Lost Legacies: Herschel Walker Deserved The 1980 Heisman Trophy

Herschel Walker has enjoyed a storied career. He led the Georgia Bulldogs to their only national championship as a freshman in 1980. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. He was one of the first big-name players signed by the fledgling United States Football League out of college, temporarily spurning the NFL to play for the New Jersey Generals and their flamboyant owner, Donald J. Trump.

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Herschel eventually went to the NFL and was a star for the Dallas Cowboys. He capped his career by making the Cowboys a dynasty, when he was traded to the Vikings for a boatload of draft picks that turned into the core of a three-time Super Bowl winner.

All of that makes for an impressive career, even if the latter “achievement” comes about in a backhanded way. But Herschel should have one more feather in his cap—he deserves to be a multiple Heisman Trophy winner. He got robbed of the award in his freshman year of 1980.

George Rogers, the big physical running back out of South Carolina won the award and based purely on raw numbers, it’s a defensible vote. Rogers rushed for 1,781 yards compared to 1,616 for Walker. In an 11-game schedule, a 165-yard difference does count for something. Rogers also nipped Walker in yards-per-carry, 6.0 to 5.9. South Carolina went 8-3 in the regular season, their best performance since at least the late 1950s and probably ever, up to that time.

But Heismans are never given by raw numbers alone. Herschel’s total yards and yard-per-carry are good enough to put him in the conversation and there are two key performances that should push him over the top. One of them came in the regular season’s signature game, a 26-21 win over Florida. He took off for a 72-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play and finished with 238 yards.

Even more important for Heisman purposes is what happened one week earlier. Walker and Rogers went head-to-head in a high-profile game where South Carolina still had a shot at a major bowl bid. Rogers was good, with 168 yards, but Walker was better with 219, and his team won the football game, 13-10.

Georgia also played a significantly tougher schedule. In the world of 1980, this was a non-conference game. South Carolina, an independent, had played opponents like Pacific, Wichita State and the Citadel. Georgia had considerable leeway in putting together their own non-league slate. The SEC only played six conference games and most teams used that to load up on creampuffs (some things never change).

But the Dawgs weren’t one of them. They played Clemson, a team that would win the national title one year later. There was no opponent Georgia played that was as bad as Pacific, Wichita and the Citadel. That gives Rogers’ one edge—raw statistical superiority—a whole new perspective.

There’s really only one reason Walker didn’t win—because he was a freshman and until very recently, voters simply didn’t consider freshmen for the Heisman. It’s time for history to correct that. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin is the only player to win two Heisman Trophies, going back-to-back in 1974-75. Herschel Walker should be on that list as well, with a 1980 Heisman Trophy joining the award he deservedly won in 1982 on his mantle.