A conservative coach by nature, Vince Dooley had a plan to bring the young phenom along – not wanting to ask too much of Walker right away.
“Coach Dooley was going to try to bring him on slow because he said: ‘We don’t need to put this kind of pressure on the kid,” recalled former Georgia running backs coach Mike Cavan, the man who had won the nationwide recruiting battle to sign Walker and would eventually coach him. Cavan was there from the beginning of the Walker saga – seeing it from behind the scenes the entire way.
And it was something historical to see.
Herschel Walker changed nearly everything about playing football in college. From recruiting, to exposure, to leaving early for the NFL – Walker is the most influential player in the history of college football. He fundamentally changed so much about everything surrounding the game – on the field and off of it. There was nothing like Herschel Walker before Herschel Walker… and there has been nothing like him ever since.
Playing freshmen was not something Dooley was known for – then again the ramifications of signing Walker was nothing like Dooley had experienced before, either.
But at that moment – huddled in the locker room underneath Neyland Stadium –
Dooley and the rest of the Georgia staff was worried about one thing – winning.
Down 15-0 in Knoxville at the half, Dooley’s bring-Herschel-along-slowly plan was out the window. Georgia and Dooley needed to win – fans are an unsympathetic bunch when you are coming off a 5-6 season.
“That’s when (offensive coordinator) George Haffner told me to tell Coach Dooley that we were going to play Herschel,” Cavan said. “I am just thankful we were down 15-0, because Coach Dooley at that time said: ‘I don’t care… do what you have to do.’”
Dooley’s plan was abruptly out of the way, but Cavan had been trying to convince Dooley of Walker’s importance weeks before the trip to Knoxville.
“I remember sitting in the staff room two weeks before the game saying: ‘I really think we are going to have to play Herschel.’
Dooley knew Walker’s talents were hard to deny, according to Cavan, but he wasn’t ready to put Walker in the starting spotlight just yet.
“I remember that Coach Dooley said: ‘I agree, but we are not going to start him. We are going to see how the game goes,’” Cavan recalled.
The plan was deliberate… very Dooley-like. Georgia would play Walker in the game – see how he did. If the game was close Georgia would continue without spotlighting Walker. The veteran head coach didn’t want to put stress on the young back from Johnson County – the recruiting spotlight led to pressure on Walker, and Dooley didn’t want to add to that.
But Cavan knew Walker was the best running back at Georgia – and it was obvious.
“I think everyone knew… it was a matter of time,” Cavan recalled – thinking that Walker would not be denied.
“It was obvious to me that he was going to be our guy,” said Buck Belue, the starting quarterback Walker’s freshman year. “It was just a matter of when they were going to turn him loose.”
Dooley almost certainly knew it, too.
“Yeah, I knew he was going to be great,” Dooley admitted with a reminiscing smile. “I knew he could do all those things, and be a great player. I didn’t know he’d be that great, that soon, but I was going to give him an opportunity.”
That opportunity turned into history as Walker led the Dawgs to a come-from-behind 16-15 win over the Vols.
“All night long coming back from Knoxville all you could get on the radio was Larry Munson’s calls – that was all that was going on. It was CRAZY,” Cavan said.
Walker’s triumphant debut may have caused quite a stir, but things had been crazy for Herschel for a long, long time before he played at Georgia.
SIGNING VERONICA (AND HERSCHEL, TOO)
Located between Savannah and Macon… not too far from Dublin sits Wrightsville, Georgia – a small town with a population of just around 2,000 people in the late 1970s.
A bit out of the way, Wrightsville was a popular destination back then for a specific group of people.
“I’ll tell you who can tell you how to get to Wrightsville,” legendary ABC college football analyst Keith Jackson once said. “Every college football coach in the country – because they all tried to recruit Herschel Walker.”
Why were people going to Wrightsville? Walker had scored 85 touchdowns in his high school career. His senior season continues to be legendary – 3,167 yards with 45 touchdowns along the way to Johnson County going 14-1 and winning the state title. To this day, Walker is the only NFL player ever to have come from Johnson County.
Walker was extraordinary.
Mike Cavan certainly wasn’t the first person to know just how special Herschel Walker was on the football field. In Wrightsville, the person who probably knew better than anyone else what was about to happen to the future star was Bob Newsome.
“He knew early on that Herschel was a little bit different,” Cavan said of Newsome.
