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  • Bill Chastain

SOUTHERN FOOTBALL FRIDAYS: Hershel Walker’s Debut

Georgia plays at Tennessee this weekend bringing to mind their 1980 meeting at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. A kid named Hershel Walker made his college debut that night, signaling the beginning of a special era for the Dawgs.

Walker had been the object of desire for most every college team in the country after he ran for 6,137 yards and 86 touchdowns at Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Georgia. But he had doubts if he was ready for college play on Sept. 6, 1980. Some on the Georgia coaching staff shared that opinion, including head coach Vince Dooley, who wasn’t keen on starting freshmen.

Georgia_Football_2Any thoughts of a glorious Walker debut appeared buried under the raucous “Rocky Top” crowd of 95,288 — the largest crowd to ever watch a college game at that point. Walker did not start and saw little first-half action. In fact when he was told he would be going into the game, Walker couldn’t even find his helmet.

His first two carries saw him run for eight yards. In his next series he gained nine yards on a screen pass then he picked up 14 yards in his third series. Walker appeared to be anything but dazzling and Georgia trailed 9-0 at the half.

In the visiting locker room of Neyland Stadium, the Dawgs’ fortunes would make a dramatic change when running backs coach Mike Cavan convinced the team’s offensive coordinator and then convinced Dooley that they needed to commit to Walker in the second half. The legendary Georgia coach went with Cavan’s advice and good things eventually began to happen.

Tennessee built a 15-2 lead in the third quarter when Georgia moved the ball to Tennessee 16. That’s when one of the defining plays in college football history took place.

Walker took the handoff from quarterback Buck Belue and started to the right side before quickly cutting back to the left where he found a large gap. Running to daylight, Walker had a clear path to the end zone save for Bill Bates. The Tennessee safety and future Dallas Cowboy got into tackling position then Walker trucked him en route to six points.

Famed Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson called the action, capping his description of the play with, “My God, a freshman!”

Walker added a nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and Georgia took a 16-15 win.

With Walker leading the way, Georgia finished the season as the undefeated national champion.

Hershel Walker remains on a pedestal in my mind as the best college football player I’ve seen.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography