Nearly two months after former Tennessee Titans wide receiver and Tampa, Fla., high school star athlete O.J. Murdock died from a gunshot wound to the head, the Hillsborough County (Fla.) medical examiner's office has officially ruled his death a suicide.
Dr. Mary K. Mainland, interim chief medical examiner, signed the autopsy report last Friday. SI.com received a copy of the seven-page document this week.
What remains unclear is what effect, if any, football played in the July 30 tragedy. Murdock was the fifth former NFL player in the last two years to take his own life and the fourth this year -- following Kurt Crain (April 10), Ray Easterling (April 19), Junior Seau (May 2) -- and his family has consented to his brain tissue being examined by Boston University researchers studying the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease brought on by multiple concussions.
While his family awaits the findings from that study, his death remains a puzzling tragedy for them, his friends, teammates and former coaches. By the accounts of those people who knew him best, Murdock was a happy young soul with a 500-watt smile and fervor to restart his NFL career with the Titans after missing his rookie season last year with a torn Achilles tendon.
"When you met O.J., you fell in love with him. He was a humble young man who just had this great gleam in his eye," said Hadley Engelhard, his agent.
"He just had a wonderful personality," said Harry Hubbard, who was Murdock's head football coach at Middleton High in Tampa. "He had a great smile. He was a loving person."
Titans tight end Jared Cook, who roomed with Murdock briefly at the University of South Carolina and had watched him rehabbing over the spring during offseason practices in Nashville, said, "He was working hard, trying to get back on the field. I feel like he was excited about the season."
Murdock was a devout Christian, judging by a tattoo on the upper left side of his chest. It had a large football with several banners inscribed: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." On his right arm, Murdock had several other tattoos: an angel with the word "Jama"; the outline of the state of Florida with the word "Tampa" and the numbers "813" (Tampa's area code); and a large, elaborate cross with a dove above it and the scripted words "RIP Kelly Boy."
Curiously, Murdock had a college teammate named Kenny McKinley, who was drafted by Denver in 2009 and died on Sept. 10, 2010, apparently the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Asked if she might have misread 'Kenny' for 'Kelly' on Murdock's tattoo, Dr. Mainland told SI.com it was a possibility but she couldn't be sure.
Coincidence or not, what transpired on Monday, July 30, rock Murdock's family and friends to their very cores.
Shortly after 8 that morning, Murdock drove his Dodge Challenger to his old high school and parked near the field where he had starred as a wide receiver in football and a sprinter in track and field. Earlier, he had texted several people, including Al McCray, who had coached Murdock at Middleton High and Fort Hays State in Hays, Kan., and Bill Ward, a sportswriter who had covered Murdock when he was in high school.
While sitting in his car, Murdock called Aesha Bailey, who had coached him in middle school track and field. Bailey and her husband had talked at length on the phone with Murdock the night before. They could tell that something was troubling Murdock, who had been due to report to training camp in Nashville the previous Friday. When Bailey answered her phone on Monday morning, she heard an emotionally out of control Murdock.
"He's frantic and he's screaming," Bailey recalled. " 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry! ... I love you. I love you.' And I said, 'I love you, too, O.J.' ... Then he says, 'I'm sorry, coach Brown.' When he said that, I knew something was wrong. I haven't been coach Brown since 2003. That's my maiden name."
When Bailey asked Murdock where he was, she immediately got into her car and drove the short distance from her house to the high school. Murdock had shot himself and was unresponsive when she found him, so she gave him CPR.
"He wasn't breathing. I prayed for him and he started breathing," said Bailey, who began sobbing as she recalled the moment. "I'm holding his head and trying to keep him breathing . . . He wasn't breathing and I got him back to breathing. I don't know if he could hear me because he wasn't responding . . . I had him breathing until the paramedics showed up ... He was breathing then.
"I talked to him the whole time. 'I've got you, baby, I've got you.' "
An ambulance rushed Murdock to Tampa General Hospital where, at 10:43 a.m. ET, he was pronounced dead. He was 25.
In the long line of schoolboy athletes Florida has produced, Orenthal James Murdock carved out a place for himself. Although football was his first love, he took up track in seventh grade at the urging of Bailey, who saw O.J.'s speed in P.E. class and knew he could succeed on the track. Murdock suffered from asthma and had difficulty running 400 meters, so Bailey suggested he try shorter distances: the 100 and 200 meters.
"We encouraged him to run," Bailey said, "and it was so beautiful. He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime athletes you encounter as a teacher. I don't think I'll ever see another O.J."
Murdock qualified for the national Junior Olympics in Virginia as an eighth grader. Bailey and another coach accompanied Murdock as he took his first plane ride. Murdock didn't win the 100, but no one could catch him in the 200. "O.J. just pulled away because he had that speed," Bailey said. "Once he turned it on, it was like you'd better watch out because he was going to leave you in the curve."
As a senior at Middleton in 2005, Murdock was named by the Tampa Tribune as its high school male athlete of the year. Murdock won both the 100 and 200 events at the Class 3A state track meet, and in football he caught 57 passes for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rivals.com rated him as the 10th best wide receiver in the country.
"He was an exceptional athlete with God-given talent," Hubbard said of Murdock. "He had great speed that you can't teach; he was just born with it. He was natural with his ability on the football field. I'll put it like this: I had not seen natural speed like that in person for quite some time. It was just unreal. I believe if had he not made the NFL, he could have been in the Olympics."
