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August 25, 2010

My God, a Freshman!

In great anticipation of the 2010 football season kicking off in just a little over a week, I wanted to post video from arguably the most memorable (for several reasons) season-opening game in Georgia football history.

Most of us have heard countless times Larry Munson's version of Herschel Walker's first touchdown.  However, until a friend sent me the video, I had never heard a different version, in particular, by an opposing announcer.  (I'm pretty sure that's Tennessee's John Ward narrating the clip for some type of UT football highlights reel/show.)

I'm putting Herschel in...Don't be afraid to let him carry the ball.
- Coach Vince Dooley to offensive coordinator George Haffner in the second quarter of the 1980 Tennessee game

Talk with most any Bulldog fan who attended that game in Knoxville 30 years ago and they'll usually mention two things: 1) Seeing Herschel Walker for the first time and 2) how dadgum hot it was that night in Neyland. 

Although the official gametime temperature was 87 degrees at kickoff, because of the humidity, it supposedly felt like triple digits.  As one of my relatives recalls, "I felt like I was literally sitting in fire... and when it was 15-to-nothing, they were the flames of Hell!" 

It sure didn't help (and I'm sure you've heard this from some of those that were in attendance) that the stadium's concessions apparently ran out of ice that night.  At some point, the only Coca-Colas to drink were ones straight up.

Everyone recalls Bill Bates getting bulldozed by Herschel but it was also Bates who fumbled the Bulldog punt, leading to the craziest, most hard-earned two points most will ever witness.  Walker's first touchdown is legendary but it was the Georgia safety that was the game changer, swinging the momentum finally in the Bulldogs' favor.  

The recruitment of Herschel Walker is a story in itself.  An NFL scout suggested that Herschel, besides Earl Campbell six years earlier, was the only high schooler that could have skipped college altogether and played immediately on the professional level.  However, there was one, small question concerning the youngster from Wrightsville...

Herschel had played Class A high school football - the lowest and smallest level in the state.  The average weight of Johnson County's offensive line Walker's senior year was a scant 150 pounds - 60 to 65 pounds less than Herschel weighed.  Could one playing on the Class A level make the transition to big-time, SEC football?

During the freshman's initial practices as a Bulldog, it certainly didn't seem so.  There were some left wondering if Georgia had been fooled by the hype surrounding Walker.  He was far from spectacular in practice, in fact, so average that Coach Dooley believed that instead of a freshman phenom, Georgia might have landed merely a "big, stiff back."

Entering the Tennessee game, it is widely well-known that Herschel was the third-string tailback behind Donnie McMickens and Carnie Norris.  What many don't realize is Walker was nearly the fourth stringer if not for Matt Simon, the team's leading rusher in 1979, suffering a hip pointer in the early summer. 

Few third- or fourth-string true freshmen play as early as the second quarter of their first game, like Walker did.  Dooley has always claimed he put Herschel in the game simply on "instinct."  Maybe, but part of the coach's instinct may have been McMickens and Norris combining for only 39 yards on 12 carries coupled with a 9-0 deficit.  

Early on, there were flashes of Herschel being a suitable player: a couple of good runs, a nine-yard reception, an alert recovery of a teammate's fumble, but nothing that affirmed he was ready to start at tailback, much more, carry the Bulldogs' offense.  That is, until he plowed through Bates and split two other would-be tacklers on into the end zone.

Following Herschel's touchdown, running backs coach Mike Cavan - the  assistant primarily in charge of the recruitment of Walker - declared, "I don't want to hear anything else about Class A football."

On a team with several concerns, its star recruit had suddenly answered a few questions of some of the critics. This freshman was undoubtedly special, playing on a team that would turn out to be the program's most special of them all.

One thing was especially clear: There was no question that Georgia had a new, first-string tailback.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the post. I was a student at UGA then and I was at the game. Yes, it was humid, and yes, I had on my lucky light blue button down.

Our seats were very low and in the endzone OPPOSITE where Herschel scored over Bates. I could not see a thing. What I did see was Herschel warming up in our endzone before the game. I had NEVER seen a running back so big. He looked almost like a lineman! Thank goodness he went to Georgia.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymus,

I too was a student that year (my senior year) and was at that game. I, along with three friends, also sat in the same section of the stadium (opposite the Herschel TD, low in the stands). I don't really recall the heat, but what I do recall is the abuse that 5,000 or so Georgia fans gave the Vol fans as they paraded out of the stadium right in front of us. I also remember driving home and in the middle of the night listening to the AM station out of New Orleans talking about "the big kid from Georgia that ran over Tennessee". I am 51 years old and I still remember that like it was yesterday. Thanks for the memories Patrick.

Anonymous said...

I was at the game too. I remember how hot it was and I kind of remember them running out of ice (maybe late in the game). What an expereience! I also remember the roach motel we stayed in that night just outside of Knoxville. Patrick, thanks for the memories. Your videos/stories really get me fired up for 2010!!!