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February 2, 2010

It’s Heads! Georgia Won the Toss!

As his sister Veronica looks on, Herschel signs with Georgia in early April 1980—the most memorable, treasured, and impactful stroke of a pen in UGA football history. (Photo: Mary Ann Rowland) 

I don't follow recruiting as much as most college football enthusiasts.  Usually, I just check and see where Georgia's recruiting class ranks nationally leading up to and following Signing Day and then see how it pans out come September.

However, if I had been old enough, I undoubtedly would've been intrigued by the recruitment of a certain tailback 30 years ago—the most sought-after recruit of any sport in the state of Georgia. 

In observance of National Signing Day (and in celebrating a dominant victory on Saturday in his first MMA fight), posted is an edited and updated version of a story I wrote a few years ago regarding the chase and signing of the greatest signee in Bulldogs history:

During the winter of 1980, like most college football programs in the country, Georgia desperately recruited a particular player from Wrightsville, Georgia—Herschel Walker.

At Johnson County High School, Walker had rushed for a remarkable 6,137 career yards, averaged 7.8 yards per carry, and scored 86 touchdowns (Videos of Herschel at JOCO).

Georgia was one of many schools that ventured to Wrightsville on a regular basis to pursue the heralded Walker.  Head coach Vince Dooley humorously appointed assistant Mike Cavan to be “Vice President in Charge of Herschel” because of his frequent trips to the small town. In fact, Cavan spent so much time in Wrightsville recruiting Walker, some residents joked he should have been forced to pay taxes.

February’s national letter of intent signing date for recruits came and went and Walker still had not signed with a school. Herschel seemed to be delaying his signing, for whatever reason, and the postponement was taking its toll on his family.

Herschel’s mother, Christine, was sick and tired of all the recruiters coming by the house, the numerous phone calls, and her son’s delay.

“Why don’t you make up your mind?” she asked Herschel. “Make a decision! Don’t you ever get tired of having to meet with all these people?”

By late March, Walker still had not made his decision. However, he indicated to his high school coach and acting spokesman, Gary Phillips, he had narrowed his choices to five schools, including Georgia.

There are various accounts revealing how Herschel ultimately made up his mind.  This is my favorite... If Walker's own mama said this is how he made his decision, in my opinion, this is how it must have happened. 

On Easter Sunday morning of 1980, Herschel told his mother he was about to make a decision on where he was going to play college football. He cut up scraps of paper and asked her to write "Alabama," "Clemson," "USC," or "Georgia" on each piece. Herschel then dropped the scraps into a paper bag and shook it. Mother and son agreed that the first school selected three times would be where Herschel would attend.

"[Herschel] picked Georgia more times than any of the other three," Christine said. She also suggested that a coin be flipped. "If the coin turned up heads," she said, "that would be the lucky school…So we did that—and every time it came out Georgia!"

Walker had finally decided to attend and play football at the University of Georgia. Christine telephoned Coach Phillips, who notified Cavan. Phillips later indicated that Herschel did not decide right away where he would go because he had a "really hard time saying 'no' to people."

At the time of Herschel’s decision, Cavan was with his family at an Easter egg hunt in Lawrenceville, Georgia. When Cavan was told of Herschel’s decision, he reportedly "let out a wild delirious scream. His family thought he’d been shot."

As Herschel prepared to make it official he would attend Georgia, people began arriving at the Walker home to witness his signing. Freddy Jones, a writer for the Macon Telegraph, was hurrying towards the house in his car when he was pulled over by a state patrolman. Jones explained to the officer he was only speeding to observe the signing of the acclaimed Herschel Walker.

"Where’s he goin’ to school?" the patrolman asked. "Georgia," answered Jones. "Alllll, right! You go on ahead," the jubilant officer and apparent Bulldog fan said without writing Jones a ticket.

Doug Hall of the Dublin Courier-Herald later asked Herschel why it took so long for him to make a decision. "Herschel looked at me and said, ‘I knew what I was gonna do all along.' "

After signing, Herschel told the Atlanta Constitution: "I felt real nice at Georgia [during recruiting visits]. And I didn’t want to go too far from home. I wanted my family to be able to come and see me play. It’s only about ninety-four miles from my house to Athens."

While Walker was now ready to make the 94-mile trek to the University of Georgia, it seemed the school was merely happy the indecisive Walker had finally made up his mind.

Approximately a week prior to Herschel's signing, a writer for The Red and Black had declared, "I'm just about fed up with the whole situation. The whole thing is a joke...Come on Herschel, make up your mind."

Two days following the signing, another writer asserted: "Many of the alumni of this institution have a warped sense of priorities. They spend days worrying if an 18-year-old from Wrightsville is going to attend the University of Georgia...They would rather talk about how many yards Walker will run for while he is at Georgia than if the regents exam is doing any good."

I laugh. I guess the regents exam is important and all, but it appears some folks, including ones at the University of Georgia, simply had no idea what was soon to be in store for their football team.

The students and writers weren't the only ones...

Leading up to the start of the Bulldogs' 1980 season, Coach Dooley said he did not expect Herschel as a freshman to be the team's main tailback. For one, Walker had played in only Class A high school football, where, according to Dooley, "the schools are smaller and the players are smaller."

"I really don’t see him giving us a whole lot of help [this] year," Dooley added. 

The rest, as they say, is history...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Great blog! Love reading your stories.