Newsome had been active in the Wrightsville community for some time before he met Herschel Walker. Newsome moved to Wrightsville shortly after his father in law passed away unexpectedly while his wife was working on her PhD at the University of Georgia. The news was dramatic and crushing for him and his young bride. Still, Newsome immersed himself into life in Wrightsville – becoming heavily involved in the Wrightsville business community – most notably purchasing the local Ford dealership while in his early 20s and running it all the way up until the turn of the century.
Along the way Newsome met the Walkers – befriending them when Herschel was a young boy.
“Herschel knew and respected Bob a lot,” Cavan remembered of Newsome’s relationship with Walker. “He’d worked for him – way back. Bob was real close to him.”
The relationship led to Newsome being very influential in Herschel’s life. So close that Walker would listen to the advice Newsome would give him about things off the field, and on it, too.
“I remember him scoring a touchdown against Aquinas, and he spiked the ball,” Newsome said. “The next morning when he came to work I asked him about it. ‘Why did you spike the ball?’ He told me: ‘Everyone else does that – they spike it.’ I told him: ‘You don’t want to be like everyone else, Herschel. Show a little dignity – just hand the ball to the referee or lay it on the ground.’ He never spiked the ball again.”
Make no mistake about it – Walker had a mother and father… Bob Newsome didn’t replace them, as they were very involved in young Herschel’s life. But Newsome’s relationship with Herschel was critical as he was mulling over which college to attend.
“A lot of people were interested in Herschel,” Newsome said. “And they knew I was involved with him; and they asked me what I thought about him.”
Newsome thought highly of Walker as a person and as an employee, and he thought Walker’s athleticism on the football field was unprecedented. Newsome was so confident that he was willing to make a prediction in the late 1970s.
“I told people this: ‘I think that I will bet money that he will be a Heisman winner.’ I knew,” Newsome said of Walker’s talent. “But everyone in the house wanted a piece of that action.”
Newsome knew what others suspected – that Walker was about to be a star. Newsome was going on record with the folks in Wrightsville before he headed to any college that no matter where he played, Herschel Walker was going to be a star.
“Herschel hustled all of the time,” Newsome said – indicating one clue as to why he felt so strongly about Walker. “You are supposed to do everything you can do all of the time to win. You owe that to yourself, your community and your school for them supporting you.”
But being big time in Johnson County is totally different than being a star throughout the country. Newsome did his best to help Walker with what would become a burden.
“I tried to prepare Herschel for what was about to happen,” Newsome said. “I think he did eventually realize what I was saying because he treated them all so nice.”
Cavan met Walker as a result of doing his job – recruiting his assigned area of Georgia.
“I knew about him as a sophomore. Herschel was in my area, and I had heard about him. I went the spring after his sophomore year, and we started recruiting him then,” Cavan said.
The crowds started to swell at Johnson County game soon thereafter.
“It all started about halfway through the season in the 11th grade. From then on, in town or out of town, the entire town could burn down because everyone was at the game,” Newsome said. “We had to import stands for the stadium each weekend, and still a third of the people had to stand.”
From there, Cavan knew he’d have to work to secure a solid relationship with Newsome – the hometown mentor was too important not to have on Georgia’s side when recruiting was all said and done.
“My first thought was that I needed to get real close to Bob,” Cavan said. “When I found out about Bob, I knew that he was the key. I thought Bob was going to have say so in this thing. That’s where I spent all of my time – with Bob. I was able to see Herschel every day – that’s the way it was back then – and the rest of the time I would spend with Bob. I actually lived in his lake house out in the country. No one else could get close to Bob after I did. Bob was for us – and everyone knew that. Bob Newsome was as big a key as anything.”
Cavan slept in Newsome’s lake house outside of Wrightsville when he was in town. At times he slept in Newsome’s home a mile from downtown Wrightsville. Cavan and Newsome formed a tight relationship.
That didn’t stop the likes of Clemson, Southern Cal and others from trying to lure Walker away, which made Dooley very nervous.
“Coach Dooley used to ask me every day: ‘How are we doing? How are we doing? We can’t lose this guy,’” Cavan recalled. “I kept telling him that (signing Walker) wasn’t going to happen that day – Herschel was not going to sign that day – all of the time.”
The college football world was worked up over Walker because of what they’d seen him do on the field. He was very possibly the biggest, fastest high school running back prospect ever… and still may be to this day. According to those who saw him play live, Walker was unstoppable – truly unstoppable.
“Herschel was ridiculous in high school,” Cavan said.
“He was like a giant playing with kids,” Newsome said of the goal line stalker.
