BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE — At age 57, Herschel Walker is as ripped as the 20-year-old man-child in Georgia’s backfield who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. That alone is somewhat of a physical wonder.
Walker played professional football for 15 years. During that time, he competed in the Olympics on the U.S. bobsled team and dabbled in ballet. Since then, he has engaged in mixed martial arts, compiling a 2-0 record for Strikeforce with his last match coming in 2011.
The perfect son of the South remains a perfect symbol of the South and the game it adores on this 150th anniversary of college football. The collisions, the fame, the expectations, even football itself hasn’t been able to diminish him. Quite the opposite: Walker is the consummate human monument to the region that produced him.
And it all hinged on the flip of a coin.
“A lot of people didn’t know I was going to the Marines,” Walker told a rapt roomful of reporters last month at SEC Media Days. “I ended up flipping a coin. That’s how I ended up going to the University of Georgia.”
One of the best athletes of the 20th — or any other century — recounted how he slow-played his signing with Georgia into April so that the Marines were still an option.
“On Easter Sunday, my mom said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time you decide what you want to do?'” Walker recalled. “‘As long as your mind and your heart are pure with Lord Jesus, it really doesn’t matter about your decision.'”
So the first coin flip was between the military and college. It came up college.
“Crap,” Walker said.
Then it was Georgia vs. Clemson. Georgia won.
The Bulldogs then took on USC in another career-deciding coin flip. Walker always loved California. It came up Georgia again.
“Sometimes,” Walker concluded, “… God will take care of you.”
Immortality isn’t always that simple. We now know one pillar of Southern football hung on fortune. But a century and a half into its existence, college football’s roots are not only implanted in the South, the game’s identity resides there.
Herschel or not.
Ask some of the participants.
“In the SEC, [opposing fans] don’t give you the thumbs down; you get the one-finger salute everywhere you go,” said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who played at Georgia, worked at four of the 14 SEC schools and led two (Florida).
“I lived in Alabama; it was always put down,” said ESPN host Paul Finebaum, a long-time voice of Southern football. “It was forced to defend sometimes the indefensible in terms of history. It was 49th or 50th in every category imaginable. It was first in football. It gave the citizens of the state a sense of pride. It gave them something to fight back with when they were kicked and spat upon in their mind by people up North.”
“What’s the difference between the SEC Network and Big Ten Network?” asked “Mr. College Football,” Atlanta-based sportswriter Tony Barnhart. “It’s really simple. If you live in the Big Ten footprint and you don’t get the network, you’re going to call your cable provider. But if you live in the SEC footprint and you don’t get the SEC Network, somebody’s house is going to get burned down. That’s the difference.”
“It dawns on me [college football] is beyond rationality,” said Diane Roberts, a Florida State professor whose family roots in the state of Florida go back to 1799. “It makes no sense.”
College football is Southern pride in a 90,000-seat stadium. It’s just different in the South than in any other part of the country. It’s a pride that worships the other pillars of football in the South. They’re named Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Eddie Robinson, Bo Jackson and Tim Tebow.
It’s a pride that is celebrated by the South’s greatest wordsmiths. Former Atlanta Journal sports editor Lewis Grizzard was once syndicated in 450 newspapers. Willie Morris once wrote 452 pages on the recruitment of Marcus Dupree.
Football in the South is a currency, a way to define your social status. Football as a way to define your existence.
That status might mark you as “T-shirt alumni,” someone who never came close to college but still pulls for the local U. It might mean you pour all your disposable income into an RV that arrives on campus Thursday to tailgate for a Saturday night game.
It means whether you wear jorts, skinny jeans, a sundress or a bow tie, you fit in. As long as there is a place to hide the flask.
In the South, it means never losing a halftime if you’re one of the legendary marching bands at historically black universities in the region. It means lives revolving around Friday night lights, Saturday afternoons and the NFL on Sunday.
It means an assembly line of NFL quarterbacks in the Manning household alone.
“Other than the father,” family patriarch Archie Manning said, “the high school football coach has done more to turn boys into men than anyone.”
