EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Georgia football history. A companion series for Tennessee is planned for May 18-22; an Alabama series was published on May 4-8.
There have been good players, great players, truly great players and Herschel Walker throughout Georgia's storied football history.
Or, as legendary Bulldogs broadcaster Larry Munson once defined him, "Oh, you Herschel Walker!"
One of my favorite Walker stories occurred 30 years after he burst onto the scene as a Georgia freshman in 1980 and promptly led Vince Dooley's Bulldogs to their lone Associated Press national championship. The Bulldogs had been 5-6 the season before Walker's arrival, losing at home to Wake Forest and Virginia, and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was producing the same dizzying turnaround for the Tigers on their way to the 2010 national title.
I asked Dooley in December 2010 who he thought had the more impactful year on his program, Walker or Newton?
"I would have to say that Cam Newton is the best one-season football player I've ever seen," Dooley said. "If Herschel had gotten the ball as many times as Cam Newton has, he certainly could have been. We tried to give it to him as many times as possible."
Dooley indeed did his best to showcase Walker, who received 994 career rushes for 5,259 yards (5.3 per carry) and 52 touchdowns. When he left after three seasons for a lucrative contract in the fledgling USFL, the 6-foot-1, 222-pounder from Wrightsville had amassed 41 school records, 16 Southeastern Conference standards and 11 NCAA marks.
Walker set NCAA records for rushing yards as a freshman (1,616) and as a sophomore (1,891), and his 1,752-yard junior season resulted in him becoming the first player in college football history to surpass 1,500 rushing yards in each of his first three years. His numbers were compiled in three 11-game regular seasons, as bowl totals were not included in NCAA statistics until 2002, and the Bulldogs won all 18 league games in which he played.
In fact, Georgia went 32-1 in regular-season contests with Walker, losing only at eventual national champion Clemson in 1981.
Walker's career began with a memorable bowling over of Tennessee strong safety Bill Bates in Neyland Stadium, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 15-0 deficit to a 16-15 triumph. Walker had consecutive games of 219 yards against South Carolina — outperforming 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers in the process — and 238 against Florida as the Bulldogs ascended to a No. 1 ranking.
Georgia took an 11-0 record into the Sugar Bowl and topped Notre Dame 17-10 behind Walker's 36 carries for 150 yards and two touchdowns. On Georgia's 29 snaps that did not involve Walker against the Fighting Irish, the Bulldogs had minus-23 yards.
"I think my freshman year was my best because I learned so much," Walker said in 2015. "It has nothing to do with winning the national championship. It has to do with having a coach like Vince Dooley. He taught the 1980 team how to stay together and play together and that we could accomplish great things. Because of that teaching, we carried it over the entire time I was there and beat a lot of people.
"We played a lot of teams that were bigger, better and faster than we were, but we stayed together as a team."
Walker finished third in the 1980 Heisman balloting behind Rogers and Pittsburgh defensive lineman Hugh Green, and he was runner-up in the 1981 vote behind Southern California running back Marcus Allen. Walker surpassed 100 yards in all 11 regular-season games as a sophomore, and he tallied a whopping 72 carries of more than 10 yards.
As a junior in 1982, Walker helped clinch a second 11-0 regular season in three years with a closing stretch of 219 yards against Florida, 177 against Auburn and 162 against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs came up short in a bid for another national championship, falling to Penn State 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl.
Walker's 994 rushes and 5,259 yards remain NCAA records for a three-year stretch, and his 159.4 rushing yards per game obliterates the SEC's second-highest career average of 126.7 posted by Florida's Emmitt Smith. Georgia retired Walker's jersey number in 1985.
While Bulldogs fans reveled in Walker's success during his time in Athens, Walker has taken pride in those who have followed. Eleven different Bulldogs running backs have posted at least one 1,000-yard season since the Walker era, including the impressive recent run of Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Elijah Holyfield and D'Andre Swift.
"For years, USC was known as 'Running Back U' in college football," Walker said, "but I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind that Georgia has changed that outlook."
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