Tim Tebow is the greatest collegian of the 21st Century. But the greatest collegiate player ever? Not quite. That distinction falls to a man who played for the other side in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and I speak of …
OK, I’m kidding. You know who I mean. As majestic as he was against everybody, Herschel Walker was never so splendid as those three afternoons in Jacksonville. He rushed for 649 yards and scored eight touchdowns against the Gators, who were really good each year but lost three times simply because they didn’t have Herschel. (Granted, Lindsay Scott had a bit to do with the 1980 outcome.)
Not since Herschel has the college game seen a force so irresistible as Tebow. He figures to win a second Heisman Trophy on merit. But Herschel played only three seasons before leaving for the USFL, and he won one Heisman and should have had two (he was clearly superior to George Rogers in 1980) and would have had another had he completed his eligibility.
Grand as he is, Tebow hasn’t been the Florida focal point all four seasons. He was the backup/changeup to Chris Leak when the Gators took the 2006 national championship, and in his first season as a starter he won the Heisman but didn’t lift his team to higher heights. The 2007 Gators finished 9-4. The Georgia Bulldogs with Herschel Walker lost three games in three seasons: Two to teams (Clemson and Penn State) that would themselves take national titles, the third to a team (Pittsburgh) that finished No. 2 in the land.
Georgia with Herschel won the 1980 national title, played for the 1982 championship and was still in the hunt until Clemson beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1982. Those Bulldogs won three SEC titles at a time when Paul W. Bryant was still coaching Alabama and Patrick F. Dye was getting going at Auburn and Mike Shanahan was coordinating the Florida run-and-shoot.
It would be wrong to suggest Herschel had no help. He didn’t play defense. (He did, however, return kickoffs.) But it’s instructive that Georgia produced only one first-round NFL draftee those three seasons, that being the aforementioned Scott. It finished undefeated in 1980 despite not leading the SEC in any major offensive or defensive category. It won because of No. 34.
From the moment he stepped onto Shields-Watkins Field the night of Sept. 6, 1980, Herschel was the only Dog who mattered. Remember Clemson biting on the handoff to the broken-thumbed Herschel on Labor Day night 1982 and being laid bare on a reverse to Tron Jackson? (No matter that the play was nullified by penalty.) Every defense was set to stop one man, and in 36 games that man rushed for more than 100 yards 31 times.
He willed Georgia to the Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1981, by gaining 150 yards with a separated shoulder on a day when the Bulldogs managed 127 total yards. The Georgia quarterback, name of Benjamin Franklin Belue, completed one pass (in 13 attempts) for seven yards.
In 33 regular-season games Georgia managed 13,012 yards from scrimmage. Herschel gained 5,502 of those. He was 42 percent of Georgia’s offense without completing a pass. (Though he did once throw the ball. Against Kentucky in 1981. Intercepted.)
You can argue that because Tebow runs and passes he means more to Florida than Herschel meant to Georgia, but you’d be wrong. Tebow has demonstrably more talent around him. He has worked alongside three first-round Gators, with Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap sure to come.
I have no problem calling Tebow the second-best college player ever. But no player lifted a program higher faster than Herschel Walker, the Goal Line Stalker. Georgia was 20-13-1 the three years before he arrived. It was 33-3 the three years he dotted the “I.” Cause and effect. Case closed.