“He changed recruiting. He was the start of big-time recruiting nationwide,” Cavan said. Cavan knew, too, as he was in the middle of the day-to-day fight for Walker. “There’s no way anyone was recruited harder than Herschel was – no way.”
Georgia, for its part, was in the mix for the best player in the country, probably more than anything else because he was raised right down the road from Athens. At first, Walker said, he wasn’t overwhelmingly interested in Georgia.
“When I first was being recruited – I’m going to be honest – I didn’t want to go to Georgia.” Walker admitted. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to go to Georgia, but I was a rebellious teenager.”
What Walker didn’t know was that his rebellion against the red and black wouldn’t stop the implied hometown and family pressure to head to Athens. Wrightsville was a Bulldog town and still is to this day. Escaping Wrightsville to play for Clemson or Southern Cal would have been hard for Walker to do.
“All my family and everybody in my hometown wanted me to go to Georgia,” he said. “Being a rebellious teenager, you don’t want to do what they want you to do. See, I didn’t want to go, but that was the best decision that I ever made.”
In 1978 and 1979 Walker was busy dominating at the high school level. On the gridiron in Wrightsville he wasn’t allowed to practice because he was too rough or difficult to stop – perhaps both. He was a sight to see as a Johnson County Trojan – pounding small high schools in east Georgia on the way to becoming a legend in a time before he could get any hype-machine help from ESPN and the .coms.
Newsome found out just how powerful Walker was when his youngest son tried to tackle him at practice one day. As Newsome walked into his house his wife informed him that their son was in the bed – a victim of Walker’s practice punishment.
“It almost killed him,” Newsome recalled. “He was hurting. I asked him what happened, and he told me that he’d tried to tackle Herschel.”
What happened to the youngest Newsome was what worried Herschel’s mother Christine Walker the most about her son playing – someone getting hurt.
“I tried to talk him out of football several times,” she told Lewis Grizzard in a TV interview in 1981. “I was afraid he was going to hurt someone.”
Walker’s critics said that, sure, he was a man-child, but that he was playing in the smallest classification in Georgia high school sports – he wouldn’t be able to keep up in the rough and tumble SEC. Even Dooley worried about it.
“I never knew he would be that great, that fast, because of coming out of the small school,” Dooley admitted.
“Everyone used to say: ‘Oh, he plays down in Class A ball.’ But he was born there. He didn’t leave a big school to go to a small school just to dominate. He was born in Wrightsville – he didn’t have any other choice,” Cavan said. “Besides, it didn’t make any difference to me – if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. He’s still the biggest fastest guy I have ever seen. No one’s out there like that.”
Cavan didn’t care which school Walker was playing for – he was just desperate to sign him. The running backs coach knew that having Newsome on his side was going to be almost impossible for other colleges to beat. But Cavan wanted to make certain he was going to sign Walker… so he signed his sister Veronica Walker to run track at Georgia.
“I made sure that happened,” Cavan said with a smile.
Getting Veronica Walker to come to Georgia on a track scholarship was a great idea. After all Cavan said there was “no way was I going to let her be at Clemson or Tennessee and be forced to recruit against us – no way.”
But it wasn’t that simple at all. See, Georgia didn’t have a women’s track program… it did not exist.
“We signed her to a track scholarship, and we didn’t even have a track program for women,” Cavan said laughing. “She was about to go to Tennessee or Clemson. I saw her run, and I went to talk to the coach. He said: ‘I am telling you Mike, Clemson or Tennessee is about to get a great runner.’ I got on the phone with Coach Dooley and let him know what was going on. He told me to get her to come to Georgia, and I thought he’d lost his mind because we didn’t even have a track program. But he had just taken over as athletic director, and Title IX was in the air, and he started a women’s track program. We did, and she came.”
Veronica Walker went on to become an All-American at Georgia – but as far as Cavan was concerned she was another pivotal part of the puzzle of getting Walker to Georgia.
“Veronica was a big reason, I think, that Herschel came to Georgia,” he said.
While Veronica was in Athens the Herschel sweepstakes continued in Wrightsville. Ever the conservatively confident coach, Dooley thought by the time Signing Day came around in late 1979 that he would be able to go to Wrightsville and get Walker to sign.
Cavan was certain that wasn’t going to happen – he knew better.
“Back then Signing Day was in December,” Cavan said. “Coach Dooley told me: ‘Well, I am going down to Wrightsville on Signing Day.’ I told him: ‘Come on down – they’d love to see you, but he’s not signing.’”
