Bates meets Herschel

One of the real perks of being a sports writer is the opportunity to watch some of the all-time great athletes blossom right before your eyes. That's what I saw on the evening of Sept. 6, 1980 at Neyland Stadium.

Johnny Majors' unranked Tennessee Vols appeared well on their way to upsetting Vince Dooley's 16th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the '80 opener for both teams. Then Dooley inserted a freshman tailback named Herschel Walker. He had a rare combination of speed and power but he'd dominated inferior high school competition, so no one knew how good he might be.

We were about to find out, though.

With Georgia at the Vol 16-yard line, Walker burst through a hole and found only one man between himself and a touchdown. That man was Vol safety Bill Bates. Though only a 6-foot, 190-pounder, Bates – pound for pound – probably was Tennessee's most physical player.

Bates lowered his shoulder but Herschel lowered the boom, bowling over the Vol defender as if he were a cardboard cut-out. Walker scarcely broke stride as he powered his way into the end zone, igniting a comeback that would see Georgia prevail 16-15.

The Vols lost another heart-breaker the following Saturday, 20-17 to Southern Cal, and never recovered – finishing the 1980 season with a 5-6 record. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, would go 11-0 and win the national title. Herschel, of course, went on to win the 1982 Heisman and enjoy a tremendous career in the National Football League. I was lucky enough to see his first college touchdown ... and at a much safer distance than Bates did.

Regardless, Herschel's steamrolling of Bates recently showed up at espn.com on an Ivan Meisel retrospective called "The 100: The plays, performances and moments that define college football." Meisel ranked that play No. 36.

As noted earlier in this space, Tennessee also showed up in Meisel's rankings at No. 70 (when the Vols turned Clint Stoerner's fumble into a 28-24 defeat of Arkansas in 1998), No. 75 (Gene McEver's 98-yard return of the opening kickoff in UT's stunning upset of Alabama in 1928) and No. 94 (Boston College's use of a Bob Neyland trick play to defeat Tennessee in the 1941 Sugar Bowl).

Here's what Meisel had to say about Walker's battering of Bates:

#36

WALK TO REMEMBER

Knoxville, Tenn. | Sept. 6, 1980

Conservative Georgia coach Vince Dooley would dance naked at midfield before he would start a freshman. But with Tennessee leading Georgia 15-2 in the 1980 opener, Dooley placated the fans clamoring for rookie tailback Herschel Walker. From the Tennessee 16, Walker collided with Vols safety Bill Bates at the 5 - and ran over him, dragging Bates into the end zone. Georgia won 16-15. A career - and a legend - came to life.


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