Debates Down South: 1980 Heisman Trophy, George Rogers vs. Herschel Walker
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing weekly installments of “Debates Down South,” it’s that there was a reason for everything.
Things that I might have looked at from afar that seemed black and white are actually grayer upon closer examination. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Shouldn’t the research make me more entrenched on one side of the argument?
More times than not, I come away from these understanding something that I once viewed as a ludicrous opinion. Like, “oh, this is why the majority of the people in charge made this decision.”
Today’s discussion about the 1980 Heisman Trophy is a perfect example.
Why was/is this a debate?
Whenever the subject of the 1980 Heisman Trophy is brought up, I think back to research I did for a story a couple of years ago. My goal of that story was to figure out why my generation, who has nothing more than YouTube clips, old newspaper articles and stats, should honor Herschel Walker as the SEC’s G.O.A.T. (we’re breaking the AP style rule today with first-name only because nobody refers to him as “Walker”). I also had interviews I conducted with the likes of Georgia coach Vince Dooley, UGA captain and Herschel’s close friend Frank Ros, UGA quarterback John Lastinger, as well as people like Tony Barnhart who covered him.
In that story, I admittedly didn’t go down the rabbit hole of breaking down the 1980 Heisman race. Again, that wasn’t my main focus. I, like many who are reading this, simply said that Herschel’s status as a freshman prevented him from beating out George Rogers.
Because it was a running back vs. running back debate, anyone can look at the side-by-side statistical comparison and see things like this:
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Wait a minute.
Does the average college football fan realize that Rogers actually had better numbers than Herschel? And by “better,” I mean the South Carolina tailback had the advantage in 4 of those 5 major offensive categories with the lone exception being rushing touchdowns … which Herschel had the lead by 1.
But there’s more to it than that. That’s why this is a worthy debate then and now.
People don’t forget that South Carolina and George faced off in an instant classic showdown, and it was Herschel who walked away the winner. People might forget, however, that Herschel didn’t even finish second in the Heisman voting. That went to Pitt defensive lineman Hugh Green. That’s right. A defensive player got more Heisman votes than Herschel. Or perhaps if people do remember that, it supports their belief that Herschel never had a chance strictly because he was a freshman.
If we’re going to understand that proverbial freshman ceiling, we need all the context.
Before 1980, Georgia Tech’s Clint Castleberry was the only other freshman to finish in the top 3 of the Heisman voting. Freshmen were only allowed to play in 1942 because rosters were so depleted as a result of World War II. Remember that up until 1972, freshmen weren’t allowed on the varsity squad. It had only been 8 years since the idea of freshmen playing became a reality (that only happened because schools wanted to save money on pads and helmets by nixing the junior varsity team and allowing freshmen to play on varsity).
When Larry Munson made his legendary Bill Bates call of “My God almighty, he ran through 2 men. My God, a freshman,” he was speaking as someone who was stunned by what Herschel did at his age. It didn’t matter that he was the top recruit in America (Dooley deemed Hershel worthy of scrapping his Easter travel plans to hear his highly-anticipated announcement).
And if we’re being honest, this wasn’t just a freshman thing. The Heisman was an upperclassman award in the 20th century. Before 1980, the last sophomore to even crack the top 10 in Heisman voting was Archie Griffin in 1973 (people forget he had more rushing yards than Penn State senior John Cappelletti). Before Herschel, only 2 sophomores finished in the top 10 in the previous 22 (!) Heisman votes. You had to go back to 1947 to find a sophomore in the top 3, and that was SMU’s Doak Walker.
So yes, Herschel just getting into the top 3 of the 1980 Heisman voting was an extraordinary feat for a sophomore or a freshman.
In hindsight, it seems silly that age could have played a part in anything about Herschel because he defied all logic in his life. Nobody in their late-50s is a physical specimen like Herschel. Shoot, the guy defied logic as a freshman when he led Georgia to their most recent national title.
