For some, a step backward is necessary to take a step forward.
Junior O.J. Murdock understands the meaning of this phrase all too well. Murdock is a dual sport athlete at Fort Hays State University, playing wide receiver on the football team and competing as a sprinter for the track and field team.
Graduating from Middleton High School in Tampa, Fla., in 2005, Murdock was touted as the 10th-best wide receiver in the nation on Rivals.com.
Standing at six feet tall and weighing 195 pounds, Murdock had recorded his 40-meter dash in 4.39 seconds and had a 31-inch vertical.
Murdock was getting recruited by some of the top schools in NCAA Division I. His college choices consisted of some prestigious company, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Miami, the University of South Florida and the University of Tennessee.
“It was pretty overwhelming knowing the tradition of each school and having each head coach come into my high school and pulling me out of class,” Murdock said. “I met a lot of head coaches and a lot of guys came to my house. It was pretty mesmerizing.”
Murdock ultimately chose head coach Steve Spurrier’s University of South Carolina and became a Gamecock.
Unfortunately, Murdock’s first few years were riddled with disappointment.
Murdock was redshirted his first year, and during his second year, he played behind future Minnesota Viking All-Pro Sidney Rice and future Denver Bronco Kenny McKinley. He recorded only one catch for eight yards in four games.
“I just had a lot of maturing to do,” Murdock said. “Growing up, you had this person talking to you and another person telling you how good you were — not that I let it get to my head.”
In October 2006, Murdock and his ex-girlfriend were arrested for grand theft shoplifting in Tampa. He was suspended indefinitely and then left USC after playing only four games.
Murdock was given a year of probation, and the incident later was expunged from his record.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Murdock said. “It was really a mistake that both of us made. We learned from it and moved on.”
After leaving USC, Murdock considered playing at a number of schools, including USF, but issues with eligibility ushered Murdock to get his feet back under him at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss.
However, Murdock broke his collarbone in the first week of practice and only played in the final two games of the season.
“Before I broke my collarbone, I wanted to play in Florida,” Murdock said. “Miami, Florida State and USF were really recruiting me hard.”
After his injury, those schools quit recruiting him, and Murdock had to look elsewhere. Marshall University was one of the few NCAA Division I universities offering him a scholarship.
Murdock committed, but he said there was a lot of confusion about which classes he was supposed to have taken and when they were supposed to be taken. He ended up not being eligible to play for MU.
At that point, Murdock was without a school and ended up taking a year off from football to do some soul searching.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I still have the talent to compete with anybody,” Murdock said. “Coming out of high school, I felt like I could compete with anybody, and I still feel that way. It was tough taking a year off, second guessing what you really want to do in life and second guessing if you still want to play.”
During that time, his former coach, Al McCray, now the wide receivers coach at FHSU, approached Murdock and offered him a second chance.
Murdock took it.
“(Murdock) has humbled himself and realized that football is football,” McCray said. “He knows who I am and knows I will take care of him and push him from behind if I need to. He is in good hands at Fort Hays.”
In Murdock’s first year at FHSU, he helped to catalyze an offense that has been stagnant in the past.
He was the team’s primary deep threat, scoring eight touchdowns, posting 697 yards and averaging 19.9 yards per reception. All were team highs.
Junior defensive back Wayne Shepheard said having Murdock on the team not only benefits the offense, but also helps the defensive backs that have to go up against him every day in practice.
“He is one of the best that we have,” Shepheard said. “Of course, when you play against the best, that makes you better than what you are.”
Murdock was just happy to finally be back on the field and play for nearly an entire season. After all, prior to coming to FHSU, he had only played in six games in the past four years.
“Once you step out onto that field and get that first catch, it is amazing how hard work really does pay off,” Murdock said. “It really does.”
When Murdock was being recruited by FHSU, he knew that he wanted to compete beyond football. He wanted to run track and field as well.
“We knew he was a great track athlete in high school,” head track and field coach Dennis Weber said. “It has been awhile since he has sprinted. It is going to take awhile for him to reach a competitive level.”
Murdock has had limited time training with the track and field team, splitting his time between football practice and track practice, and has only competed in two meets.
However, he leads the team in the 60-meter dash with a time of 7.01 seconds.
“His mechanics are amazing,” Weber said. “I usually take him through the sprint mechanics things, and I don’t expect much, but his were good. He had some good sprint training in high school.”
The track and field team has had success in the past borrowing players from other sports and applying their talent to track and field events.
Last year at the Outdoor Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championships, the Tigers only champions were Bryan Haynes, who graduated last spring, and sophomore Morgan Witzel. Haynes, a wide receiver on the football team, won the 100- and 200-meter dash, while Witzel, a volleyball player, won the high jump.
“We have to live and die like most schools do with our sprints and some throws from our others sports,” Weber said. “If we can’t get that, then we will never have a really strong team.”
For Weber and Murdock, it is a symbiotic relationship. Murdock’s sprinting benefits the team by getting it points, but it also helps Murdock progress as an athlete.
“Track helps me get more explosive and helps me get stronger toward the end of the race or the end of my route (in football),” Murdock said.
Weber said he believes Murdock’s raw talent, if properly developed, could greatly benefit the track and field team.
“He is one step ahead of Bryan (Haynes) as far as mechanics, but he is a step behind Bryan as far as speed and endurance,” Weber said. “I think that can come along pretty quickly. Hopefully, by the middle of the outdoor season, we’ll be seeing some great marks from him.”
Weber said the difficult part is balancing dual sport athletes’ workloads since they have to sometimes practice multiple times a day.
“The problem that you have with sprinters is when you want to train them fast, they have to be fresh,” Weber said. “They can’t come in the day after lifting heavy on legs for football, and then come in and expect to perform without getting hurt. That is the juggling act we’ve had for right now.”
Murdock said he is surprised where his life has taken him, but is thankful for the second chance.
“It really made me just grow up,” Murdock said. “It is bad that bad things have to happen to you for you to grow up sometimes, but it is another stepping stone in life I guess.”