By Craig Hayes
I took a rare sick day this week after a brief bout with the flu. I’ve been lucky with my health over the years, and I don’t take many vacations, so it is rare for me to be home on a weekday. Since I was too groggy from a fever to read, I channel surfed for a while until I came across an old, familiar sight on ESPN Classic. There he was on the TV, and I felt like I was 12 years old again.
That imposing 6’1” 225 pound frame, same straight up sprinter running style, the familiar number 34 on his back. Some athletes are beautiful to watch because of their style, or fluidity, this guy was different, the beauty in his play was similar to watching the surf during a hurricane, awestruck at the relentless power of the ocean. He was, as much as any athlete could be, a force of nature.
I think it is fair to say that most fans develop a love for college football from two primary sources when they are young, their family and their environment. If Dad went to Auburn and loves football, good chance you are going to be a Tiger fan. Born and raised in the state of Louisiana? LSU will likely be your team.
Since I grew up in the college football wasteland that is Long Island, New York, and my Dad was a Fordham grad who loved music and literature more than any sport, my love for the sport was cultivated by a third source, the football hero.
In 1981, when I was 12 years old, my hero was a superhuman tailback from Wrightsville, Georgia, the legendary Herschel Walker.
When he was a freshman, I was already a college football fan, albeit without a singular favorite team. The late 1970’s and early 80’s was a spectacular era of college football, and while I enjoyed the pros as well, there was something about college ball that made it more exciting to me and many of my friends. It was more passionate than the pro game. The Pros were corporate; college teams had personality.
They ran the triple option, wore cut off jerseys, and played a brand of football that was more wide open and exciting than the NFL of that era. You saw offensive formations that were unique to Saturday afternoons; Oklahoma’s wishbone, SMU’s power I, and the wide open passing offense of the BYU Cougars. College teams had bands with signature fight songs, devoted fan bases, and traditions that all made it a more appealing game to me.
The NFL of that era was more conformist. For the most part, quarterbacks handed off the ball on first and second down and threw on third, they never ran. The West Coast Offense was still developing in San Francisco, and although teams like the 49ers and San Diego were beginning the NFL’s evolution to the modern passing league it is today, most teams were still playing a more defensive-oriented, physical brand of football. The rule changes that would open up the game to more passing and scoring were still progressing but not complete.
It is not an exaggeration to say that when Walker arrived in Athens in 1980, college football had never seen a player quite like him before. There were big, strong, physical backs prior to Walker. Earl Campbell had just won the Heisman only three years earlier for Texas with the running style and aggression of an angry rhino; and back in the 1950’s Jim Brown had set the standard for big backs for generations to come. But Walker was the first one to bring bulk and truly world class speed to the position. Not even Brown could match the combination of size and speed that Walker possessed. He was the first one to usher in an era of freakishly athletic backs that would eventually include Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson, and years later Adrian Peterson, players that were not only well over six feet and 225 pounds ,but in most games, the fastest man on the field at any position.
Walker’s running style would best be described as utilitarian. He was not the type of player who would make video game style jump cuts the way Billy Sims and later Barry Sanders did, but what made Walker’s running style different was his gait. You just didn’t see anyone run with a football the way Walker did. As a track man, he ran straight up like a sprinter, until he would face off with some poor 180 pound defensive back, when he would drop his massive shoulders and just drive into the guy and send him sliding backwards on the turf like he was a blocking sled, or as in Bill Bates’ case in Walker’s first SEC game, flat on his back.
Whether you saw Walker at Georgia, in the USFL, or later in his career in the NFL, that signature look to his runs remained. Always perfect in his posture, like the sprinter that he was, he took what appeared to be little steps, and he wouldn’t even appear to be moving very fast, but once he squared his shoulders as he turned towards the secondary, he would pick up speed and blow past corners that had 4.4 speed themselves. It was at that point you would then realize just how fast he truly was.
But what I loved as a kid was watching Walker at the goal line. You want to know why fans of my generation smile at the mention of Walker? Find a video clip of some of his 53 touchdowns at Georgia. He wasn’t the first player to dive over the top of the line, Walter Payton was one of the best to ever do that move years earlier, but Walker took it to a different level. The man literally flew through the air, taking off at times from the three yard line, floating over the defenders, and landing a yard or two deep into the end zone. It was a combination of beauty and raw power that few athletes have ever displayed before or since.
