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Sports Then and Now

30 Years Ago: Herschel Walker Leads Georgia to National Title

Posted on January 01, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Freshman Herschel Walker rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns to lead Georgia to victory over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl.

It is hard to believe that it has been more than 30 years since we were introduced to perhaps the best college football player of all-time. During his three seasons at the University of Georgia, Herschel Walker was in a class by himself as the prototype running back in college football.

As a freshman during the 1980 season, Walker burst on the scene with 1,616 yards rushing (5.9 yards per carry) to lead a Georgia team that had been 6-5 the previous season to a perfect 12-0 record and the first national championship for the school since 1942.

In the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1981, Walker rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns as the Bulldogs held off Notre Dame 17-10 to claim the national title. Other notable members of head coach Vince Dooley’s squad included quarterback Buck Belue, future NFL wide receiver Lindsay Scott and freshman defensive back Terry Hoage (who blocked a key kick early in the contest).

Over the following two seasons, Walker rushed for more than 3,600 yards as Georgia lost just one regular season game and won 18 straight SEC games to claim three straight league titles.

They went undefeated during the 1982 regular season as Walker was named the winner of the Heisman Trophy. The Bulldogs lost a chance at the national title with a 27-23 loss to Penn State in what would be Walker’s final collegiate performance.

Surprisingly, it would be 20 years before Georgia would claim another SEC Championship and they have yet to win another national championship.

Walker left following his junior season for the USFL and rushed for 5,562 yards in three seasons in the league. In 1985, he set the all-time professional football record for rushing yards in a season with 2,411 yards in 18 games.

When the USFL folded in 1986, Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys and teamed with Tony Dorsett to form a rare backfield that included two Heisman Trophy winners.

After splitting time during his first two seasons, Walker had his finest NFL season in 1988 when he rushed for 1,514 yards to finish second in the league.

It would prove to be the statistical high-point of his career. The following season he was part of a mega-trade between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys that helped reload the Cowboys, but sent Walker’s career on a different path.

Walker was never a good fit with the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings never used him in his established role as the featured running back. Instead, he became more of an all-purpose player being used some as a runner, receiver and kick returner. He led the NFL with 2,051 all-purpose yards in 1990, but never rushed for more than 825 yards in a season while with the Vikings.

Walker didn’t record his second 1,000-yard season in the league until 1992 with the Philadelphia Eagles.

He finished his NFL career with 8,225 career rushing yards while also catching passes for 4,859 yards and returning kicks for another 5,084 yards. His total of 18,168 career all-purpose yards ranks eighth in NFL history.

A great all-around athlete, Walker also ran track at Georgia and nearly made the U.S. Olympic team. He did end up in the Olympics as he competed in the two-man bobsled at the 1992 Winter Olympics (finishing seventh).  In 2010, at the age of 47, won his first professional fight in Mixed Martial Arts.

Walker may not have ended up as the greatest running back in professional football history, but he will always be remembered as a tremendous athlete and one of the best college football players of all-time.

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