A kerfuffle arose last week when esteemed colleague Mr. College Football noted the sainted Tim Tebow was not — repeat, was not – a unanimous choice on the SEC coaches’ preseason all-conference team. Not that anyone should ever care about a preseason all-conference team. But I digress.
We are about to embark on a season in which the debate will rage: Is Tim Tebow the greatest college player ever? Thom Brennaman touched off the discussion during the broadcast of the BCS title game, and essentially every broadcast of every Florida game in 2009 will include some variation thereof. And I should stipulate that, not so long ago, I wrote that Matthew Stafford was a better college quarterback than Tebow.
I was, as often happens, wrong. And I became a massive Tebow believer during his bravura performance against Alabama in the SEC championship game. I would have no trouble putting him in the all-time top five among college players, alongside or slightly ahead of Red Grange, O.J. Simpson and Roger Staubach. But I could not in good conscience put him atop that list. Because, as great as Tebow has been, Herschel Walker was greater.
In Tebow’s three seasons at Florida, the Gators have lost six games and won two national championships. (Remember, he was the backup quarterback to Chris Leak in 2006.) In Herschel’s three seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs lost three games, won one national championship and played for another (and were tantalizingly close to playing for a third). Herschel didn’t touch the ball on every play, but it was as if he did.
Remember the Labor Day night game against Clemson in 1982? Remember Herschel, who had broken his thumb in preseason practice, trotting on the field despite Vince Dooley’s assurance (whoops) he wouldn’t play? Remember how Dooley, in the greatest moment of a Hall of Fame career, had John Lastinger fake to Herschel and hand the ball to Tron (Electron) Jackson on a reverse? Remember how the stout Clemson defense — Terry Kinard and Refrigerator Perry among the crew — all ran to Herschel? Remember Jackson scoring the coolest-ever touchdown that didn’t actually count? (Motion penalty nullified it.)
That was Herschel to a “H.” He terrified defenses. The Sunday before Kentucky played Georgia in 1980, I sat with the Wildcats’ defensive coaches as they watched film of Herschel, who had just gained 283 yards against Vanderbilt. Fran Curci, the head coach, never watched film with the defensive guys, but he watched this one.
And when it came to the immortal sequence when a hapless Commodore latched onto Herschel’s shoulder pad before being brushed off — it’s first clip on the YouTube video below — Curci stood and started yelling. “Did you see that? He didn’t even know the guy was there!” (Three years earlier, Curci had beaten Georgia in Athens 33-0 with Prince Charles and James Brown in attendance, and here he was hollering like an ordinary fan.)
Tim Tebow still has another year, and he has already proved me wrong once. He’s a great player. But I confess I don’t come to this discussion with an entirely open mind. I decided long before I moved to Georgia that Herschel was the best college player I’d ever see, and 29 years later I haven’t wavered.