“And he didn’t sign. I told everyone to leave Herschel alone. I knew when the time was right he would do it,” Cavan said.
Meanwhile Walker kept up with his normal life – sports, school and work at Newsome Ford. Walker loved cars – and still does today. He would leave school and head to work, and, according to Newsome, avoid some of the trappings of being a huge star in such a tiny town.
“If Herschel would have stayed at home people would have been down there all of the time,” Newsome said. “Girls, boys, black children, white children – everyone else would go to his house.”
The relationship between Newsome and the Walkers was an odd one for many in Wrightsville. They questioned why a wealthy white man would be so friendly with a black family in the community.
“I got a lot of static in the community,” Newsome said.
Walker acknowledged the tension in Wrightsville over the relationship between himself, his family and Newsome. He wrote in his book Breaking Free that it bothered him that people felt that way.
“He helped my family and me out whenever we needed something, and he never expected anything in return,” Walker wrote. “That’s why it bothered me that other whites in town gave him a hard time.”
Walker May have been a cultural phenomenon in Wrightsville and in the world of college football, but his relationship with Newsome made some in Johnson County scratch their heads.
“But I thought that highly of the Walkers,” Newsome recalled, noting that he had strong ties with Herschel’s siblings – including being a pallbearer at the funeral of Herschel’s brother after he had started playing at Georgia.
Meanwhile recruiting kept rolling along, and Cavan kept plugging away. Georgia Tech tried to get Walker’s attention with a helicopter flight to Wrightsville. Southern Cal sent O.J. Simpson to see Walker. Clemson stuck in there, too.
“Florida, USC, Clemson, Florida State – they were all after him,” Newsome said.
“If he were anywhere near Southern Cal that’s where he would have gone to school because of the tailback tradition,” Cavan admitted. “But we were on the cusp of that with Willie McClendon – we told him that we were going to run the football, and he knew that.”
“USC’s problem was distance, and they knew that, too. Georgia Tech flew in there on a helicopter one time, but they were never really in it. It was a battle… but it wasn’t,” Cavan recalled, noting that he felt confident in Walker signing with Georgia all along.
The days turned into weeks and months – Cavan’s home seemed more like Wrightsville than Athens. The recruiter’s job was Herschel Walker… that was his primary focus of the spring.
“Football got over, and I started going to all of his basketball games. When track started I was there for all of that,” he said of stalking Walker.
“Then it happened on Easter Sunday – I got a call in Atlanta,” Cavan said of Newsome calling him to let him know that Walker was set to sign to play for the Bulldogs.
“Herschel called me and told me that he was ready to sign,” Newsome said. “I called Mike’s house, but he was in Atlanta. I told him: ‘Well, he’s ready. Y’all had better get ready.’”
“I always let Bob know where I was. So I headed for Athens so we could get to Wrightsville. All I know is this: We’d already had all of the home visits we could have. We could not go to the signing. We could go to the house, but we had to wait on him to sign. Then we went in to talk to him,” Cavan said.
The euphoria of signing Walker turned into a festive night for Cavan.
“Coach Dooley went back to Athens, but Steve Greer and I stayed in Wrightsville for a little celebration with Bob and a lot of other people,” Cavan said with a smile. “We were celebrating that it was over, too. I knew this: We had the biggest, fastest guy I had ever seen… ever.”
“When he signed that night he got on TV. It was just unheard of back then,” Cavan said.
Unheard of was about to be the norm for Walker.
GET USED TO THAT NAME
Herschel Walker’s three-year journey in silver britches started early, as he described in his book Breaking Free.
“I knew I had to be at McWhorter Hall (in Athens) by five o’clock. I got up about 2:30 a.m.. I had packed everything in the days before, and most of what I was taking was already in the car,” Walker wrote. “Hours later, I pulled around to McWhorter Hall. I wondered why the (parking) lot was empty. I checked my watch and saw that it was only five minutes after 4 a.m. I figured I was a little earlier than most would be, but that was OK. At about 4:30 a.m., it seemed as though every bird on campus decided to join in when the Chapel’s bell tolled the half hour. By this time I was getting antsy. Somebody else had to be pulling up any minute.”
“I looked to my left and saw that a piece of paper was taped to the door a few feet down from where I stood. I walked over and read it. It was the same letter as had been sent to me. I looked closely and saw that the meeting was scheduled for five o’clock. What I had failed to notice was that it was scheduled for five o’clock in the afternoon.”
Walker decided to stick around Athens – instead of heading back home to Wrightsville for the day. He soon met the team’s captain – Frank Ros.
