As Georgia football fans bask in the glory of a consecutive national championship and anticipate an unprecedented three-peat, it's hard to remember that prior to establishing a new dynasty, their last triumph was in 1980. The raw diamond in that championship-winning team was one freshman running back called Herschel Junior Walker.
Born on March 3, 1962, in Wrightsville, Georgia, Walker displayed exceptional athletic abilities from his early teens where he had been a slightly overweight child with a stutter. He threw himself into conditioning and was rewarded with prowess on the football field at Johnson County High which quickly became evident. In 1979, his senior year, Walker rushed for an extraordinary 3,167 yards, leading his high school to the Georgia state championship. He also excelled at basketball and track & field, where he won four events at the state high school championships. His ability as a powerful rusher and multi-sport athlete put college recruiters on high alert.
In 1980, Herschel Walker headed for Athens to join the University of Georgia, joining the Bulldogs football program under the guidance of legendary coach Vince Dooley. He burst onto the scene in his freshman year, immediately asserting himself as one of the most dominant players in the nation.
Walker's record-breaking freshman campaign was nothing short of extraordinary. He rushed for an astounding 1,616 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and breaking the NCAA rushing record for a freshman, a feat only recently topped by Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. Walker's 15 rushing touchdowns, led the Bulldogs to an impressive 12-0 record and a national championship, earning a spot as a first-team All-American. This had never been achieved by a true freshman before.
In his first game, down on the depth chart, Walker was given his opportunity late in the third quarter and announced himself with a 16-yard touchdown run, running over future Dallas Cowboy safety Bill Bates.
On November 9, 1980, Herschel Walker's legend continued in an outstanding performance against the University of Florida. In a game known as the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry", one of it's newest participants, the Bulldogs' freshman running back carried the ball an astounding 37 times for 238 yards and three touchdowns, firmly stamping his authority on the game. His performance gave Georgia a resounding 26-21 victory over their fierce rivals and set them on the path to the national championship.
Despite suffering a dislocated shoulder in the end of season Sugar Bowl vs. Notre Dame, Walker ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns, ensuring Georgia won 17-10 and their superstar freshman running back won the MVP award.
Sophomore and Junior Years
In his sophomore year, Walker rushed for 1,891 yards, leading all of college football in rushing yards and accounted for 20 total touchdowns. He finished as runner-up in the Heisman Trophy to USC's Marcus Allen while Georgia lost the Sugar Bowl to the Pittsburgh Panthers, 24-20.
His junior year saw him lead to Georgia to the No.1 ranking, where they fell in their quest for the national championship, succumbing to No.2 Penn State, 27-23. Walker ran for 103 yards and a touchdown, capping a season where he ran for 1,752 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, signing off his college career in 1982 by winning the Heisman Trophy.
Herschel Walker then made the decision to renounce his final year of college eligibility and turn professional. His collegiate career came to a close with an extraordinary array of records and accomplishments. Walker left Georgia as the SEC's all-time leading rusher with 5,259 yards in just three seasons.
The Greatest College Football Running Back?
Is Herschel Walker the greatest running back to grace the college football field? Possibly a broader debate for another time, but I ran a quick poll on Twitter, and it seems the majority agree it is the heralded Georgia back. It is one of the toughest positions to call. A number of people flagged Oklahoma State legend Barry Sanders, while USC's Reggie Bush, Texas great Ricky Williams and TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson also received significant mentions.
Since his time at Georgia, Walker's legacy has grown through a highly successful professional career in the USFL for the New Jersey Generals and in the NFL for initially for the Dallas Cowboys. He became a household name and won multiple Pro Bowl selections, rushing for 13,787 total yards and 115 touchdowns. He was the subject of one of the most one-sided trades in NFL history as the Cowboys traded him to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for five players and six draft picks. From these, Dallas would recruit Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson, forming the backbone of multiple Cowboys Super Bowl winning teams.
While he had a successful NFL career, followed by a trip to the 1992 Winter Olympics as a member of the United States' bobsleigh team, and a run at a Georgia Senate seat in 2022, it was his time in college that solidified his status as an icon of the sport and arguably college football's greatest running back.