SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Two years ago, Herschel Walker apologized to his Georgia teammates from the 1980 national championship team. He’d just gotten the opportunity to watch for the first time ever in its entirety the game they played against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1981.
Afterward, he was compelled to say, “I’m sorry.”
What in the world would Walker be apologizing for, one might ask? Anybody who saw that game live or has read anything about it in the 37 years since knows Walker was named Most Valuable Player in that contest. Walker ran for 150 yards and scored two touchdowns in the game, which the Bulldogs won 17-10 to complete a perfect 12-0 season and be declared undisputed national championships. In fact, Walker outgained his own team by 23 yards that day.
But that wasn’t what was apparent to Walker when he watched replay of the last game against Notre Dame during the 35th reunion of the 1980 team on the jumbotron at Sanford Stadium.
“That was the first time I’d seen the whole game,” said Walker, a three-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner while playing for the Bulldogs. “When it was over, I went straight over to the defensive guys and apologized. I didn’t realize how long our defense was out there on the field in that game. Coach Erk (Russell) had those guys really, really playing defense, and they were on the field almost the whole game. I didn’t really play all that much at all. So I told those guys I was really sorry that we couldn’t keep them off the field more.”
Ah, Herschel, so humble, and yet so good.
As it turns out, Walker found himself apologizing to both the University of Georgia and his ’80 teammates again on Friday. He’s not going to be in South Bend when the Bulldogs and Notre Dame play a game for the first time since that fateful game nearly four decades ago. Likewise, he can’t be in Athens, where members of Georgia’s 1980 championship squad will be assembled to watch Saturday’s game on a 50-foot screen inside the new Indoor Athletic Facility.
But Walker needn’t ask forgiveness. As ever, he’s doing good work on his own.
Walker was in Hawaii on Friday speaking to military personnel on several U.S. bases. He was making appearances at Tripler Army Medical Center, at the U.S. Marine base at Kanneohe Bay and at Hickam Air Force Base at Pearl Harbor.
It’s something Walker does once a month for the United Health Services’ Patriot Support Program. Walker was diagnosed with disassociative identity disorder many years ago and went public with his struggle in his book Breaking Free in 2008. Since then he has been advocating for people who also suffer from mental health issues to seek help, especially individuals in the U.S. military.
It just so happened that his appearances this month conflicted with the Bulldogs’ game against Notre Dame in South Bend. The No. 15 Bulldogs (1-0) face the 24th-ranked Fighting Irish Saturday night at 7:43 p.m. (NBC).
“NBC did a little story on Tim Brown and myself and I was going to try to get there for the game,” Walker said in a phone call from Wakiki Beach Friday morning. “We were going to try to fly from here to Chicago and get there at 6 in the morning. But we wouldn’t have had any sleep and we decided to not put that stress on ourselves. You can see it fine on TV, so we’re going to try to get home to Dallas in time to watch it on television.”
So Georgia will have to go press on without Walker. But the Bulldogs apparently will have 10s of thousands of fans here in South Bend supporting them. How many actually make it inside Notre Dame Stadium remains to be seen.
Tickets have been extremely hard to come by. UGA was provided only 8,400 tickets – 400 of which must go to the Redcoat Band – and season-ticket holders had to have donated at least $67,000 over the total years of their giving or $10,000 the last year to qualify to buy the $170 face-value seats. So orders for at least 10,000 tickets went unfulfilled.
That has left them and thousands of other UGA fans seeking a way in through the secondary ticket market. That has made the Georgia-Notre Dame ticket, “highest-demand game of the 2017 college football season,” according to Steve Egan, vice president of distinctive events for Anthony Travel, the nation’s premier agency for sports-event travel.
Evidence in Chicago and South Bend on Thursday and Friday suggests Georgia fans weren’t letting ticket availability or price keep them from coming. Thousands of them were attending the Chicago Cubs-Milwaukee Brewers baseball game on Friday night at Wrigley Field. Vince Dooley, head coach of that 1980 national championship team and longtime football coach and athletic director, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Many other fans are staying over in Chicago after the Notre Dame game to catch the Atlanta Falcons playing the Chicago Bears in their NFL opener at Soldier Field. Some hardy souls, such as Jeff Pierce of Bishop and his friends, actually went to the White Sox game Friday night an attempt to achieve the “Superfecta” of sports entertainment.
But for all of them, Georgia’s game against the Irish.
“As soon as this game was scheduled, I knew we were coming,” said Pierce, who makes a big sports trip with his four buddies every year.