“I remember just sitting out there waiting for everyone to show up. I remember Frank Ros showed up at about three o’clock. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Freshman, take my bags to the room.’ I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe this dude asked me to do stuff.’ Then he asked me to take his car around back. He kept asking me to do this stuff, but he kept calling me by the name freshman. I didn’t know – if you’ve ever heard Frank Ros talk, but he sounds like he’s from Deep South – so I thought he was trying to make fun of me. I didn’t realize that’s what they’re supposed to call you – freshman.
But running into Ros first helped Walker in the end. Walker said Ros “saved his life” watching out for Walker while he was in Athens.
“He knew that older guys on the team were going to take advantage of my respectfulness,” Walker recalled in Breaking Free.
While Walker was being guided through the start of college with Ros on his side, he was having a difficult time with practices – according to Dooley, and others.
“They say he didn't really show out during practice,” remembered Belue, the quarterback at the time.
“It wasn't like he was tearing everyone up in pre-season practice,” added Georgia sports information director Claude Felton of Walker’s practices in August of 1980.
Before the game with Tennessee, Dooley called Newsome in Wrightsville to talk.
“Coach Dooley told me not to be disappointed if Herschel didn’t play any because he looked like he was going to be just a stiff back,” Newsome said. “I told him: ‘He doesn’t know how to practice because he’s done very little of it in four years.’ All Herschel did was games. He didn’t know how to practice.”
Good thing for Dooley and company Walker knew how to play in games – and did he ever know how to play in games.
He exploded onto the national scene with 84 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries in Georgia’s come-from-behind 16-15 win over the Vols.
“I remember after Herschel signed, my wife, Becky, said to me: ‘I hope he sits on the bench… I really do,’” Cavan said his wife was jokingly wanting retribution on Walker for causing her husband to be gone for so long. “I remember asking her after the Tennessee game if she was glad he’d come of the bench, and she just lughed.”
“And then what happened was it exploded,” Cavan remembered. “It just exploded. I think it was Monday after the Tennessee game and Coach Dooley came into the staff room and said: ‘Claude Felton says there are 50 reporters who want to talk to Herschel.’”
The debate as to what to do about Walker’s new stardom was something the coaching staff and Dooley anticipated, but probably not on the level at which it came. One coach spoke up in favor of Walker being put in front of the press.
“Coach Russell was there puffing on a cigar and said: ‘Let him talk,’” Cavan recalled with a laugh.
“That was the thing Coach Dooley didn’t want to do. He didn’t want this to happen because nobody had ever done this, and none of us knew how he was going to handle it. We didn’t know if the publicity would hurt him.”
The publicity didn’t hurt Walker, but it did turn him into the new sensation of the college football world.
Walker ran for over 100 yards against Texas A&M and Clemson in the weeks following the win over the Vols – tacking on three touchdowns against the Aggies. An injury slowed Walker in the next two games – carrying the ball only 20 times for 113 yards combined against Ole Miss and Texas Christian. He then blistered Vanderbilt for 283 yards and three touchdowns before carrying the ball 31 times against Kentucky.
That set up a huge contest between South Carolina and Georgia featuring the country’s top running backs at the time – George Rogers and Herschel Walker.
“That was our first game on TV that year was South Carolina,” Felton said of the matchup between the two – underscoring that Walker had developed a national, almost cult following without the exposure of television.
Walker and the Dawgs prevailed in the critical contest, a game which has always been overshadowed by Georgia’s win over Florida the following week. Walker gained 219 yards on 43 carries (a season high) and had a 76-yard touchdown run against the Gamecocks.
“I can still remember Keith Jackson making that call,” Felton said of Walker’s touchdown run on ABC that day.
“Belue gives the ball to Herschel Walker. Walker finds a hole on the right side – he's outside, and he may be gone! Touchdown Georgia! Herschel Walker – get used to the name,” Jackson proclaimed to the national television audience.
No. 4 Georgia outlasted the No. 14 Gamecocks 13-10 because Dale Carver forced Rogers to fumble with Carolina knocking on the door late in the game.
Next came the miracle in Jacksonville, which would not have been possible without Walker’s 37 carries for 238 yards (a season high) and a touchdown. No. 2 Georgia topped No. 20 Florida 26-21 thanks to 93 yards of “Lindsay Scott… Lindsay Scott… Lindsay Scott…”
Walker then had 77 yards and a touchdown against Auburn before pounding Georgia Tech with 25 carries, 205 yards and three touchdowns to send No. 1 Georgia to the Sugar Bowl to play Notre Dame.
Walker was steady against the No. 7 Irish – scoring two touchdowns and running for 150 yards on the way to helping Georgia win its second national title and being named the Sugar Bowl MVP.
Walker had already changed recruiting, but things were changing in his life, too. Professional football was already knocking at his door.
“People don’t remember this, but after his freshman year, the Canadian Football League was calling him wanting him to come,” Cavan said.
“The Canadian Football League had made him a high proposition, and I told him at the time that it was the wrong thing to do. He listened and didn’t do it,” Newsome said.
Walker decided to return to the college, but new realities associated with his fame were becoming evident. Walker was not just a fan favorite – he was a person everyone wanted to meet and know. It became a burden on Walker and his family. Newsome did his part to put a stop to all of the unpleasantness that came along with Walker being a star.
Going to see Walker at his home in Wrightsville was nothing new. A TV segment featuring the late writer and comedian Lewis Grizzard showed how eager people in Wrightsville were to simply tell you how to visit the Walker’s home.
“If you don't know how to get to Herschel Walker's house you just ask,” he pointed out.
That was becoming a problem.
“Herschel had a hard time coming and going from Wrightsville. Back then, too, people wanted to see him, touch him… feel him. It’s a burden for the person,” Newsome said. “Most of the time you just want to tell people to go away, but he never did. When he was at Georgia, starting his second year, I had to hire guards. The house was probably 75 yards off the paved roads. I had to hire guards just to keep people from going out to the house.”
The next fall Walker and the Bulldogs made another run to the Sugar Bowl – losing only at Clemson in the third game of the season. Walker ran for at least 100 yards in every game of 1981. He scored four touchdowns three times – against Temple, Florida and Georgia Tech.
But his fourth touchdown against the Gators was a pivotal one, coming after an amazing 17-play, 95-yard drive in 7:45 during the fourth quarter. Down a point to Florida, Walker ran for 65 of the 95 yards of the drive including a one-yard touchdown with 2:31 to play in the game.
The win over Florida set up a chance to win the SEC for the second year in a row. Georgia hosted Auburn a week later, and Walker was too much for the Tigers. After Walker pounded Auburn for 165 yards on 37 carries and a touchdown, Georgia was back in the Sugar Bowl as SEC Champions.
Georgia Tech couldn’t stop Walker in the season finale – he racked up 225 yards on 36 carries with four touchdowns on the way to Georgia’s 44-7 blowout win.
The Bulldogs came up short in the Sugar Bowl – falling in the fourth quarter to Dan Mario and Pitt. Georgia finished 10-2.
But Walker had narrowly missed out on the Heisman Trophy his first two seasons in Athens. Newsome’s bet that the Wrightsville native would win the award was running out of time. Walker, for his part, didn’t think much of winning the award.
“If there was any pressure, it may have been for my junior year. This is what’s so strange – my freshman year when I was up for the Heisman Trophy, I didn’t even know what the Heisman Trophy was,” Walker admitted. “I had never followed football growing up, so I didn’t even know what the Heisman Trophy was. I got excited because everybody else was excited about winning the Heisman. I didn’t even know what the Heisman was until I read about it.”
Newsome said everything – the notoriety, the stardom, the everyday life as the best player in the country – was taxing Walker in a big way.
“I had to talk to him all of the time,” Newsome said. “It’s really hard to tell people how much pressure that boy had on him. It is mindboggling that he could handle it all.”
The season opener in 1982 was a Labor Day, made-for-TV special featuring the last two national champions – old rivals Clemson and Georgia. The Bulldogs were playing a night game and for the first time since 1951 Georgia used lights at Sanford Stadium.
In fact, with $50,000 worth of help from ABC – who was broadcasting the game to a national audience – Georgia decided to permanently install lights in Sanford Stadium rather than renting them as so many schools did at the time for night games on television.
“Coach Dooley thought we would have more night games,” Felton said of the making the lights a permanent fixture Between the Hedges.
The Atlanta newspaper said of the game: “This ain’t football, it’s war!”
Keith Jackson added: “It is an old-fashioned southern dog fight.”
But the Bulldogs were at a disadvantage – Walker’s thumb was broken, which was headline news in the South.
“Atlanta TV stations were over at the hospital before he even got out. They were just outside waiting on him leave to see if they could talk to him or get a picture of him. It was a gigantic story,” Felton said.
Clemson had their own problem – the NCAA was in town to visit the Tigers… threatening to derail the Clemson program for years to come.
Even with the black clouds hanging over the two teams the battle between Clemson and Georgia was a monumental contest – the game of the century at that moment.
Dooley was asked just before the game on TV how Walker would be used. He responded: “tactically.”
Walker was used tactically for sure, but the play didn’t turn out the way Dooley had hoped.
After an interception the Bulldogs set up shop at the Clemson 41-yard line.
Then number 34 jogged in from the sideline.
“I don’t think I have heard such a roar for a player in my lifetime,” Frank Broyles commented on ABC as Walker entered the game for the first time. “Incredible.”
Walker set up as the tailback in the I-formation. Quarterback John Lastinger faked a handoff to the fullback before rolling to his left with Walker just behind him. All the while receiver Tron Jackson was coming the other way to set up a reverse.
The Tigers, decked out in all white, sold out to cover Walker, and after Lastinger pitched the ball to Jackson for a reverse he was on the loose. He scampered 41 yards for a touchdown, which almost certainly would have gone down as one of the most exciting plays in Georgia history had it not been called back for a holding penalty.
But on that night offense was overrated for the Dawgs – they won the game the old-fashioned way: with defense and special teams.
A blocked punt for a touchdown tied the game in the second quarter. The Bulldogs added a field goal to take a 10-7 lead into the locker rooms. The Georgia tacked on another field goal in the third quarter and held on to prevent another Clemson score.
Georgia won the game even though Walker had only 20 yards rushing.
After his thumb healed, Walker’s stats took off again. He roughed up BYU and South Carolina, and then punished Mississippi State with 39 carries for 215 yards. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Memphis were warm ups before Walker’s final visit to Jacksonville to face No. 20 Florida.
He was relentless in his punishment of the hated Gators. With 35 carries, 219 yards and three touchdowns, Walker ended his career against Florida undefeated and with a three-game average of 216 yards on 40 carries and three touchdowns per contest.
Georgia was riding high. The Bulldogs were ranked near the top of the standings again with only Auburn in the way of another SEC title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
The Tigers rallied from a 13-7 deficit to take a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter. Georgia then went on a 13-play, 80-yard drive to go up 19-14. Walker carried the ball eight times in the game-winning drive – proving once more his value for the Bulldogs.
Walker and Georgia dismantled Georgia Tech in the final game of the season to set up a Sugar Bowl date with No. 2 Penn State, which would determine the 1982 national championship.
Before the Sugar Bowl, Walker won the Heisman Trophy – something everyone saw coming. But Walker was sheepish about winning the prestigious award.
“It was very embarrassing to win the Heisman,” he said. “It was embarrassing because for me there is no way I did all that by myself. I tell people all the time, if you know football – and I’m being honest – if you know football, go look at when I played from my freshman year to my sophomore year, you’ll never see an offensive line better. But they never got the credit they deserved. But if you look at it, I didn’t get hit hard ever. I tell people all the time, you’ll never see me get hit behind the line hardly ever.”
Penn State toppled Georgia and ended the dream of winning a second national title with Walker in silver britches. The 1983 Sugar Bowl was the final game Walker played at Georgia.
NOTHING LEFT TO PROVE
The decision for Walker to leave Georgia had been brewing for some time.
“Herschel had gotten to the point that he’d achieved everything he’d desired,” Newsome said. “I don’t think at the time that the school was appreciating him like they should have… now that’s my assumption – not his.”
“Up until that time no one was able to go to the pros early because they were not mature enough, but Herschel changed that,” Cavan said. “At least now you can come and stay three years, and then you can turn pro. He could have gone into the pros after his first year at Georgia. But he wasn’t anything like a normal person. Herschel has always been different.”
The decision to sign with the USFL was one Walker wanted to talk over with Newsome and his parents before he did it. Meanwhile, according to Felton, the media had heard of Walker’s possible move to the professional ranks, and they were staked outside in hopes of talking with him about it.
“The media found out and they were camped out outside of the apartment of Baxter Street – maybe about ten or 12 media folks coming and going,” Felton said.
“When he decided that he wanted to go, I went up there that night to Athens. He’d called me, and I drove the Walkers up there – his mother and his father. We talked at the motel. He said that he wanted to sign. He hadn’t signed. He wanted to talk with his mother and father about it. And I would not have told Herschel not to do it, and his parents were the same way. They said: ‘Whatever you want to do, son… that’s what you should do.’”
“He signed, and that was it,” Newsome said. “He signed for the most money of any man up to that time to play football. He was ready – there was no doubt about that.”
Many Georgia fans romanticize about what the 1983 season would have been like with Walker. The Bulldogs finished the season 10-1-1 – narrowly missing on another SEC and national title in the process. But Newsome says that Walker did the right thing for himself and his family and dismisses any critics of Walker’s early departure from Athens.
“I thought, maybe, that his legacy would be tarnished had he not stayed. But, how can you criticize someone who had given three years of the best that there has ever been there? Herschel was sacrificing, and he’d never had that kind of money. His family had sacrificed,” Newsome said.
“Criticizing him for not staying the four years? They don’t do that any more. They realize that he would have been crazy not to go. What would have happened if he didn’t go and his knee was torn up? I would have said something negative about it – if not for the fact that he’d done everything he could prove at Georgia… there was nothing else for him to prove at Georgia.”
“I know some people probably didn’t like it. Everyone’s life is not simple. Some people have a hell of a time going through this life – some people breeze through it. Herschel had burden – there was no kidding about that,” Newsome added.
CHANGING THE GAME FOREVER
In so many ways Herschel Walker’s influence and shadow remain at Georgia and beyond decades after he left.
“His legacy has grown, because you have more people talking about him,” said Dooley.
After all, Walker is probably the greatest college football player ever to have played – and he did it in three years. Even Walker’s decision to leave Georgia early – which had never happened in college football to that point – has had an irreversible effect on college football to this day.
But Walker’s effect on Georgia is understandably more profound than it is on college football. He’s one of only four players in school history to have his jersey number retired. He’s one of only two Heisman Trophy winners in school history. He’s the running back all running backs at Georgia, right or wrong, are compared to. The 1981 and 1982 seasons were broadcast on tape delay each Monday night for those in the nation with cable TV to see. When Walker left Georgia so did the tape-delayed broadcasts. He’s probably one of only a handful of players, and certainly the most famous one, who can be identified with only one name – Herschel.
“I told Coach Dooley before Herschel signed that he would change his life, and he didn’t believe it. He kind of laughed at me,” Newsome remembered. “A couple of years later at the Auburn game I was coming out of the locker room after seeing Herschel, and Coach Dooley walked up behind me and said: ‘I think you are right.’ That was all he said.”
Dooley wasn’t the only one changed by Walker – the entire sport of football was – particularly college football. But pro football felt the impact of Walker as well. The Dallas Cowboys’ dynasty of the 1990s was built on “The Great Train Robbery” – a trade where Dallas sent Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989 in exchange for what amounted to 12 other NFL players over time and laid the foundation for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl wins of the 1990s.
“He was the cornerstone of the USFL,” Newsome noted – pointing out that Walker played outside of the NFL several years of his professional career.
Walker’s move to the USFL triggered a new day in professional and collegiate football. Players no longer had to play college football for four years – Walker changed that as well.
He also changed the perception that freshmen needed to “wait” to play in college football… or that they were not ready to play.
“I heard Joe Paterno say once: ‘Never play anyone until they are ready.’ Nowadays you just throw the kids out there, and that started with Herschel,” Cavan said.
It would be scary to think just how popular Walker would have been in this time. His fame grew nationally despite the absence of the ESPN hype machine or the Internet. Florida’s Tim Tebow and Auburn’s Cam Newton may compare to Walker (Tebow more favorably than Newton for a slew of reasons), but both benefitted from the mainstream media pumping them up along the way. When Walker played at Georgia his teams played live on television only three times a season. Now the Bulldogs, and the rest of the SEC, play live on television every single week of the year.
“I don’t know if you could really fathom Herschel in today’s media landscape,” Cavan said. “It was pretty bad as it was. We didn’t have cell phones and the Internet, and yet it was still so out of control. But it would have been a lot worse in this day and time. I don’t think you could possibly have controlled it if Herschel were here now.”
“The exposure today… I don’t know anyone who could handle what it would be like to come along like Herschel today,” Newsome said. “It would be like LeBron James – but Herschel would be more popular because football is more popular than basketball.”
Walker played football before things went viral – before most photographers even used color film. Sanford Stadium hardly had advertisements let alone a video board.
The world was different then, but Walker is as big a reason as anyone or anything else as to why college football isn’t the way it once was.
Walker was a game changer… THE game changer.
“They come along about once every two generations,” Dooley said.
No one like Walker has been at Georgia before or since.
“Sometimes I think people forget about you when you start getting old,” Walker said.
No one is going to forget Herschel Walker any time soon.