I smiled as I watched the game between Georgia and Florida, circa 1981. The game not only featured Walker, but one of my favorite defensive players of all time in Wilbur Marshall. For those of you who didn’t see Marshall play, picture James Harrison, but taller and meaner. I only wished that it was the 1980 game, so I could watch Lindsay Scott take that pass from Buck Belue and streak across the field for a 92 yard touchdown in the final minute to break the hearts of the Gator faithful.
Listening to Jackson and his partner in the booth, Frank Broyles brought me back to the days when I discovered Walker and to a greater extent, the joyous spectacle of Southern Football. This was an incredible new world for a kid from New York who had never been further south than Pennsylvania. Jackson’s wonderful accent and colorful vocabulary combined with Broyle’s drawl and coaching lingo was a perfect match to teach me about an America that was foreign and beautiful to me. A place where it always seemed to be sunny on Saturdays, where cheerleaders looked so perfect you thought they were made in a lab, and fans wore elaborate costumes and colors worthy of a parade.
Part of the allure of Walker was the way he came out of nowhere to become the biggest college star of his era, and maybe of all time. Those surprises just don’t happen anymore. I know that Georgia fans and die hard college football followers had heard of the superstar freshman when he came up in 1980, but there wasn’t the massive exposure and hype that high school stars experience today with year-long scouting services and internet sites that make high school players celebrities before they even sign with a program.
Back then you would hear whispers of a great new freshman coming up, maybe a brief mention in Street and Smith’s College Football Preview, but that’s it. Things are far different today, when a star of Walker’s level would be on ESPN before he reaches the age of 17, and you can retrieve YouTube clips of virtually any major prospect in the country. What made those years great was the anticipation, the unknown. Sure, you may have heard stories of some great back with blinding speed that was “country strong” but until he made his debut on ABC’s game of the week, any freshman would be largely a mystery. I miss that.
In an era where watching television meant five channels, if you were lucky football Saturdays consisted of three games you could watch, not the 30 of today, so Saturday afternoons were sacred to me. Herschel was the first of many of my college heroes, followed by Mike Rozier, Bo Jackson, Chris Spielman, and countless others. They pulled me into a sport the way stars like Barry Sanders, Tim Tebow, and Cam Newton did for later generations.
Other remnants of the game I fell in love with as a kid are slowly being phased out. The wishbone is all but gone; as is the triple option, save for a few programs that are thankfully holding on. The spread and pistol dominate most programs now, and coaches will adapt and move on to other systems. That’s the way football progresses.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look back to the years that I was introduced to football with some revisionist “good ole days” attitude, save for those few gimmicks that I miss; the modern game is pure bliss for any college fan. Instead of the three or four games you would get on Saturday, now you can watch football from noon until midnight on just about every Saturday from early September until mid-November. Then there are about 50 bowl games to keep you going until January. The internet offers coverage that I would have eaten up when I was a stat obsessed teenager. Technology and modernization have helped the game immensely, not hindered it. And the best part of getting older is that I can actually afford to travel to places like Athens (next year I hope) and experience the beauty of the game in person.
You may not get the type of unexpected explosion onto the scene that Walker made back in 1980, but that is true of many types of entertainment. It’s like going to a movie expecting to feel the way you felt after watching Star Wars for the first time, the overwhelming feeling of “I can’t believe what I just saw.” It just doesn’t happen today. With endless previews, 24 hour news cycles and spoilers leaking out on a daily basis, the details of every blockbuster are known before its release.
But even though many things have changed, the key elements that drew me in over thirty years ago still remain. College players still play with a degree of emotion and passion that the pros can’t match. The fact that the alumni return each fall to maintain unique traditions like Toomer’s Corner, The Vol Navy and tailgating at the Grove are a testament to the love and devotion these fans have for their schools. Many of these fans were brought into this world by the greatest of all of these college traditions: the passing from one generation to the next the gift of being told, “This is your school.”
For others like myself, who didn’t have the familial connection or geographical link that brings in the bulk of college football fans, we can’t experience that special bond that comes with having “My Team.” But that suits me just fine, because thanks to a once in a generation player, I will always have “My Sport.”
So who was the first player that made you jump out your chair and cheer? What jersey did you HAVE TO HAVE that one Christmas? Who was your Herschel?