Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Red Badge of Courage Award

Tonight, this year's Heisman Trophy winner will be announced and everyone knows it will be Jameis Winston.

Two nights ago, this year's Coach of the Year was announced and it was Guz Malzahn -- just like everyone knew it would be.

So I think it is time to roll out a new kind of award. One that goes not to the "most outstanding" or "most valuable," but instead goes to the player who most exemplifies the spirit of college football by withstanding the most unanticipated turmoil while fighting on in spite of it. One whose season involves every kind of emotion from the highest highs of big-game wins to the gut-wrenching agony of last-second defeats -- but whose individual performance is always stellar and whose character is unwavering.

Since one could not win such an award without experiencing immense pain, I would call it the Red Badge of Courage Award, and this year’s winner would be Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

Murray could have turned pro after last season and probably been drafted high, but he chose to return for his senior year because he believed his team had a chance to win the SEC and thereby play for the national championship.

He led his charges to 35 points at Clemson to start the season, but the effort was for naught because Georgia's young and inexperienced defense yielded 38…Then he responded by rallying his troops and orchestrating high-scoring victories over South Carolina and LSU, both of whom were ranked in the top ten.

Then the wheels fell off the cart as Murray’s team suffered an unprecedented slew of injuries to key contributors. At one point they were taking the field without their top two running backs and top three receivers -- begging the question of who he would throw to, plus the question of who could possibly keep opposing defenses honest by running the ball to take their focus off of stopping the passing game.

As the injuries mounted, Georgia's championship hopes disappeared with losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, yet Murray soldiered on and never hung his head…He delivered a victory over Florida that made him 3-1 against his school's most hated rival…Then, against his school's oldest rival (my beloved Auburn) he engineered a remarkable fourth quarter comeback from a 37-17 deficit to take a 38-37 lead with under two minutes remaining -- only to see that lead vanish forever when Auburn's Ricardo Louis scored a 73-yard touchdown on a deflected Hail Mary pass on 4th-and-18.

The sight of Murray lying face-down on the turf after Louis’s score was eye-moistening even for non-Georgia fans like myself.

He still had a chance to end his career on a high note, however, because Georgia's season-ending game was against their only in-state rival, Georgia Tech. But first they had to play Kentucky on the Saturday between the Auburn and Georgia Tech games, and during the second quarter of that contest, the anterior cruciate ligament in Murray's right knee was torn while he was being sacked. Just like that, his college career came thudding to an end.

Aaron Murray finished that career having thrown more touchdowns than anyone in SEC history, which means he surpassed Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Danny Wuerffel, and Peyton and Eli and Archie Manning. In a sport that dates to 1869, only five players from any conference have thrown more touchdowns than him. Meanwhile, he threw for more yards than any QB in SEC history, surpassing the mark set a few years ago by Tim Tebow.

But as indicative as those things are, they are just stats. What counts more than anything else in life is character, and this year Aaron Murray proved he has it. His actions showed that he loves his school and his team more than himself. They showed that he is willing to take a risk, and to endure the consequences like a man if they prove to be other than desired. His actions showed he is willing to pursue a higher goal no matter how much bloodying and bruising are involved.

When parents are asked which athlete they would tell their sons to model themselves after, they could do far worse than to answer by saying “Aaron Murray.” So, as a one-man voting crew on my one-man blog, I name him the recipient of the first annual Red Badge of Courage Award.

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