Aaron Murray was just 8 yards from scoring his fourth touchdown of the night when he went down and struggled to get back up. Thirteen plays earlier, in a Nov. 23 game against Kentucky, Georgia's fifth-year quarterback had broken into the open near the sideline with a defender coming straight toward him. "I'm saying, 'Get out of bounds,' " coach Mark Richt recalled, "and he couldn't hear me." Instead, Murray attempted to dodge the oncoming defender, and as he did so, Murray cut across the field and his knee gave out. "I heard the pop," said Murray, a 2009 Plant graduate. "I pretty much knew, but it was my last game in Sanford Stadium, and I was like, 'I'm not coming out no matter what.' "
For 14 more snaps, including one that led to an 8-yard touchdown pass, Murray played through the pain, not quite knowing the extent of his injury nor the repercussions it would have on his hopeful future in the NFL.
Richt didn't jump to conclusions, either. Sometimes you lose your balance and your knee buckles, he thought. Sometimes it just hyperextends.
But this wasn't one of those times. And after the 14th play, which ended in an interception at the 2-yard line, Murray knew enough was enough.
With a trainer under each arm, he hobbled off the Sanford Stadium field for the last time.
Three days after he tore the ACL in his left knee, Murray had surgery to correct it. He missed the opportunity to play in the Senior Bowl, and he wasn't well enough to take part in the NFL combine.
But in Pensacola, under the watch of Dr. James Andrews, Murray was still hard at work rehabilitating.
The process wasn't new to the Tampa native.
Before his junior season at Plant, in which he threw for 4,012 yards and 51 touchdowns, Murray tore his labrum playing safety for the Panthers. After leaving the doctor's office one day, Murray went to football practice on a rainy afternoon to inform coach Robert Weiner about the diagnosis.
"I remember the raindrops mixed with tears, you couldn't tell which was which," Weiner said. "It was really in that moment — he just cried in my arms for five minutes — (I knew) just how deeply he cared about his excellence and what he was doing and about what he could do for our team."
Weiner worked with Murray through the rehab process, which Weiner said let them reset his throwing motion — one that help him produce more than 6,200 yards of offense for the Panthers in the next two years, nearly 14,000 passing yards in four years with the Bulldogs, and set the SEC record with 121 career passing touchdowns.
And though his standout seasons at Georgia earned Murray a chance at playing at the next level, Weiner knew long before that his quarterback was destined for greatness.
"We know this guy has talent. We know this guy works harder than anybody else," Weiner said. "And now he puts that together with this undying positive attitude that nothing's going to stop him and his love for the game, there was no way he was going to be stopped by anything."
At 6 feet 1, Murray is considered small for an NFL quarterback. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay — who projects Murray will be a third- or fourth-round draft pick — said he thinks Murray's arm is "adequate," noting how the ball has a tendency to die at times on certain throws.
But when former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden looks at Murray, who started 52 games at quarterback for the Bulldogs, he sees an experienced player well-equipped to lead.
In a quarterback class that includes touted signalcallers such as Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater, Gruden said Murray is in his top five.
"The fifth-year seniors are going to be the guys that are most ready," Gruden said. "I realize he's got some injuries, not just the knee he's rehabbing right now … but when I watch Georgia play, I see production at the quarterback position."
On April 16, less than five months after tearing his ACL, Murray showed his talents to NFL scouts at Georgia's pro day. Since then, he has worked out with the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams.
Murray relished the opportunities, for more reasons than one.
"The most important thing is, it's another opportunity for me to show them that I'm healthy," he said. "My goal was come draft day when these guys are drafting, the last thought in their mind should be the knee. It should just be, 'Can this player fit in our system?' "
When the Houston Texans are put on the clock for the first pick of the 2014 NFL draft on Thursday, Murray could be close to learning his fate.
The quarterback's journey to the brink of professional football might not have been as easy as some of his trips to the end zone. But through it all, Richt said, Murray has remained the same.
"They'll get a guy that probably understands the game of football as good or better than anybody coming out in this draft or any draft," Richt said of Murray's future team. "He's a 24-7, 365-day a year quarterback. He wakes up every day trying to figure out a way to get better."