The notion that a group of people put Herschel in a box because of his age seems silly now. It might have seemed silly then, too.
Or maybe it didn’t.
What people said at the time
Heading into 1980, we knew 2 things.
One was that Herschel was the unproven freshman who didn’t particularly impress teammates in practice. Dooley admittedly didn’t know whether Herschel benefited from playing at Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., where he faced the smallest class in the state of Georgia. The legendary Bill Bates run became legendary because it surprised not just the opponent or the announcer. It surprised his own team.
“When we went to Knoxville, I think you could have 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,’” Lastinger told SDS in 2018. “That’s what made that night so incredible.”
The other thing we knew before the start of 1980 was that Rogers was the returning All-American tailback who had amassed over 3,000 rushing yards heading into his senior season with the Gamecocks. Locally, The State compared him to Earl Campbell. Nationally, he was all over the preseason publications as a Heisman candidate having just rushed for 1,681 yards en route to No. 7 in the Heisman voting in 1979 (Ohio State quarterback Art Schlicter was the only returning player who finished ahead of Rogers).
Before the internet and cable TV age, it made sense why the Heisman became a bit of an echo chamber. Rogers was the main reason South Carolina appeared in its first game on network TV in 1979. South Carolina, remember, was an independent. That first ABC game for the No. 14 Gamecocks came on Nov. 1, 1980, when they made a trip to Athens for a massive nonconference showdown against No. 4 Georgia, the only SEC team South Carolina played that season.
That day also marked the first time that Herschel was broadcast to a national audience (media members of opposing teams used to talk about their bye weeks amongst each other on the SEC teleconference so that they could drive down to Athens to watch Herschel). Sure, they had seen the box scores — to that point he had 4 100-yard games including a 283-yard outburst vs. Vanderbilt — but that Saturday afternoon marked a rare, special showdown with premier Heisman finalists.
If you want a couple of hours to burn, I recommend rewatching this like I did:
On a different note, being a running back seemed awful back then. They rarely saw anything fewer than 9 defenders in the box. When South Carolina completed its first pass in the middle of the third quarter, they said on the broadcast “that’ll help George Rogers run the ball” like it was some sort of revelation about spacing. Uh, ya think?
It’s easy to overlook a few things about that day. For starters, that was Herschel’s first matchup against a Top 25 team. Entering the game, Rogers had 212 more rushing yards than Herschel. Rogers had a streak of 17 consecutive games with 100-plus rushing yards, and Rogers had more than 4,300 career rushing yards. On this day, Herschel joined the 1,000-yard rushing club.
What you won’t find on the broadcast from the legendary Keith Jackson was a definitive statement about the Heisman. As highly anticipated as this game was, Jackson didn’t dub it as a “battle for the Heisman,” which in hindsight, was smart. After all, Herschel had a 219-168 rushing advantage in a Georgia victory to preserve an undefeated season … yet he still didn’t win the Heisman over Rogers.
It didn’t matter than Herschel had perhaps the most Heisman moment possible when he ripped off a 76-yard touchdown run for the ages:
The only thing missing from that play is Jackson making a “hello, Heisman” call like he did 11 years later when Desmond Howard ripped off his unforgettable punt return score against Ohio State.
Still, Heisman ballots were not filed that day. And while that was deemed a head-to-head showdown, there was another factor that voters considered.
Green was considered one of the most decorated players in college football history. As a senior, he was in the midst of putting an exclamation point on a Hall of Fame career that included 49 career sacks (he was credited with 17 in 1980). He earned the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player in 1980 instead of Rogers and Herschel.
Rogers and Green gave voters confirmation bias with the seasons they had. Voters could look at the box score and see that Rogers had a 142-yard game in an upset win at No. 17 Michigan. They could see that Green was the driving force behind a top 3 Pitt team that held 8 of its 11 pre-Heisman opponents to single digits.