It means a question that could become eternal: Who’s better Bear Bryant or Nick Saban?
It means culture shock as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, an Ohio native who last year transferred from Ohio State, found out first hand: “I always tell the story during camp. I went to get a salad and everybody started making fun of me. I eat salad. People in Louisiana don’t like to eat salad.”
Louisiana native Jacob Hester played fullback on the 2007 LSU national championship team. It is said that a poor man can walk through an LSU tailgate and get enough to eat and drink without spending a dime.
“We’ll fry anything,” Hester said. “If you serve it at a tailgate, it better be damn good. By the time you leave an LSU tailgate, you can barely walk and your pants size goes up two sizes.”
That Southern pride has never been stronger. Beginning in 2006, the SEC won seven consecutive national championships. Teams from Southern states have won 12 of the last 13 with Clemson, Florida State and Texas joining their SEC brethren. You shouldn’t have to be told Saban has won five titles at Alabama since 2009. That is unprecedented.
So is the South’s dominance in almost all areas football these days. The last three winners of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the defensive players of the year, have been from the South. Eight of the last 14 first quarterbacks taken in the NFL Draft each year were from Southern schools.
Brazil produces the best strikers in soccer. Canada exports the best hockey players. The Southeast leads the world in producing defensive linemen. Clemson last year had its entire starting line drafted in the first four rounds.
Who is the next Dabo Swinney? A rarity for starters. Just find the latest wide receivers coach promoted to interim head coach who becomes head coach, gets off to a mediocre start then posts eight consecutive double-digit win seasons and captures two national championships before age 50. Oh, and that candidate also has to be a former Alabama walk-on receiver from Birmingham, Alabama.
Only in the South are there two Death Valleys. One (at LSU) is a living, breathing being that comes alive at night. The other (at Clemson) was a nightmare to visit long before it housed the national champs.
“We always thought, ‘Well, we can’t beat [the North] in industry, but we can beat them in football.'”Tony Barnhart
No surprise the best college football in the country is being played in the quaint small town in the north central part of South Carolina. Clemson was 20 years from being founded (1889) when Princeton and Rutgers first played the game.
It is the first college program in 121 years to go 15-0.
“Obviously, the level we can play at, I don’t think anyone is there right now,” Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence said.
There is a reason Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany reportedly wanted to add some combination of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech to his conference during expansion. In 2005, the Census Bureau declared 88 percent of the population growth in the United States would occur in the Sun Belt.
More population means more potential eyes on televisions. Delany failed to land those ACC teams. (The ACC is capitalizing this week on that Sun Belt population spurt by launching its own network this year.)
Let’s not forget the great Roy Kramer who made it all possible in the modern era. The former SEC commissioner had the idea to start a conference championship game in 1992. That was the year the SEC split into two divisions and played the first major conference title game.
Steve Spurrier led to Phil Fulmer who led to Urban Meyer who led to Saban. Those four coaches won 14 of the 26 SEC Championship Games.
“The South, it is a way of life,” Spurrier said. “For some reason, the sport of football, the winner and the loser, it really means something to each side. … You got braggin’ rights for the year. It’s a sport where the players and coaches and their fans, if you win, you feel like you’re a little smarter than the other guys and you’re a little tougher than the other guys.”
Even if feeling way that way makes no sense at all. In the South, football is part of the population’s self-worth, self-esteem and self-examination.
“Having grown up in the South, you have to understand how we evolved from the Civil War on,” Barnhart said. “We were the agrarian South, and the industrialized North kind of looked down their nose at us. We always thought, ‘Well, we can’t beat them in industry, but we can beat them in football.'”
After the Civil War, the South had to rebuild both physically and mentally.
The 1926 Rose Bowl might have been a turning point. Just 60 years after the Civil War, Alabama traveled to Pasadena, California, for its first bowl game. The Tide beat a foreign squad from the Pacific Northwest (Washington) 20-19. That was the first of 17 national championships claimed by Alabama.
Don’t take our word for it. The result of that game is written into the Alabama fight song.
