Given the intense—some would say fanatic—rivalry that exists between Georgia and Florida in football, Herschel Walker received the ultimate accolade last Saturday. After helping the Bulldogs destroy the Gators 44-0, he left the Georgia locker room in the Gator Bowl wearing a white shirt, black tie, black sweater-vest, black socks, neatly pressed black pants, black shoes, red Georgia blazer—and a straw hat with an orange-and-green Gator button pinned on it.
A Gator button?
"A fan gave it to me after the game," Walker explained as a cordon of policemen prepared to lead him out a side door and away from a mob of admirers waiting at the front door. "The guy said that after seeing the game he'd decided to convert."
Lord, when a Gator fan switches to the Bulldogs, we're talking serious evangelism. Why, just the day before the game, a white-haired, gentle-looking matron, watching her beloved Florida team go through a light workout, urged Linebacker Fernando Jackson to "break that Herschel's leg." Where is she now? Probably waiting in line in Athens, Ga. for 1983 season tickets.
If Walker, a junior tailback and criminology major, should announce that he's leaving school to become a superstar in the pros, or to crack crimes for the FBI, or to go to Katmandu to escape the press, the sigh of relief in Gainesville will be audible on every campus in the SEC. In three victories against the Gators in the wild affair known as The World's Largest Cocktail Party, Walker has averaged 216 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
Last Saturday Walker drove additional Gators to drink by racking up 219 yards on 35 carries in about 2½ quarters. He and the white panty hose he wears to protect his legs from muscle pulls departed after Walker scored his third touchdown on a one-yard plunge to put Georgia ahead 27-0. What might Walker have accomplished if he'd remained in the game?
"He'd have gotten another 150 yards," said Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, "but it just wouldn't have been the right thing to do."
Nor the smart thing. Walker had a cold—"That's why I'm talking funny," he said—and he has taken to wearing a lower-back buckler for protection against the late and illegal hits he's been taking. He did allow, though, that the Gator defense "played with sportsmanship"—if not with notable success.
Besides, victory was assured after the last Walker touchdown, and with top-rated Pitt losing to Notre Dame (see following story), a solid win was all Georgia needed to move up in the polls. SI ranks the Bulldogs No. 1. With a win at Auburn this Saturday, the unbeaten 'Dawgs can clinch their third straight SEC title and another trip to the Sugar Bowl. LSU, which dumped Alabama on Saturday (see page 32) to also stay unbeaten, is nonetheless second in the conference standings because of a 24-24 tie with Tennessee.
Florida earned a trip out of the Top 20 with its performance. The Gators gained only 34 yards on 31 carries (average?—you don't want to know) and, more embarrassing, only 146 in the air. Quarterback Wayne Peace, who came into the game as the nation's best percentage passer (74.1%), completed 10 of 19 for only 102 yards. "I'm not going to pretend to be smart enough to tell you why tonight happened," said Florida Coach Charley Pell.
One thing did seem apparent, however. Florida's usually aggressive defense—"Sometimes I think they hit a little late," Dooley said before the game—played pussycat in front of Herschel's bulldog. "I feel worse about the loss this year because he [Walker] didn't even have to pay for it," said Gator Cornerback Ivory Curry. "Last year we punished him. But this year we made it simple for him."
Which is something Georgia's defense didn't do for Florida. Early in the first quarter the 'Dawgs' superb secondary blanketed the Gator receivers as Peace retreated back, back, back under heavy pressure from Defensive Guard Kevin Jackson and Defensive End Stan Dooley, until he fumbled and Dooley recovered at the Florida 37. From there it was Walker for seven and then Walker for 30 and a TD on a superb run, during which he juked Free Safety Tony Lilly, perhaps Florida's surest tackier, off his feet and carried Strong Safety Randy Clark on his back the final five yards.
Peace then moved the Gators to the Georgia 17 before the Bulldog secondary reasserted itself. On second down, Terry Hoage's safety blitz forced Peace to hurry a pass. Incomplete. On third down Peace lofted a pass that Wide Receiver Tyrone Young was supposed to run under, but instead it was Georgia Free Safety Jeff Sanchez who was at ground zero. Interception—the first of two for Sanchez as the Bulldogs increased their NCAA-leading total to 31.
The next time Florida got the ball, Georgia's defense applied the crusher by stopping the Gators on a fourth-and-one at the 'Dawgs' goal line. Though Florida's James Jones had been having success to that point—he had gained 37 yards on 10 carries—Lorenzo Hampton got the call on both third and fourth downs and came up short.
No one was about to stop Walker on the 80-yard drive that followed Sanchez' interception. He gained 50 yards on 10 carries, and did it every which way. He used his sprinter's speed to simply outrun defenders around the corner to gain 13 yards on a pitchout. He used his balance to pick up four yards after stumbling and almost falling behind the line of scrimmage. He used his quick reactions to cut back off a block and gain five yards. He used his strength to batter the middle of the stacked Florida line for two yards near the goal line. And he used his booster rockets to launch himself up and over the line on his one-yard plunge.
"What I noticed right away was how much better Herschel is reading blocks and holes," said Georgia's 1980 and '81 starting Quarterback Buck Belue, a TV color commentator at the game. "The other areas, his strength and speed, were sort of hard to improve on, though I think he's even better there, too."
What's more, Walker has the dependability that great backs have to have. For example, the Bulldogs, leading 14-0, started a second-quarter series from their own 12 after Sanchez' second interception, and Walker ran them right out of trouble with a 24-yard gain. Third-and-nine from their own 36? Walker got the needed nine on a draw. Eventually, Kevin Butler kicked a 32-yard field goal that put Georgia up 17-0 at halftime.
"Walker did exactly what we expected, and we still couldn't stop him," said the Gators' Lilly. "There are a lot of great backs, but he's got something on every one of them."
If you're scoring, Walker is now the NCAA's alltime three-year leader in rushing (with 4,920 yards, 66 ahead of USC's Charles White) and carries (with 936, 18 better than Cornell's Ed Marinaro), and Saturday he moved past Marinaro into fifth on the alltime career rushing list.
But chew on this for a moment: Walker may never win the Heisman Trophy. He should have won it two years ago, but the voters invoked the unspoken Freshman Rule and gave it to George Rogers. He gained 1,891 yards last season, third best in college history, but Marcus Allen went over 2,000 and the voters invoked the Statistics Rule and gave it to Allen, perhaps justifiably. And if Stanford Quarterback John Elway beats Walker out this year in what promises to be one of the closest votes in the history of the award, no one can predict if Walker will even be around to win it as a senior—or if an injury, like the broken thumb that hampered him in the first two games this season, will be a factor. "What they should do is award him a career Heisman," says Dooley.
That would be just fine with his fans, to whom Walker has become a star of a magnitude all his own. His programmed answers to questions may disappoint reporters, but the public loves the strong, patient, silent man, who seems the antithesis of today's spoiled athlete, and probably is. On this team, Walker scores and tosses the ball to an official, while Offensive Tackle Guy McIntyre performs the high fives.
The fans' reaction to Walker's appearance at a TV head-shot session the day before the game was something to behold. The moment he walked out on the Gator Bowl field, a throng of 300 closed in, shouting his name. He signed 30 minutes worth of autographs before three uniformed troopers led him off the field. And the next afternoon with 2½ minutes left in the game, another convoy of troopers formed around Walker to escort him safely off the field. That kind of attention is usually reserved for the venerable legends of football, like Bear Bryant, not 20-year-olds. But then again, it may be only appropriate. After all, Walker has led the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking two out of the three years he's been in Athens, and that is the stuff of legends.