Middleton High's Abe Brown Stadium was the place O.J. Murdock made so many big plays as a wide receiver, ran so fast as a champion sprinter. But Monday morning, 25-year-old Murdock apparently chose to end his life there.
Murdock, who had overcome injuries and personal setbacks to reach the NFL, died of what Tampa police said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was found alone in his Dodge Challenger at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, just outside the fence of the stadium where he had some of his brightest athletic achievements.
Police say Murdock left behind a suicide note but would not reveal its contents because the case was still under investigation.
Murdock was taken to Tampa General Hospital in critical condition but died at 10:43 a.m.
One of his former coaches at Memorial Middle School, Aesha Bailey, spoke to Murdock by phone just before his death. She was the first to find him Monday morning in his car.
On the phone, "He just kept saying 'I'm sorry, coach. I'm sorry,' " said Bailey, a former star athlete in the county before joining the teaching ranks. "That's all he said."
Murdock was The Tampa Tribune's high school Male Athlete of the Year in 2005 after catching 57 passes for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns as a Middleton senior. That same year, he was named to the all-state football team and won Class 3A state track titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
Murdock failed to report to the start of the Tennessee Titans' preseason camp with the rest of the squad Friday. Titans coach Mike Munchak said Murdock's absence was due to "personal" issues. Murdock signed with the Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2011 but spent that season on injured reserve after suffering a right Achilles tendon injury at the start of training camp.
News of Murdock's death spread rapidly among his family, friends and former coaches and teammates. By late Monday morning, many had gathered at his mother's home in East Tampa to mourn his death. Murdock's older sister, Kerri Murdock, said the family had no idea O.J. was in danger of taking his own life but declined to comment further.
Monday night, more than 100 people — including former classmates and high school teammates, friends, a football coach, and a relative — held a vigil in the parking lot at Middleton High School to remember Murdock.
Murdock's former high school football coach at Middleton, Harry Hubbard, said he spoke to him at the end of last year's high school football season. "He sounded really positive and he seemed like he was ready for the NFL," Hubbard said.
Hubbard said he cried when he heard the news.
"I just went limp," Hubbard said. "It was very tough to believe. That is the last thing we thought would have happened."
During the past several days, Murdock sent text messages to some of his coaches and friends, as well as a Tribune reporter. Murdock thanked the recipients for what they had done to help Murdock and his family. Although the messages did not reveal Murdock's state of mind, the time in which he sent them puzzled some recipients.
Al McCray, a former coach in Hillsborough County and now assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at Fort Hays State in Kansas, said he woke up Monday to find a message on his cellphone from his former star player. Like others, Murdock thanked McCray for his help during his days at the Division II school.
The text was sent about 3 a.m. Monday and ended with the words "I apologize."
"I thought O.J. was just apologizing for sending me the text so early in the morning and I just sent him a text back, 'Go hard at camp.' " McCray said.
Murdock had been a star athlete in the county since his days as an eighth-grader at Memorial Middle, where he set county records in track and field and was the first to dunk a basketball in the school's new gym. His coaches there, Bailey and Steve West, said Murdock was a "once-in-a-lifetime athlete" to work with and both had remained close to Murdock since those days.
"He was always setting records, doing things no one had ever done around here for his age," Bailey said.
As easy as sports came to him, Murdock had his struggles. Despite being ranked the No. 10 receiver in the country coming out of Middleton, he had difficulties finding a place in college football. He signed with the University of South Carolina after graduating in 2005, but after playing in four games, he was suspended indefinitely from the team in October 2006 after he was charged with shoplifting clothes from Macy's at Tampa's University Mall.
He then transferred to Pearl River Community College in Mississippi but broke his collarbone. Marshall University offered Murdock a scholarship but he failed to take the right classes and fell short of his two-year degree, leaving him ineligible to play.
"I almost didn't want to show my face around town," Murdock told The Tampa Tribune last year in an interview. "I easily could've given up right there, just thrown it all in the trash, gotten some job, given up for good. I finally focused on what I wanted to do not only in football, but in life."
At that time, Murdock's mother, Jamesena, said "That was a very depressing time for him. Nobody was calling him. He didn't know where to go or what to do. He was in the dungeon."
At Fort Hays, Murdock found his game-breaking skills again. As a senior, he had 60 catches for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns and earned a spot in the East-West Shrine all-star game in Orlando. He helped take the school from being the worst Division II offense in the nation to the No. 8 spot. In the process, Murdock helped Fort Hays set attendance records.
"And I can honestly tell you this, all of that was because of O.J. Murdock," McCray said. "Our homecoming game his senior year, the fire marshal called our athletic director and said we can't allow all these people in the stadium. And our AD said, 'Let them in. They want to see O.J. and this team play.'
"By the time O.J. left here, he was so popular in this town, if he had run for mayor, he would've won in a landslide."
After his two seasons at Fort Hays, Murdock was invited to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. He eventually signed with the Titans as a free agent but in the first week of training camp last year, Murdock ruptured his Achilles tendon. He returned to Tampa to rehabilitate the injury.
As he prepared to return to the Titans this week, most thought Murdock was nearing the end of his recovery and ready to take part in regular training with the team.
"He was rehabbing and doing what he was told to do. We never had any problem with him at all," Munchak said at the Titans camp Monday. "That's why I think it was such a shock when he wasn't here on Friday."