“I’m no longer surprised by any of it,” Roberts said. “I taught at Alabama, my first real job. I loved Tuscaloosa. I thought I knew football crazy. I did not. It was so extreme. They get to the liquor store at 7 a.m. on game days.”
It is the human condition taken to an extreme. An Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke became a national story in 2011 when he poisoned Auburn’s legendary oak trees. Those trees at the corner of College and Magnolia are “rolled” with toilet paper after each Tigers win.
“They mourned those trees like it was a death,” Finebaum said. “I don’t know how you explain that to people. I had people from the Northeastern corridor saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Yes, it’s part of your life. These aren’t just trees. These are cornerstones of people’s memory banks.”
College football didn’t start in the South. In fact, it spread from the Northeast to the Midwest to the West before catching on in the Southeast. The Big Ten was founded in 1896. The SEC came along 37 years later. The ACC didn’t start until 1953.
Along the way, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland 222-0 in 1916 on the same Grant Field that stands today as part of the oldest stadium (Bobby Dodd Stadium) in the game.
Let’s not forget Grambling’s Eddie Robinson or Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither. Before and after integration, they are both considered among college football’s greatest coaches. Robinson’s 408 wins are the third most all-time. Bobby Bowden at Florida State (377) is No. 4. In their own way, they all revolutionized the game.
Bowden literally gave FSU its identity as a university. The folksy Saint Bobby took a former teacher’s college on the road to take on all comers. The list of “victims” is still buried in the school’s “sod cemetery.”
“My heroes were college coaches,” said former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville.
Now age 64, the Arkansas native is running for senate in Alabama. The challenge there may be beyond his beating the Crimson Tide six straight times as Auburn’s coach. As a senator, the former Tigers’ coach would be tasked with uniting a state that is divided at birth between Alabama and Auburn.
“What it meant to people in this state and in the South, ain’t nothing but college football,” said Tuberville, who won 159 games at Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati. “Being other places after I left Auburn, it was hard to get over the magnitude how important the game was.”
Asked if he’ll go by “Senator” or “Coach” should he win, Tuberville said, “I’ve earned [it] 40 years being a coach. I don’t think I’ll be known any other way.”
Football in the South was also a place where water was optional, as outrageous as that might sound today.
“One of my claims is, I was in the first class that Coach Bryant actually sent water to,” said Major Ogilvie, who played in Bryant’s wishbone from 1977-80, winning two national championships. “Up until that point, it was all about being mentally tough.”
“Coach Bryant used to say, his own experience was football was a way to get off the farm,” said Ogilvie, now a 60-year-old concrete executive in Birmingham. “I think a lot of that still is a motivating factor. People want a better life.”
In that sense, not much has changed in the South. Ogilvie saw his first Iron Bowl with his brother in 1969.
“We were told to walk to Gate 7 to meet our parents,” he said. “On the way, a fight broke out in front in front of us between Alabama and Auburn fans. That was an indoctrination.”
Football in the South is about tradition, too. When Georgia beat Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, Barnhart said, “those feelings, I promise you, go back to 1865.”
“It wasn’t just a big deal for Georgia to win the national championship, it was a big deal to beat Notre Dame, that symbol of North supremacy,” he added.
It’s about disgrace. The Arety’s Angels episode cost Mike Price the Alabama job before he ever coached a game.
It’s about survival.
“An SEC football game is like a knife fight in a ditch,” Barnhart said. “You got a knife, he’s got a knife, and you got nowhere to go.”
It’s about those pillars, still standing today.
Muschamp grew up a big Herschel Walker fan in Rome, Georgia. His dad then moved to Gainesville, Florida, where Muschamp began pulling for the Gators.
In 1980, Walker ran for 1,616 yards as an 18-year-old freshman with 238 of those yards coming in a season-defining 26-21 win for Georgia over Florida.
Whenever the game is replayed on the SEC Network, Muschamp makes his kids watch just for the sheer history.
“I cried that day the Gators lost. I was devastated,” Muschamp said.
Walker kept running — into history.
Football in the South has never slowed down.