There is, however, the rather weighty matter of the actual contest between these two powerhouse college football programs. Notre Dame is, of course, one of the most storied and successful football programs of all time. The Fighting Irish have laid claim to 11 national championships. That last came in 1988.
Georgia has only two consensus titles all time, the one in 1980 and another one in 1942. However, the Bulldogs were also undefeated in 1946 at 10-0. As it was, Notre Dame’s 8-0-1 was proclaimed national champion in all but one poll.
That won’t be a score these teams aim to settle Saturday night. There are much more pressing modern-day matters, such as both of these teams trying to return to national prominence. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly narrowly escaped ouster after going 4-8 in his seventh season in South Bend. And the Bulldogs’ fan base was also left distraught after an 8-5 season in their first year under new coach Kirby Smart.
Even though Georgia comes in as the higher ranked team, Las Vegas has favored Notre Dame by as many as 6.5 points, and the Irish were getting a solid five points on average as they prepared for their on-campus pep rally Friday night.
At least some of the doubt about the Bulldogs surrounds their issue at the quarterback position. Starter Jacob Eason injured his left knee in the first quarter of the season-opening win over Appalachian State last Saturday. That means that true freshman Jake Fromm will have the reins of Georgia’s offense for tonight’s game. Fromm’s work in relief (10-of-15, 143 yards, 1 TD) was solid, but how well he plays in his first start on the road at night in one of the most storied venues in all of college football is a matter of great debate coming in.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, he’s a freshman and he’s only had a couple of snaps,’” Notre Dame’s Kelly said. “But I’ve been in this game for a while and he certainly has a presence about him and he’s very comfortable running the Georgia offense. We go into this game expecting to see a guy in Jake very capable of running that offense and doing the things necessary to be successful.”
Notre Dame is also playing a first-year starter at quarterback. Brandon Wimbush is no freshman, however. A sophomore in eligibility and a junior as a student, he appeared in two games as a freshman and was impressive enough during a redshirt season last year that the Irish didn’t blink when Deshone Kizer turned pro and Malik Zaire bolted for Florida.
Notre Dame features a beastly offensive line, anchored by 6-8, 315-pound All-American tackle Mike McGlinchey and three other seniors who have 79 career starters between them. Behind them, the Irish pounded out 422 yards rushing in a 49-16 victory over Temple last Saturday.
Conversely, Georgia’s defense is its perceived strength, with 10 starters and all of its formidable front seven back from one of the SEC’s top units. Injuries have left the Bulldogs shaky in the secondary, but their front should be one of the best Notre Dame has faced.
The teams are similarly matched in all the other areas of competition, so a tight contest is expected. The Bulldogs certainly want to put on a good show for what locals are saying may be the largest opposing fan influx since Nebraska visited in what they came to call “Big Red Sea” of 2000.
Reportedly there were 30,000 Cornhuskers in town for that one. Georgia’s fan base is trying to give them a run.
“We know a lot of our fan base is planning on going up there,” Smart said. “I think these kind of games in college football are really cool because you get to go play somebody that you don’t normally play. I know our fan base is really excited. Our team is excited. I mean it will be the first team ever from Georgia to get to go to South Bend.”
It’ll be a real who’s who for both teams. Members of Notre Dame’s last national championship squad, and others of that era, will be in town for the game and making an appearance at the infamous Linebacker Lounge at noon Saturday. Among them, Tim Brown, Chris Zorich, Pat Terrell and Michael Stonebreaker.
Scott Woerner is among the 1980 Bulldogs who will be on hand. His nephew, Charlie Woerner, plays tight end for the current team.
Unfortunately the biggest, baddest Bulldog of all time won’t. But Herschel Walker will be with them in spirit. And he had a lot of advice to share with the Georgia team that will be competing in primetime Saturday night.
“They can beat Notre Dame,” Walker said emphatically. “If they stay together no matter what happens – bad things always happen in a game – but if they don’t let that deter them from doing what they got there to do, they’ll beat Notre Dame. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Whether it’s the defense, whether it’s the offense, just get out of there with the win and I guarantee you that will boost Georgia more than anyone could believe.
“This is a pivotal game for both clubs. And when Georgia beats Notre Dame – when, not if – people are going to recognize that they’ve got a chance of beating Alabama. Everybody’s picking Alabama to win the west and I’ve already said that Georgia’s going to win the East. And I think they can beat Alabama. I know it’s early to be saying that, but I feel like they’ve got the club to do that.”
The Bulldogs would feel even better if they had ol’ 34 to put in the game. Or maybe just standing on the sideline.