This town is hot and covered with kudzu. In the afternoon, when it summons the courage to pull up from the small brown pasture next to the airfield, the Goodyear blimp flies overhead and the downtown traffic backs up. People point at the sky, pump their horns and shout, "How 'bout them Dogs," then move along bumper to bumper in the bright, burning romance of this new football season.
It seems of little matter that Herschel Walker turned pro and left poor Athens' jaw buried in the red Georgia earth. The town has decided to let him go, like a memory it figured best not to keep. When it rained the other night, it stormed. "We needed it," Coach Vince Dooley said. "It was time."
Nobody but the football team is here on campus, with classes not scheduled to resume for two weeks. Even the fraternity houses--where banners flapped in the dirty breeze all spring, screaming, "Why, Herschel, Why?"--are still in this blitz of dead time.
Between practices, some of the players turn their stereo speakers to the open windows in McWhorter Hall, the jock dorm, and rack the air with a raw, animal noise that only vaguely resembles music. Everybody's tired of mourning the loss of Herschel, tired of talking like weary preachers at a soldier boy's wake, tired of waiting for the UCLA Bruins to fly cross country and meet them Dogs between the hedges in Sanford Stadium Saturday night (WJLA-TV-7 at 9).
"Every new year you venture into the unknown," said Dooley. "I'm sure UCLA's approach in preparing for us will be entirely different since we don't have Herschel. They know one thing for certain, and that's that we won't be running Herschel right and Herschel left. I would certainly rather they knew we were, however, because right now I don't even know who'll do the running for us."
Dooley plans to start Barry Young at tailback. "Not in Herschel's shoes," Young admonishes. "But my own."
For three years, when he shared a dormitory room with Walker and a close friendship, it seemed "nobody knew my name," Young said. "Sometimes I felt lost in his shadow and there was nothing I could do about it. Now, though, if I run good enough, maybe people'll stop bugging me about who I'm replacing. Maybe that won't matter."
Since preseason workouts started in early August, Young has suffered no fewer stares than the bearded woman in a carnival freak show. Reporters from here to L.A. all want to know what it feels like replacing the man many consider the greatest running back in the history of college football.
"It feels like--I dunno, it feels good," Young replied with a certain lack of conviction. "I'm excited. I feel I can fill anybody's shoes; even Herschel's. I'm just trying not to let all this stuff effect me. I try not to worry about anything else but what I have to do out there when the game gets going. I'm not looking at it as something to prove. I just want the winning Georgia tradition to continue. That's all, really."
Young played fullback most of his career until last spring, when Dooley was faced with a yawning hole in his offense when Walker signed a three-year, $5 million contract with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Dooley moved Young to tailback, but says the 6-foot, 215-pound senior will also play fullback tonight.
But of all the tailbacks in the Georgia stable, David McCluskey, a freshman from Rome, Ga., has impressed Dooley the most: enough to draw comparisons with Walker. "In a football uniform, he looks a lot like Herschel," Dooley said. "They're similar in size and he's as strong as Herschel was. But the speed's where they're different. McCluskey's a mature freshman. We think he'll do good things."
Quarterback John Lastinger said, "McCluskey's a great running back. Being a freshman, though, it's hard to tell how he'll perform under pressure."
The pressure seems even greater this year. "Everybody will be watching us this week to see if we'll go up or down," Lastinger said. "It's hard to say what kind of team we are at this point, but the simple fact that we won in the past is instilled in us and we expect to keep it going. Herschel made a good team a great team. Now, without him, I suppose we'll be on the same wavelength as everybody else. In a way, it's real exciting, but if I had my choice, I'd want Herschel back."
Guy McIntyre, an offensive tackle, said, "It won't be like it used to be. It was Instamatic when Herschel got the ball. But a lot of people who don't know anything about football forget that when we missed blocks, he missed out, too. He got tackled. I guess people thought that when he got the ball he just knocked down the front line. That isn't how it works. We knocked down the front line."
The most obvious advantage of Georgia without Herschel is entering the season opener without the entire offensive weaponry laid bare before the opposition.
When UCLA Coach Terry Donohue and his staff met to study last year's game films of Georgia, the offensive schemes that spilled upon their video screen are not the ones they will see tonight. Dooley and Lastinger admit Georgia will be forced to open up its attack--using the pass, the run and ingenuity.
"True," Dooley said. "They'll have no idea what we'll do."
James Brown, an offensive tackle, said, "In a way, it'll be easier now that Herschel's gone. The advantage is that they won't know who's going to get the ball and what's going to happen when he gets it. The disadvantage, of course, is that Herschel's not back there to do it for us."
Dooley invited Walker to the game; Walker said he'd come, but neither the players nor Dooley say they know where he'll sit.
"I just know he won't be with us," Brown said. "And that's a significant loss to the team. But football is not played by just one man. We've got to prove that we can play without him. It's become a pride thing for all of us. It's the East against the West, the South again without Herschel Walker. There's no doubt that that should be incentive enough. Pride. It's all pride."