Georgia-Clemson … That’s What I See

“I think about all the good times that we had,
It makes me happy and it makes me sad.”

When I See This Bar (click to listen)
Kenny Chesney (2013)

It sounded like a small arms battle. Or, since I’ve never been in one, the way I figure a small arms battle must sound.

It was Labor Day afternoon 1982 in Athens, beautiful like a southern college campus tends to be on game day. Pretty Georgia girls and drunk Bulldog boys milled along the top end of Lumpkin Street, drinking and flirting and getting ready for that night’s game against Clemson. I believe the game was the first played at night in Sanford Stadium, and I know it featured the previous two national champions – Georgia having won the title in 1980, Clemson in 1981 – something that had not happened before in a season opener.

Of all the Georgia games I’ve been to, this one had the most exciting atmosphere.

That tension bubbled up about three hours before the game when two buses carrying Clemson’s football team to the stadium turned off Broad Street and started easing through the crowd.

As the Dog fans realized who was on the buses, they started flinging liquor bottles, beer cans, shoes, rocks, and anything they could launch. I mean it was a pelting of the first order. The buses sped up and got on past that strip of the street. I’ll never understand why Clemson coach Danny Ford had the buses take the route down Lumpkin, but it was something else. The Dogs were ready for the Tigers that night.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

The Fridge

The most famous player on the Clemson squad in 1982 was William “The Refrigerator” Perry and for some reason I couldn’t stand him.

I drove a little silver Chevette with a hatchback at the time. The night before the game, so we wouldn’t have to worry about a parking space the next day, a couple of buddies picked me up after I parked in a lot at the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin – right across from Sanford Stadium and old Stegeman Hall (a few hundred yards from where the Tiger buses would get showered). We walked from our apartment and tailgated there on game day … for me, nothing but fried chicken and cold caffeine. I was too hyped for the game to drink anything but Coke (which didn’t really calm me down come to think of it).

After the bus pelting, a couple of us went into the stadium as soon as the gates opened. There couldn’t have been ten people in there yet. We hustled down behind the hedges and stood back of the Clemson sideline. A few minutes later Danny Ford brought his Tigers – still in dress clothes, not uniforms – out for a walk down the field.

As they got close to us, we started really giving it to Ford and Perry. No cussing or anything, just silly stuff like holding up a thumb and hollering about whether Herschel Walker would play that night (he had an injured thumb) [as an aside – typing this as a middle-aged man is pretty humbling; I rarely raise my voice at a game – any game – anymore, and haven’t in a long, long time].

Ford and the Fridge were actually really cool. Ford laughed and shook his head at me when I asked where he parked his tractor. When I told Perry he was too fat to tackle Herschel he feinted like he was coming after me, and I scrambled up about 10 rows. I looked back and a bunch of the Tigers were doubled over laughing.

But, I just held up my thumb and laughed back. I’m from the Larry Munson school of Bulldog fandom (it’s bad for us and always about to get worse), but knew Georgia was going to win that game on that night.

Danny Ford and the Fridge.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

“I see a kid, coming into his own
and I see a man, learning to move on.”

Herschel had a sore thumb.

The best college running back I ever saw – here he is – was the story leading up to the Labor Day opener. Herschel Walker should have won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 1980 and would win it at the end of the 1982 season, but nobody knew if he’d play in the game that Labor Day night because he had a broken thumb. The Clemson game was special for Bulldogs of that era, probably more for Herschel than most.

Clemson had recruited him hard. He waffled back and forth between the Tigers and the Dogs for a long time, and the process wasn’t always pretty. Herschel didn’t sign with Georgia until Easter time of his senior year in high school, months later than usual for a top player. His recruitment was a drawn out affair full of intrigue and rumors, a saga that probably signaled the modern era of recruiting in college football (best captured a few years later by Willie Morris’ great The Courting of Marcus Dupree).

Herschel immediately led Georgia to a national title as a freshman in 1980, a season that included a tough 20-16 home win over Clemson. Herschel wasn’t the star of that game though, as Dog defensive back Scott Woerner had two long returns – one of a punt and one of a late interception – to secure the win.

The next year, Herschel’s sophomore campaign, the Tigers would handle the Bulldogs 13-3 at Death Valley, handing Georgia its only regular season loss during the Walker era. That game saw a Dog offense with about three times more fumbles than points. Herschel was kept in check by a Clemson defense the included three future NFL first-round picks in Terry Kinard, Jeff Bryant, and of course my future friend the Fridge. The win over the Bulldogs set the Tigers on their way to a national championship in 1981.

As the ’82 game approached, Walker’s thumb injury provided Georgia coach Vince Dooley an opportunity for a little scheming.

To call Dooley a conservative a coach would be akin to calling Barry Goldwater a conservative politician, but Vince had his moments. The Kirby Moore to Pat Hodgson to Bob Taylor 73-yard flea-flicker to upset Alabama in the 1965 season opener. The 1975 80-yard end-around pass from Richard Appleby to Gene Washington to knock off Florida. The man could pick his moments and he had picked one for the Tigers.

Leading up to the game, Dooley more or less insisted Herschel Walker wouldn’t play because of the thumb. However, in the second quarter – after Clemson jumped to a 7-0 lead courtesy of a fumbled snap – here came Herschel. As big #34 jogged to the huddle, Sanford Stadium cranked up like a jet getting ready for takeoff. Georgia quarterback John Lastinger turned to give the ball to Walker on the sweep play everybody expected (especially the Clemson defense) but instead handed it to speedy freshman Tron (Electron) Jackson on a reverse that went for a 40-yard touchdown. Although the euphoria was brief – the play was called back on a motion penalty – the momentum had shifted.

Herschel eventually convinced Vince to use him as more than a decoy and he would play quite a bit in the second half (he scored a touchdown but it was called back on another penalty). The Dogs would gnaw their way to a 13-7 lead, and finally hang on for the win when the “Tifton Termite” Nate Taylor intercepted a Clemson pass late in the game.

The game was over, the Dogs had won, and all was right with the world.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

It makes me happy and it makes me sad.