," Murray said Thursday.
"Absolutely," Murray's high school coach, Robert Weiner, reiterated.
Does Murray make it back for this surreal homecoming, at the Outback Bowl alongside his Georgia teammates, without T.O.? Probably. Georgia coach Mark Richt said he was sold on Murray's overall makeup long before the waning stretches of his senior year at Plant High.
"When you go into a home and you meet the family," Richt said, "you just knew he was raised right, that he came from a home of a lot of love. Those guys tend to have a better start and have a chance to navigate all the things that happen throughout their careers."
Yet, who can say for sure? Had Owens not returned from a season-jeopardizing injury in less than two months to play in a Super Bowl, Murray would've had no odds-defying template off which to work in the fall of 2008.
And really, that's where the legend of Aaron Murray commences.
Oct. 16, 2008. Plant High is leading Hillsborough by 17 points in the final moments of the first half. Murray, who had amassed 267 total yards in the first quarter alone, is engineering a one-minute drill when he rolls right and is pulled down from behind.
His left leg contorts one way, his left ankle another.
"The break in his leg was very clear, it was very gnarly," said Weiner, who began jogging toward Murray before the whistle stopped the play.
"His first words to me were, 'It's broken, Coach. I heard it snap.' … His next statement to me though was, 'You think they can get me back ready for the second half?' "
The diagnosis: a fractured left fibula, dislocated ankle and "a bunch of ligament damage." Murray said he initially thought his senior season was toast. He still showed up for the Panthers' film session the next morning.
"All reports were, 'You're out five, six months before you'll be able to really compete in a football game,' " Murray recalled.
Nonetheless, he set about researching his injury, attempting to unearth any pain modifier or precedent that would give him hope of returning during the playoffs.
That, Weiner says, is the Murray M.O.
He found it from the unlikeliest of sources. That was T.O.
While playing for the Eagles, Owens also had fractured his fibula (and severely sprained an ankle) when Dallas safety Roy Williams horse-collared him in a game on Dec. 19, 2004. Dismissed for the season by some, Owens returned in time to catch nine passes in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Granted, Owens had turned to some unconventional treatments during his rehab, but Murray shrugged at that detail. In lieu of a hyperbaric chamber, he had hope.
"His (injury) wasn't as severe as mine; he didn't have the dislocated ankle and ligament damage that I had, but it was very similar," Murray said.
"He was able to come back in six weeks and play in the Super Bowl, and I was like, 'Man, he's a receiver and he has to run and he's able to compete. I just have to sit back there and throw the ball.' "
Immersing himself in rehab and research on Owens, Murray privately plotted his return as sophomore backup Phillip Ely kept the Panthers winning. Before a Nov. 28 second-round playoff game at Bradenton Southeast, Murray threw with Weiner on the sideline while still wearing a protective boot.
For a comeback attempt steeped in subterfuge, this was the first hint of his intentions.
"He came up to me afterwards," Weiner said, "and he was like, 'Coach, I'm going to be ready in two weeks. … We've just got to get through this week and somehow we've got to get through Armwood next week.' "
Plant eked out a 13-7 win that night, then, behind a gritty defensive effort, stifled Armwood's daunting run game the next Friday for a 17-14 triumph. Around that time, during an in-home visit from some Georgia coaches including Richt, Murray revealed over a dinner of prime rib, roasted potatoes and broccoli that he would play in the upcoming state semifinals against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer.
"They were like, 'It's up to you,' but you could tell they were a little hesitant when we were talking about it," Murray said. "But they were fully supportive of it."
On the first play of his comeback, 57 days after being injured, Murray connected with DeAndre Queen on a seam route for a 33-yard touchdown. Plant defeated Dwyer, 33-21.
Eight days later, in the Class 4A state final at the Citrus Bowl, he completed 18 of 30 passes for 344 yards in a 34-14 romp over Tallahassee Lincoln. Weiner estimates his quarterback was about 70 percent physically.
"We already wanted him, we already were in love with him," Richt said. "But to see him do that, it was just more confirmation that we had the right guy."
Murray, whose 33 touchdown passes this season is a Georgia record, has spent the ensuing autumns reinforcing the sentiment that he's every bit as durable as he is dashing.
The vertical scar above his left ankle now is complemented by a thin one beneath his chin, the result of a blow from Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley two Novembers ago that required eight stitches. Murray also bruised his sternum that day.
"I think it happened in the first quarter, he ended up playing the whole game," said Murray's center, Ben Jones. "I remember coming into the huddle, I was like, 'Man, you all right?' He was like, 'Man, I'm fine, let's go. Next play, next play.' "
Two months ago in Jacksonville, Murray was sandwiched by two Gators defenders while running for 9 yards on third and 13 in the third quarter. He rose from the turf with a deep thigh bruise, prompting backup Hutson Mason to start warming up on the sideline — for naught.
Murray finished the 24-20 win.
"The cool thing about Aaron Murray that I really think has manifested itself in college … is that Aaron Murray loves every single part of football," Weiner said.
"He's completely driven to win and be a team leader, but Aaron Murray loves winning, he loves losing, he loves scoring touchdowns, he loves getting tackled, he loves the good parts, the bad parts. To him, it's all football and he loves it."
Somewhere, a diva beams.
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected]