Herschel Walker: The greatest running back I never saw
The internet didn’t exist. Cable TV was in its infancy. Radio was king. And along came Herschel Walker, whose legendary feats in the early 1980s at Georgia still inspire awe — and hearing the stories of his greatness, leaves me with the sense that we’ll never see anything quite like him again.
That headline is not a typo.
I never saw Herschel Walker play football.
Sure, I went through about every YouTube clip I could find (I’m still wondering how Bill Bates survived that hit). I watched documentaries, I read articles, I watched his interviews, I talked to a bunch of people who saw him play in person and on TV, including a couple of his Georgia teammates and legendary UGA coach Vince Dooley. I’d be foolish not to do that, right?
After all, we’re talking about the G.O.A.T. of SEC running backs. Some people I talked to argued that Herschel — I learned it’s just “Herschel” and it’s never necessary to specify his last name — was the best football player they ever saw. No, that wasn’t limited to college football.
“Herschel was the best running back I’ve ever seen,” former Georgia captain Frank Ros told SDS. “And that includes Jim Brown.”
“I’ve said many times that Herschel was the greatest football player I ever saw,” SEC Network’s Tony Barnhart told SDS. “Just for his overall ability and competitiveness with how he dominated almost every game that he played in … my Alabama friends and my Auburn friends don’t agree, but Herschel was the greatest football player I ever saw.”
I should back up for a second. You see, I never saw Herschel play because I’m 28 years old. Herschel’s Georgia career ended 8 years before I was born. By the time I was old enough to remember watching football, Herschel was in his final days in the NFL.
College football fans from my generation might refer to Herschel as the G.O.A.T. — he does have the all-time SEC lead in rushing yards despite playing just 3 seasons — or they might not. Millennials have been fortunate enough to watch backs like Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette. For those of us Millennials who started seriously watching college football as teenagers, perhaps our G.O.A.T. of SEC running backs is Carnell “Cadillac” Williams or Darren McFadden.
So in typical Millennial fashion, I set out to ask the “why.”
As in, why should my generation recognize Herschel as the G.O.A.T. of SEC running backs? And if he came along today, would Herschel still be considered the G.O.A.T.?
‘He was — in the nicest sense of the word — a freak’
Anybody who saw Herschel play would tell you that he was cut from a different mold. Doing thousands of daily pushups and sit-ups in front of the TV turned the chubby, bullied eighth grader into the No. 1 high school football recruit in America.
Back in 1980, there weren’t 6-1, 220-pound running backs like Herschel. If there were, they certainly weren’t All-American sprinters like Herschel was as a true freshman at Georgia. He spent the spring on the Georgia track team racing future 9-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis — Dooley believes Herschel could have been a world-class sprinter had he stuck with it — and he spent the fall barreling through SEC defenders.
“I always say God creates a person like Herschel every 50 years to keep the rest of us humble,” Ros said.
“The stories of how he got to be the physical person he was,” former Athens Banner-Herald sports editor Blake Giles told SDS, “it just lets you believe that God just reached down and chiseled this guy differently.”
That was the second time I ever heard that kind of verbage to describe an athlete. The other time was in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “You Don’t Know Bo,” which was on the phenomenon that was Bo Jackson. Of course, Herschel burst onto the scene 2 years before Bo enrolled at Auburn.
Teammate and 1980 team captain Frank Ros
Back in 1980, though, college football fans had never seen a true freshman with the physical skill set that Herschel brought to the field. As an 18-year-old, he already looked like a man among boys.
Actually, Herschel was at that level well before then. The first time Dooley saw Herschel was when he visited UGA in 1978. Herschel stood on the sidelines next to starting Georgia running back Willie McClendon, who was later drafted by the Chicago Bears to back up Walter Payton. As a high school junior, Herschel was already bigger than McClendon.
“I remember Willie looking at him and saying, ‘Wow,’” Dooley told SDS.
The first time Dooley and the Dawgs got to see Herschel’s extraordinary size put to good use was in his debut at Tennessee. If you know anything about Herschel, you’ve probably heard about the legendary Bates run (via emily22651):
“He’s running over people! My God almighty, he ran through 2 men! My God, a freshman!”
Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson had the legendary call that told the story. Despite his status as the nation’s No. 1 recruit entering that 1980 season, there was a reason that play stunned even the Georgia faithful.
“I knew Herschel was gonna be good,” Dooley told SDS. “What I didn’t know was how fast he was gonna be good.”
Herschel came to Athens from Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., where he played against the state’s smallest schools in Class A. In his first fall camp with the team, he never broke off any of his signature highlight-reel runs. As Dooley put it, the experienced Dawgs defense had a little extra motivation to “pay their respects” to the highly-touted freshman.
Georgia’s veteran-laden squad was skeptical that Herschel was ready for the big time.
“When we went to Knoxville, I think you could’ve asked every single person on our football team and coaches too, and they would’ve told you, ‘I just don’t know if he’s ready yet,’” former Georgia quarterback John Lastinger told SDS. “That’s what made that night so incredible.”
Clearly, the power was there. What Herschel’s old Georgia teammates and Dooley didn’t realize was how shockingly fast he was. They found out the following week vs. Texas A&M when, on a simple lead play up the middle, Herschel lost his balance but made up for it by taking a step to the right and running away from the entire defense.
“It was like, ‘Ho-lee cow.’ He just ran off and left everybody,” Lastinger said. “Everybody was like, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”
Dooley recognized that, too. Tuesdays were live, but from that point forward, Herschel was pretty much a no-contact guy in practice. You won’t hear a ton of stories about Herschel’s practice exploits, especially because he spent the spring on the Georgia track team. He saved his brilliance for Saturdays.
But there were a few practice instances that stand out. Ros, who was a captain on that 1980 squad, remembered realizing Herschel’s strength when he got a hold his jock strap and the back of his jersey only to still get dragged. The painted yard lines were about as successful as arm tackles were when it came to stopping Herschel. Lastinger remembers an Oklahoma drill in which he handed the ball to Herschel, who then took a 250-pound Georgia defensive lineman for a 5-yard ride.
That’s a key element to Herschel’s legacy. It wasn’t like the 220-pound back was going up against 320-pound defensive tackles like he would today. Georgia won the national championship in 1980, and these were the weight ranges by position (according to Ros’ stunningly good memory):
- Linebacker — 200-220 pounds
- Defensive tackle — 235-270 pounds
- Defensive end — 210-220 pounds
- Defensive back — < 200 pounds
- Offensive line — 235-270 pounds
- Tight end — 220-225 pounds
- Fullback — 205 pounds
- Herschel — 220 pounds
Yes, Herschel was 15 pounds bigger than the fullback. He was also bigger than the majority of the guys who were tackling him. Combine that with his world-class speed and it’s easy to understand why he was unlike anyone who had ever come along.
Even the top college football announcers struggled to come up with words to define Herschel’s skill set.
When the Dawgs trailed late in the 1981 Florida game and they were inches from a go-ahead score, everyone in Gator Bowl Stadium knew the ball was going to Herschel. After taking the handoff, Herschel leaped as only he could. He probably could’ve dunked a basketball. Instead, Herschel vaulted himself clear over the wall that Florida tried to set at the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown (it was also his SEC record 44th carry that game). It left ABC color commentator Frank Broyles in amazement:
“That’s unbelievable! What an athlete. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody — not even (former USC star) Sam Cunningham — go that high.”
Georgia QB John Lastinger
Or there was the 1981 Sugar Bowl, when Herschel was a sophomore trying to lead the Dawgs to their second straight national title against Pitt. On a simple pitch right, the Panthers appeared to have Herschel stopped for a 3-yard gain. First-team All-American linebacker Sal Sunseri had Herschel wrapped up with another Pitt defender at his legs.
They might as well have been a couple of bugs on Herschel’s shoulder. Off the Pitt defenders flew like rag dolls, and off Herschel sprinted ahead for another 27 yards before Pitt’s last line of defense finally brought him down.
The interaction between ABC’s Keith Jackson and Broyles on the broadcast said it all:
Jackson: “What an incredible burst of speed and strength by Herschel Walker!”
Broyles while watching the replay: “Keith, I’ve never seen anything like Herschel Walker when he gets a little daylight. Watch the run. Watch the power. There’s nothing there! There’s no blocking. He cuts inside, watch him just run right over All-American Sal Sunseri, then he shows the burst of speed …”
Even decades later, Herschel’s combination of skills is still unprecedented. Sure there have been bigger running backs, and there have been faster running backs, but as Hall of Fame announcer Al Michaels once said, “(Herschel) is the fastest big man to play the game at any level.”
“He was — in the nicest sense of the word — a freak,” Barnhart said. “He was a physical freak for his ability. His strength, his endurance, his ability, his speed … and there’s always been a certain mystique about Herschel because he’s pretty much a private person and I think that mystique is still there.”
Herschel has always been guarded. With his longtime friends like Ros, Herschel can be goofy, but he needs to be engaged in a conversation to truly open up with someone he trusts. Legendary Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith once did a profile on Herschel and later claimed that one could spend an hour with him and feel like there was a brick wall in the middle of the room. Those who know him best will simply say that Herschel, while as humble as can be, just goes to the beat of his own drum.
When Herschel had to make a college decision, he waited to do so until Easter Sunday of 1980. Dooley’s wife, Barbara, had actually made Easter plans to take the family to Boston to spend the weekend with her brother. A day before they were supposed to leave, she got some bad news. According to Dooley, here’s how that conversation went down:
Vince Dooley: “Barbara, I’m not going.”
Barbara Dooley: “What do you mean you’re not going?”
Vince Dooley: “Well, Herschel has not signed.”
Barbara Dooley: “The hell with Herschel. Who does he think he is?”
Vince Dooley: “I don’t know who he thinks he is, but I’m not going.”
So Dooley stayed home while his family went to Boston. On Sunday morning, he got the news he had been waiting for. Herschel’s decision to stay in the state of Georgia was big-time news that day.
“It’s probably a pretty good thing that we didn’t have internet because if we did, his recruitment would’ve crashed it,” Barnhart said.
From the time that Herschel broke on to the scene at Tennessee, he learned how to deal with the circus that followed him wherever he went.
Georgia students would mob him when he’d make the 200-yard walk from the athletic dorms at McWhorter Hall to Stegeman Coliseum to get dressed on Saturday mornings. He’d spend so much time signing autographs and shaking hands that he couldn’t even get from Point A to Point B without the help of some assistant coaches and policemen.
Tony Barnhart, aka Mr. College Football
Following his freshman season, Dooley made sure Herschel had two state patrolmen around him whenever he appeared in public. “He was like Elvis,” Lastinger said. Eventually, Dooley took the team to a hotel on Friday nights before games.
Herschel’s media interactions were atypical, too. He was regularly available to the handful of publications who attended press conferences (a far cry from the sea of reporters who would be all over him today). His responses didn’t come off as canned. Instead, media members would learn odd things about Herschel like how he only slept 4 hours a night.
“I think he’d spend the other 4 hours trying to think of something to say,” Giles joked.
When Giles was on the weekly SEC coaches conference call, other media members would talk about looking forward to when the team they covered had a bye week. Why? So that they could drive down to Athens and see Herschel, of course.
What’s easy for Millennials like myself to forget was that ESPN was still in its infancy in the early 1980s. Herschel’s college career ended before the NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma — UGA’s regents also sued the NCAA — which the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the NCAA violated the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts by restricting teams to a certain number of national TV appearances. At the time, even superstars like Herschel were only on national TV maybe twice a year.
The first time that Herschel was on national TV was in the middle of his freshman season. The 7-0 Dawgs had a heavyweight showdown with South Carolina, led by Heisman Trophy favorite tailback George Rogers. That day served as Herschel’s coming out party to the college football world. One play was really all that Herschel needed.
Clinging to a 3-0 lead in the third quarter, Herschel delivered a run for the ages. After bursting through off right tackle, it appeared that 3 South Carolina defenders had the angle to stop Herschel on the short side of the field.
All they had was a cloud of dust (via UGA Vault):
Even though Herschel’s run could be seen across the country on national TV, it created a different kind of frenzy locally.
“Everybody in Georgia was speeding that day because there was no state patrolmen on the highways because every single one of them was in that end zone,” Lastinger said. “It was just a sea of baby blue men in uniform slapping him around when he got to the end zone.”
Herschel bested Rogers that day with 219 rushing yards and a Georgia victory, yet it was the South Carolina senior who earned the Heisman Trophy at season’s end. It didn’t matter that Herschel’s team was a perfect 11-0 in the regular season (and the eventual national champs).
At that time, the Heisman was an upperclassman award that was more of a career-based accomplishment. No freshman had received the honor. Today, there’s little doubt that despite falling 165 rushing yards short of Rogers — Herschel basically played 2 fewer games — the Georgia freshman would have won the award.
His runs against Tennessee and South Carolina would have gone viral in the way that Fournette throwing Auburn tacklers off his back did, or in the way that Saquon Barkley breaking USC defenders’ ankles in the Rose Bowl did. In the same way that the internet broke when Tua Tagovailoa led Alabama to a comeback victory in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship, Twitter would have gone crazy after Herschel dislocated his shoulder in the start of the 1980 Sugar Bowl and promptly popped it back in place so he could lead the Dawgs to a national title.
“If Herschel was playing in this media environment with all the ability to watch highlights and things of that nature — SportsCenter and now with the SEC Network — he would’ve gotten even more exposure and people would’ve seen those runs,” Barnhart said. “It would’ve blown their minds.”
There’s a flip side to how the lack of regular exposure contributed to Herschel’s legacy.
“In a sense, though, it heightened his legendary status. The fact that people described and the way that they talked about him, there was an aura that developed around him that you just had to accept eye-witness account on,” Giles said. “Archie Manning was the same way. He was a legendary figure, but you just didn’t get to see him very often so you really just had to take peoples’ word for it. Joe Namath, Pete Maravich, all those guys.
“Every now and then, your life would intersect with their performance and you’d get to see it, and it was a jaw-dropping experience.”
What about the numbers?
Had Herschel just been a freshman sensation, nobody would refer to him as the G.O.A.T. Because of his production, the argument hasn’t lost much steam in 35 years since his college career ended.
It’s plausible that Herschel could have been the first 3-time Heisman winner. After he was robbed as a true freshman, he actually had his most prolific season (1,891 yards and 18 touchdowns) as a sophomore. But Herschel finished second to USC senior Marcus Allen, who ran for an absurd 2,427 yards and 24 touchdowns on 433 carries. It wasn’t until Herschel’s junior season that he won his first and only Heisman.
By the time Herschel hoisted college football’s top individual honor — that was his last season in Athens — he was the leading rusher in SEC history with 5,259 yards. By the way, that was only in 3 seasons. Oh, and it didn’t include bowl game stats, so he did that in just 33 career games. Still, Herschel has 490 more yards than the SEC’s second-leading rusher, Nick Chubb, who finished with 4,769 yards in 37 games.
Those numbers tell a fascinating story about just how dominant Herschel was. Skeptics will say that Herschel played in an era in which feeding the running back was king.
“I gave him the ball a lot,” Dooley said. “There’s no back today that gets the ball like he got the ball then.”
That’s obviously true. Compare Herschel’s college usage to running backs who were top-10 draft picks in the past couple years:
And no, the receiving numbers didn’t balance it out in terms of touches per game.
Now, we’d look at Herschel’s extraordinarily high amount of college rushing attempts as a serious question mark at the next level.
“Without question, there’s no way I’d take any back in the first round with that kind of workload,” said Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz.
But as Liskiewitz also pointed out, it wasn’t that Herschel couldn’t receive. He actually caught 76 passes for 837 yards in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys. Georgia just didn’t use him that way, though Dooley admitted he probably should have gotten him more involved in the passing game. If one turned on the film, they’d see Herschel’s McCaffrey-like pass-catching skills out of the backfield.
The Dawgs didn’t really feature Herschel in the passing game until his sophomore year when they fell behind 14-0 against Florida.
“We finally threw a pass to Herschel and guess what he does? Scores,” Ros said.
A 24-yard touchdown catch was followed by another receiving score. By day’s end, Herschel had 4 catches … and a career-high 47 carries for 192 yards with all 4 of Georgia’s touchdowns in a 26-21 victory.
It was performances like that that made me ask a simple question — did Herschel have any weaknesses?