Herschel was still in the process of being, well, processed. At least nationally. It didn’t even make the difference that in consecutive games against ranked foes — the only ones he saw before the Heisman voting — he combined for 457 yards on 80 carries in a pair of monumental victories to keep Georgia unbeaten.
He needed more than that to best a pair of once-in-a-generation seniors.
The worst take you can have about this debate
This take is pretty much the entire foundation of this debate.
“You can’t give the Heisman to a freshman.”
Imagine living in a time when being the best player in college football wasn’t good enough.
Let’s be honest — the unwritten rule was a crutch to stand on. It allowed voters to focus in on the decorated players who they talked about in the preseason, and not the ones who burst onto the scene as true freshmen. Again “bursting onto the scene” for a true freshman was limited to box scores, newspaper articles and maybe a national TV game or 2.
It was less messy to instead think about the Heisman as somewhat of a lifetime achievement award. At least it was then because freshmen were still in the early stages of being allowed to play. This lifetime achievement award of the 20th century was at the root of why backs like Herschel and Ron Dayne were arguably better as true freshmen, but not deemed worthy of the award until they won in landslide votes as upperclassmen (Dayne ran for over 2,000 yards as a freshman in 1996 and he didn’t even finish in the top 10 of the final voting).
There are several instances in which the Heisman refused to pivot. A sport with an 8-month offseason and without cable TV to view essentially every Power 5 game suffered from this. It’s not surprising that the cable TV boom coincided with the first sophomore winning the award in 2007, which prompted a run of 7 sophomores winning the award from 2007-19.
There always needs to be a first. Making hundreds of voters rethink a basic core belief about the sport’s top individual honors still proved to be too much, even for Herschel.
Even 24 years after the Herschel wasn’t deemed worthy as a freshman, the “can a freshman win the Heisman” question was still being asked in the midst of Adrian Peterson’s historic freshman season. The mini breakthrough was in 2012 when Johnny Manziel won the award as a redshirt freshman (Jameis Winston repeated that the following season).
But 40 years later, we’re still waiting on a true freshman like Herschel to break through. Hopefully, though, we’re at least at a place in which we wouldn’t use some lazy argument to deny a freshman the Heisman.
Thing I didn’t know/forgot about until revisiting this debate
I’ve danced around this already, but I need to get this out there — I owe an apology to Rogers.
He was way more special than I gave him credit for. We think of how much Herschel changed what we thought was physically possible because as Al Michaels famously said, “he’s the fastest big man to play the game at any level.” That was at 6-1, 220 pounds.
Rogers, as I forgot, was every bit of 6-2, 225 pounds. And while it wasn’t quite Herschel’s 4.3-second 40-yard dash, Rogers ran a 4.5. At that size, that was ridiculous. He made plays in the open field that were unfair, and he did so in that game against Georgia.
Don’t discount how much of a physical freak he was:
We’re talking about someone who was the No. 1 overall pick in the following NFL Draft, and someone who was the league’s leading rusher and NFL Rookie of the Year in 1981. Rogers made 3 Pro Bowls and he won a Super Bowl in his final NFL game.
I say that because if you’re expecting to rewatch that 1980 South Carolina-Georgia game and see the obvious differences between Herschel and Rogers, you’re going to be disappointed. It was a heavyweight fight in a variety of ways.
One other thing that I didn’t realize? Rogers was the first black player from the South to ever win the Heisman (that excludes players from places like Oklahoma and USC). Rogers didn’t get enough credit for being a pioneer. After admittedly struggling academically early in his career, Rogers said and did all the right things on and off the field. It took his exact path for a black player from the South to finally win the award.
That is, play as a true freshman (something that was a big reason the George native made the surprising decision to sign with the Gamecocks), become a breakout star as a sophomore and earn All-American honors as a junior. He stayed healthy, he kept his head to the ground, and when he got the chance to play in front of a national audience, he impressed.
