WINCHENDON — Let's get this out of the way first.
Oxford is a very good football team. The Pirates have good size up front, play physical and fast, and are well coached. In other words, they are not a one-man team.
But that one young man, Niko Murray, is a special talent.
In his team's 42-8 romp over previously-unbeaten Murdock, the 6-foot, 205-pound Murray carried the ball just five times for 158 yards and four touchdowns. The only time he touched the ball and did not score came on a 52-yard gain.
Murray plays like a man against boys, and you are only reminded that he is still a high schooler when he takes off his helmet and smiles with a mouthful of braces.
When we began the process of looking for the best talent in the state this spring and summer, Murray's film stood out. And conversations we have had with his coach and others only reaffirmed that.
But, sometimes, a player can look a little better on video than he does in person, so we wanted to make sure we had live eyes on Murray at least once this season.
We saw all we needed to see. Even at 205 pounds, Murray can easily add another 15-20 pounds and not lose his breakaway speed. Oxford runs the Wing-T, but what will suit Murray best at the next level is lining up as an I-back where he can get downhill, plant his foot, and accelerate.
Murray also plays defense and could make a fine linebacker or safety in college, but that probably is not his path.
Right now, Murray can still get away with bouncing it outside when he does not really need to, but that's a correctable habit many high school players adjust to once they get to college.
His two best runs highlighted the type of player he is and can eventually become.
In the second quarter, Oxford faced a third-and-10 from its own 26-yard line. Murray took the handoff heading right, following two pulling guards on a sweep. He met several defenders near the line of scrimmage, plowed through their tackle attempts, and turned on the afterburners for a 64-yard touchdown.
Then, in the third quarter, he ran right again, cut up through a hole and darted in from 32 yards for his final score of the night.
That hard plant and quick burst into another gear, combined with his above-average size, translates well to the next level.
Now 3-0, Oxford has not needed Murray as much as it will when it starts to face stiffer competition. He has yet to play a snap in the fourth quarter this season.
"I'm playing my game, trying to win for the team, do everything I can to win," Murray said.
Murray makes it look easy, and he said it is a product of the work he put in over the offseason and a front that dwarfs your typical small-school team. Keep an eye on junior Alexander Green, a 6-2, 250-pound brawler, among others.
"I worked on everything I needed to do all summer," Murray said. "The line's amazing, and I couldn't do anything I wanted to do without them."
Murray notes that he has been in contact with UConn, Maine, and Yale, among others. He said he would like to study criminal justice.
His love for the sport radiates through every time he opens his mouth.
"This sport means everything to me," he said. "It's been my whole life since I was little. Pretty much saved my life. I don't know what I'd be without football, honestly."
"I don't know. Everything I do is through football," he added. "All my friends, my family, everybody I've met. I put all my time into football."
But this team has more than one weapon. Quarterback Joel Erickson threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Walsh in the first quarter. Sophomore Sam Wing rushed for 79 yards on nine carries.
"For a long time, I was the whole team, and teams would come up to me and say, '(No.) 5's the whole team. (Murray)'s the whole team,' " Murray said. "And we started giving the ball to younger kids — Ryan Walsh, Joel Erickson. They're putting in their work. It's amazing to play with kids that can take time away from me and take the ball."
The chemistry on this team is evident.
"It's a brotherhood," Murray said. "Me, Ryan, Joel, we're best friends. We do everything together, and you can see it on the field that we stick together. Even our linemen, we're all really good friends with them, too."
Coach Jeffrey Clarkson has built the program up from the feeder system to have what looks to be a sustainable winner going forward.
"(Clarkson)'s amazing with everything that he does, getting all the coaches he gets," Murray said. "Even today, he bought us all Power Bars, waters, and bananas. and was like, 'Eat these right now. You're not going to be tired today. You're not doing anything.' And it actually helped a lot. He does a great job."
And Clarkson knows what he has in Murray.
"He's football-savvy. He's a very coachable kid. He does everything you ask. What more could you ask for?" Clarkson said. "He jumpstarted my career at Oxford High School. I had one win in 22 games, for crying out loud. But, yeah, it's good. Everything's well."