“None,” Barnhart said. “It simply wasn’t there because everything he needed to be good at, he was good at … he was a player with no flaws.”
There’s an intriguing hypothetical question as it relates to Herschel’s skill set. That is, would he be the G.O.A.T. in any era?
Blake Giles, on Herschel's lack of national exposure at Georgia
In the early 1980s, offenses didn’t scheme like they do now. Georgia wanted to run the ball, and even if there were 8-9 defenders at the line of scrimmage, guess what? They were still going to give the ball to No. 34.
It’s even more impressive that Herschel had record-setting production in an era of predictable, run-heavy offenses. Lastinger was Georgia’s starting quarterback during Herschel’s Heisman season and he only averaged 12 passing attempts per game. Any non-triple option offense in 2018 would have far more run-pass balance.
“Can you imagine Herschel with the speed he’s got, only carrying the ball a third of the time and having the open field because the defensive backs and linebackers can’t hug the line?” Ros said. “He would’ve been amazing.”
There are a few conclusions I came to after digging into Herschel’s G.O.A.T. status. One was that he was equal parts throwback and modern marvel.
He played at a time in which longevity for running backs meant playing 5 years in the NFL. Herschel spent 15 years in professional football. While that doesn’t have anything to do with what he did at Georgia, that’s an unbelievable accomplishment considering that he had a massive college workload and for essentially his entire professional career, he played on bad teams.
The average fan might think that Herschel flamed out in the NFL because he only made 1 Pro Bowl and he didn’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Actually, Herschel finished his NFL career ranked second to Payton in career all-purpose yards (he’s now 11th). If you want to add in his 3 years in the USFL, Herschel would have 1,737 more all-purpose yards than all-time leader Jerry Rice (and in 5 fewer seasons).
But Herschel’s odd Pro Football Hall of Fame snub — as Ros likes to say, “it’s not the NFL* Hall of Fame” — is another discussion for another time.
The subject that’s still debated by some is Herschel as the SEC running back G.O.A.T. Well, it’s debated in some places more than others.
“If you wanna get into a fist fight,” Barnhart said, “go to the state of Alabama and argue who was better between Herschel and Bo.”
Tony Barnhart, aka Mr. College Football
Barnhart and others would argue that if there is any real comparison to Herschel, it’s Bo. While Bo was a mythical figure in his own right, Herschel still had the edge in virtually every statistical category despite playing one fewer season.
Ros played against Herschel in practice and then watched him from the sidelines as a Georgia graduate assistant, which meant he also had to game plan against Bo once he arrived at Auburn. Though he’s admittedly biased — Ros was Herschel’s mentor as a freshman and they remain close friends — Ros said Herschel’s combination of size and speed was a notch above Bo.
It only adds to Herschel’s legacy that even in his mid-50s, he’s still in peak physical condition. Eleven years ago, he began his second athletic career in mixed martial arts. He’s still cranking out thousands of daily pushups and sit-ups, sporting a 6-pack at 220 pounds (he’s been at that weight since his freshman year at Georgia).
When he speaks at military bases — Herschel once almost left Georgia to join the military because “he wanted to kill people” — he works out with the soldiers beforehand so that he’ll have earned their respect by the time he starts talking. When he and Ros are watching football, Herschel still talks about the idea of getting 10 carries in an NFL game.
“I tell him he’s kinda crazy to think that at age (56),” Ros said. “But I’m telling you, you stand next to him, you can see it.”
Herschel is 21 years removed from his NFL career, and 36 years removed from his time in Athens. My generation might think of him as the youngest-looking 56-year-old before they think of him as the G.O.A.T. of SEC running backs. Either way, he’s still a physical specimen who defies logic.
As we sit here in 2018, we’re still asking a question that was asked back in 1982. Did Herschel set an unreachable bar?
“It’s going to be difficult to ever eclipse him,” Giles said. “I guess it’s possible that someone could come along and be even faster and even more powerful. Maybe they can throw the ball, too.”
Herschel has been called a lot of things in his life. “Freak” and “beast” are a few that come to mind when I watch his highlights.
There’s one more nickname that seems appropriate. Some time between plowing through Bates and hoisting his Heisman Trophy, Herschel earned himself a new nickname to be called by generations to follow.
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