Decades removed from the 1980 Heisman vote, the Rogers side of the argument is often overlooked. We tend to chalk it up to slighting Herschel instead of understanding why Rogers was held in such high regard at a time when he was plenty unique in his own right.
Did he deserve to win? Well, let’s dig into that.
Where I stand on this debate
Let’s not get lazy here. Two arguments, no matter what side of the argument you fall on, are lazy in any Heisman discussion.
The first is giving one player the edge simply because of team success. Is that a factor? For sure, but if it were the factor, let’s just vote on the best player from the No. 1 team in America every year.
The other lazy argument is just looking at rushing yards. Is that also a factor? Absolutely, but if it were the factor, let’s just make the Heisman ceremony invite list the person with the most rushing yards, the person with the most passing yards and the person with the most receiving yards.
Context. We need context.
Context, my friends, favors Herschel.
I’d argue that Rogers did not have a significant advantage against Herschel in those major statistical categories. This is a different discussion if we’re talking about a 500 or 600-yard advantage. Instead, we can use a few things as tiebreakers.
One of which was seeing them side-by-side. Again, it’s worth repeating that for the majority of that game, that looked like an even fight. But what was the difference in that game? Herschel’s 76-yard run. Rogers, as great as he was, doesn’t take that run to the house. I’m not sure many tailbacks in college football history could have exploded down the sideline like that to leave behind 3 defenders with an angle. There’s a reason we still talk about that play 40 years later.
There was nothing that Rogers could do that Herschel couldn’t do. That day, however, Herschel did something that Rogers couldn’t do. Given the magnitude of that game for Georgia, that was the difference.
Not all yards are created equal. What Herschel did in that 2-week stretch to beat South Carolina and Florida should have cemented his legend status. Again, a week after toting the rock 43 times for 219 yards, he one-upped himself against the No. 20 Gators with 37 carries for 238 yards. To me, that’s “I put this entire team on my back” stuff.
For voters, that wasn’t considered the difference-maker. Maybe the fact that the Dawgs needed Lindsay Scott’s miracle to beat Florida took away from Herschel’s “I put this entire team on my back” stuff. It shouldn’t have. He still closed the season with 739 rushing yards in 4 November games.
Herschel did whatever was needed to win a game, and that was never in question. Perhaps that didn’t really sink in for Heisman voters until they watched him dislocate his shoulder on the second play and still lead Georgia to a national title-clinching Sugar Bowl victory against Notre Dame:
(For those who didn’t watch that clip, you should know that decades later, Herschel said he didn’t come there to be injured, and that he came to play. Herschel, when asked how he pushed through the pain of his dislocated shoulder, said “you can’t worry about the little things.”)
Unfortunately game that was after the Heisman vote, and that isn’t factored into this argument.
Did Herschel have some better surroundings than Rogers? Definitely. That’s a factor. Georgia had a better defense than South Carolina. But neither team threw the ball. Nobody really mentions the fact that Rogers faced 3 top-20 defenses in the regular season and Herschel didn’t face 1. That’s why when someone says it was “the biggest snub in Heisman history,” I think that lacks context.
But we’re talking about someone who was the backbone of an undefeated team who did things that we had never seen at the running back position. Instead of that being the thing that pushed Herschel over the top in something that looked like a tie on paper, voters stuck with their preseason thinking. It was Rogers’ award to lose, and according to them, he didn’t do anything to ruin something that was 4 years in the making.
Had Herschel recorded a 2,000-yard season like Marcus Allen did in 1981, I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation. That might have actually been enough to change minds in present time.
Having said that, Herschel deserved that 1980 Heisman not just because of what his legacy grew into after 1980. He deserved it because he did everything you could have asked a Heisman to do that season. That included capitalizing on his opportunity to surpass the favorite in a head-to-head showdown. Sure, Herschel won it eventually and in most years, Rogers was a deserving winner.
That still didn’t make the 1980 decision the right one.