But Murdock's post-high school career didn't quite turn out like he scripted it. After multiple Division I colleges recruited him, Murdock accepted a football scholarship to South Carolina, where he played only four games before he was caught shoplifting -- he was charged with taking $425.50 worth of clothing from a Tampa department story in October 2006 and served a year of probation -- and was suspended from the team. Murdock then transferred to Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss., but he broke his collarbone. Marshall offered him a scholarship, but he didn't meet the academic requirements.
At that point, Murdock returned home to Tampa somewhat despondent. Jamesena Murdock, O.J.'s mother, described it as a depressing time for her son. "He was in the dungeon," she told the Tampa Tribune.
Eventually, Murdock revived his career at Fort Hays State, where McCray, his former prep coach, was the receivers coach. As a senior in 2010, Murdock caught 60 passes for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns, a performance that earned him a chance to compete with mostly Division 1 players in the East-West All-Star Game. He also received an unexpected e-mail inviting him to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February 2011.
Getting that invite "was an electrifying experience," Murdoch told reporters at Fort Hays' NFL pro day that spring. "It was the Super Bowl for me for the most part."
The Combine and the pro day were experiences that reminded Murdock of how his football journey had turned around.
"It's a storybook. It's a fairy tale, for the most part," he said. "I never would have dreamed in a million years I would be at the Combine, having a pro day here or talking to scouts. Every day, it's a new beginning."
No team drafted Murdock in 2011, but the Titans gave the 5-11, 200-pound receiver an opportunity by signing him as a free agent. Then, just when it looked like his career had taken a hopeful turn, Murdock tore his Achilles tendon on the second day of training camp and was lost for the entire season.
"He knew it was a setback but not the end of anything," Engelhard said. "He was one of those guys who through college, through going undrafted, through getting injured, could have easily had a bad attitude toward everything. He never had that, ever. 'It's all good. I'm going to Tampa. I'm going to get strong. I'm going to get faster. I'm going to be ready for next year.' "
Engelhard last spoke to Murdock in mid-July. "He was eager and ready to go," Engelhard said. "He was planning his itinerary. In fact, he planned his flight to get [to Nashville] early because he wanted to start training early."
Engelhard was in the middle of a Caribbean cruise, helping his parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, when the Titans informed him that Murdock had failed to report to training camp on Friday, July 27. He knew that was a red flag.
Titans wide receiver Damian Williams had stayed in contact with Murdock last year while Murdock rehabbed in Tampa from his Achilles injury. "That's kind of difficult for a lot of guys," Williams said. "I just wanted to make sure he knew he had a friend on the team and wasn't alone." Williams, who also had opened his home to Murdock during the team's offseason workouts, made several calls to Murdock on that Friday. He finally reached him that night.
"I talked to him and he assured me that he was all right and would be in camp on Sunday," Williams said. "I just thought maybe a family situation had come up. We just assumed that was the case."
Initially, the Titans weren't overly concerned that Murdock didn't report on time. They knew he wasn't physically ready to participate in training camp drills.
"We were probably a little more relaxed on him, because had he come in here, he probably wouldn't have been ready to practice right away anyway," general manager Ruston Webster told reporters in Nashville. "So, we were willing to give him until Sunday and then see what happened there."
Murdock was at his parents' house in Tampa, but not even the night before he shot himself did he give any indication that he was depressed or worried.
"No, not really," Jamesena Murdock told SI.com. "We had spoken with him for a while and we were a little concerned. We were trying to make sure that he was doing OK and everything was fine, but it just didn't work out that way." Asked about O.J.'s demeanor when he left the house on Monday morning, July 30, she said, "That's something we're not talking about right now."
Murdock's tragic death added to that troublesome pattern of former NFL players dying of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, coming in the wake of the deaths of Dave Duerson, Cain, Easterling and Seau. Duerson and Easterling were found to have brain damage, raising suspicions that they suffered from long-term effects of concussions they suffered while playing football. Seau's family also released his brain tissue to Boston University researchers for diagnosis.
As far as anyone could remember, Murdock suffered only one concussion during his career. It was late in his senior season at Fort Hays. "He hit the ground with his head pretty hard and gave us a good scare," McCray told Tampa Bay Online. "But he was a tough kid. As soon as he got cleared by the doctors a few days later, he said he wanted to play the next game.
Although there is no evidence that Murdock was suffering post-concussion effects, Jamesena and her husband, Kelvin, a 1982 draft pick by the Patriots, had no qualms donating O.J.'s brain. "I'm an [organ] donor myself, so anything I can do in a case like this to help other people," Jamesena said in explaining her decision. "That was my main reason for doing it. Unfortunately, it just had to be my son."
While Kelvin and Jamesena Murdock were his parents, Murdock developed almost as close a relationship with the Baileys. "We called him our godchild," Aesha Bailey said. "My husband came to me the other day and said, 'I want to tell you something. I just want to thank you for introducing me to O.J.' My husband is kind of grouchy; he wasn't really kid friendly. But when he met O.J., he just melted his heart. And that's what he did to everyone he met."
We may never know for certain why Murdock decided to take his life -- he reportedly left a suicide note, the content of which has not been revealed -- but Hubbard, his old high school coach, had one thought.
"He was just a special person," Hubbard said. "He touched so many people's lives. He was put on earth to do that, and then God said, 'OK, you did what I asked you to do. Come on home to your reward.' "
For now, that's as good a theory as any.