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  • Baseball or NFL? After ending his college career on a loss, Kyler Murray must now decide if that's also how he wants his football career to end.
By Joan Niesen
December 30, 2018

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Red-eyed and grass-stained, his jersey a watercolor painting of green and bluish streaks, Kyler Murray bore the scars of Oklahoma’s 45–34 loss. He was smeared with the remains of the 109 yards he rushed, more than any quarterback has against any of Nick Saban’s 12 Alabama teams. Whatever tears might have fallen before he met the media were justified: The Sooners’ Heisman-winning quarterback wanted a national championship, and he fell short.

Now, he’ll decide if that’s how he wants his football career to end.

Minutes after wrapping up the best all-around performance of any quarterback to face Alabama this season—only Georgia’s Jake Fromm could claim to have even approached what Murray did—Oklahoma’s star quarterback and outfielder was asked about his future. He was the ninth selection in the first round of last June’s MLB draft, and he’s scheduled to report to the Oakland A’s spring training in February, and oh wait, what about the NFL?

“I really haven’t thought about it right now,” Murray said. “I’m sorry about that.”

No need to apologize. The decision facing Murray has massive ramifications in the short and long term, for him and potentially for franchises across sports. Of course he has considered his two paths; he considered them last spring when he was drafted and decided to play out the season at Oklahoma, and it’s impossible to believe he went all fall, leading the game’s best offense and putting up mind-boggling stats, without pondering the NFL. (Including Saturday, he finished the season completing 69.0% of his passes, for 4,361 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 1,001 yards and another 11 touchdowns.)

But there’s no way Murray has had sufficient time to ponder the stakes of his decision before tonight, to really consider what truly leaving football might be like, not with the Big 12 championship game and the Heisman ceremony and these weeks of bowl prep. So much about the Orange Bowl will likely tempt him to give his pads and helmet another crack. Even in one of his least-accurate performances of the year (he completed 19 of 37 passes), he was still the best quarterback on the field. And he lost. Find me the elite athlete who wants to end anything—a summer rec league season, much less a career—with a loss. Murray will be a top pick if he decides to train for the draft, and in the long run, baseball will be a more patient suitor than football, which will move on from Murray faster than you’d imagine.

KAHLER: Why the NFL Is Expecting Kyler Murray to Enter the Draft

And maybe that’s all enough to sway him. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The most impressive thing the quarterback did on Saturday was to run all over the Crimson Tide, more even than Johnny Manziel ever did in his two games against Saban and company. He cut and he accelerated and he proved that if he does pick the MLB, he’ll be one of the best athletes in the minor leagues from day one. And what a coup it would be for a sport that doesn’t have college superstars, not like this at least, to lure the Heisman winner to spring training, and then to a minor-league affiliate in Beloit or Stockton, to ballparks in towns many NFL players never so much as drive through.

It would be a wholly different path, and so it’s no wonder Murray didn’t give a hint on Saturday of his plan, if he has a plan at all. Until hours ago, the 21-year-old wanted nothing more than to win a national championship, to topple the College Football Playoff’s No. 1 seed and catch a flight to the Bay Area. He thought he had a shot; then his Sooners collapsed for a quarter before rallying, coming “pretty damn close” to winning, Murray said. At the end of a grueling day, capping off a marathon of the season, the quarterback was sure of one thing: That this year of football was the right choice. “I wouldn’t trade anything that happened for anything, these past couple of years—especially this past year,” he said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had playing football in I don’t know how long.”

At a makeshift table in the tunnel at Hard Rock Stadium, Murray was raw, breaking down the emotions and failures of the night as facilities workers dismantled the trappings of his final college game. Golf carts beeped. A massive camera was driven past. Curtains were pulled down and folded, metal rails pushed aside. Murray drank a bottled water and tried to put himself in his teammates’ shoes: what it must have felt like for freshman receiver Charleston Rambo to log 74 yards and a touchdown, how devastating it had to have been for Marquise Brown, who caught 75 passes this year, to be too banged-up to contribute in his hometown. Murray could still appreciate what he’d done, picking up after a 24-yard first quarter (that’s 24 yards of total offense, to be clear) to outgain Alabama 447–328 over the final three frames. Oklahoma scored on all five of its red zone trips, converted two of three fourth-down attempts and punted only twice. Against a team that was head and shoulders above the field in 2018, the Sooners nearly pulled off an upset. “It’s all you can ask for, when you go down 21–0,” Murray said.

And against Alabama, that’s probably true. For three quarters, Murray and his teammates showed they deserved every bit of the respect due the country’s best offense, even if the country’s best offense had just dug itself a massive hole. Climbing out, almost, was a feat—but for Murray, what comes next may be even harder.

Football is over, a game sooner than the Sooners would have liked, and it’s time for Murray to decide if that’s for good.

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