With the city rivalry game being played that Friday night in Brunswick, I initially hadn’t planned to cover Georgia’s 1980 season opener the next night, on Sept. 6, when the Bulldogs were scheduled to face Tennessee at the Volunteers’ Neyland Stadium.
After all, this Glynn Academy-Brunswick High showdown — their first of two meetings that season — was a big deal for all the football fans in southeast Georgia and too, you must know it’s a long way from Brunswick, down on the Atlantic Ocean, to the hills of Knoxville, Tenn.
So with the task of getting a sizable game story in The Brunswick News the next day and just the simple logistics of making such a lengthy, hurried drive to Tennessee on Saturday, I was content to take in the Dawgs-Vols game via television that evening.
But that Friday night, as I walked up the steps to the press box at old Lanier Field, Glynn County schools athletic director Frank Inman — the former UGA assistant coach on Vince Dooley’s first staff — greeted me at the door. He told me he and several other Georgia fans were flying to Knoxville the next day to take in the Bulldogs’ opening game, that they had an extra seat on the plane and would I like to go? Of course, presented with that traveling opportunity, it took me only one second to accept Inman’s offer.
After all, I had witnessed Herschel Walker’s final high school game at Johnson County and now here was my chance to also cover Herschel’s coming-out party in a Georgia uniform. Next step for me, however, was to maneuver press credentials from the University of Tennessee and in this business, this is something you always have to request well ahead of the game itself … certainly not the night before or on the day of the game. But through the help of my longtime friend, UGA sports information director Claude Felton, I was able to quickly arrange the press box seat at the Volunteers’ famous venue.
Georgia was coming off a disappointing 6-5 season in 1979 and despite all the hoopla surrounding the recruitment of Walker, the nation’s No. 1 prospect who waited until Easter Sunday to sign with the Bulldogs, many Georgia fans were questioning how much improvement the team could make in the upcoming ‘80 campaign.
However, the so-called national experts, apparently thinking the Bulldogs’ offense was going to be given a big shot of adrenaline by Walker, had deposited Georgia into the No. 16 spot in the preseason rankings.
It appeared that ranking was way off the mark when the Volunteers of Johnny Majors, playing before the largest crowd (to that time) to ever see a college football game in the south, bolted into a 15-0 lead on the Bulldogs, who had broken out the red pants for their season debut. Tennessee led 9-0 at the halftime break and would tack on another touchdown with four minutes left in the third quarter.
But then came Georgia’s first break. When Vols safety Bill Bates fumbled a punt after a vicious hit by Joe Happe, both teams scrambled for the ball but neither could control it as it went through the end zone for a safety. Yes, the Bulldogs were now on the board but still, they trailed Tennessee by a 15-2 tally with just over three minutes remaining in the third.
Georgia’s starting tailback that night was junior Carnie Norris and all during the game’s first half I think everyone’s eyes — in the Neyland seats and press box alike — were focused on No. 34 on the UGA sidelines, wondering when Dooley was going to send him into the game or, indeed, if Walker was going to play in this first game at all? After all, during preseason camp, Dooley had downplayed Herschel’s potential and running ability. But Dooley did decide to give Walker a few snaps late in the second quarter, though nothing much positive immediately resulted from Herschel’s first collegiate football appearance.
But ah, then came that second half under the lights in Knoxville.
Late in the third quarter after Georgia notched the safety, Herschel Walker was at tailback and, well, the rest is glorified Red and Black history … Herschel running over future Dallas Cowboy Bates on a 16-yard touchdown run and Larry Munson screaming up in the press box, “He’s running all over people! Oh you, Herschel Walker! My God Almighty, he ran right through two men. Herschel ran right over two men. They had him dead-away inside the nine. Herschel Walker went 16 yards. He drove right over orange shirts, just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!”
Walker’s score and Rex Robinson’s PAT kick pulled the Dawgs within 15-9 with 1:03 left in the third period. Walker then tallied his second collegiate touchdown early in the fourth quarter, on a toss sweep left of nine yards (followed by Robinson’s decisive extra point kick), to lead the Bulldogs to a stirring 16-15 comeback victory over Tennessee which, as we all know by now, would be the first step toward Georgia’s journey to a perfect 12-0 season and the 1980 national championship.
That season, the media could talk to UGA freshmen following a game and I will never forget the huge throng of newspapermen that surrounded Herschel Walker in the somewhat cramped interview room in the bowels of Neyland Stadium. We all knew that night we were seeing the beginning of something special.
In Two Weeks in Tennessee Issue, No. 9, The Most Hyped Georgia-Auburn Game Ever