If Todd Gurley has indeed played his last game for Georgia — quoting a source, the AJC is reporting that he might not be allowed to return this season — the sensation would be the same sadness as in February 1983, when the greatest collegiate player ever jumped to the USFL with a year of eligibility remaining.
With this difference: Herschel Walker had already lifted the Bulldogs to a national championship and three SEC titles. Todd Gurley, the greatest Bulldog since the matchless Herschel, hadn’t done any of the above. Gurley had come close to the SEC part in 2012, when five more yards against Alabama would have put Georgia in the BCS title game against Notre Dame — and yes, it was against Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1981, that Herschel gained 150 yards with a bum shoulder and secured one of the most improbable national championships ever.
If I hadn’t seen Herschel with my own eyes each of his three seasons, I might have been tempted to declare Gurley his equal. Every week, No. 3 would do something — jump over defenders, helicopter five yards for a touchdown, complete a 50-yard pass — that would leave me with the same sense of awe that came from watching No. 34.
Walking up the Sanford Stadium steps last Saturday, I told Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that I thought Gurley was going to win the Heisman, which is something I’d never really believed about any Bulldog post-Herschel. (Not Eric Zeier, not Garrison Hearst, not Matthew Stafford, not Knowshon Moreno.) I’d gone beyond thinking Gurley should win to believing he absolutely would. Now he probably won’t. And that, pardon the bad pun, is a doggone shame.
A two-game suspension might still leave him with a Heisman shot. Missing four games would not. Missing any games will compromise his team’s ability to win, but that goes without saying. So why did I say it? Because sometimes being sad makes you state the obvious just to make yourself feel sadder.
I’m sad that the greatest Bulldog since Herschel might be leaving like Herschel, who was revealed to have signed with the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling (and short-lived) USFL after insisting he hadn’t, without achieving like Herschel. I’m sad that Gurley could have cut short his Georgia career to sign memorabilia for money, as if the example of A.J. Green wasn’t still fresh among Bulldogs. I’m sad that Gurley might have hurdled his last collegiate defender. I’m sad that this season of promise — as of 5 p.m. Thursday, Georgia had to be considered the SEC East favorite –could, as so many UGA seasons have, leave everyone wondering, “What if?’
The NCAA rules may be picayune, but they’re clear: Beyond the cost of your scholarship, you cannot profit as a college player. If you do, there’s a chance you’ll no longer be a college player. It’s a shame that this happens so often, but a student-athlete should know better. Gurley had only three months to go before he could declare for the NFL draft, an option that wasn’t available to Herschel in 1983. If it turns out Gurley just couldn’t wait that long, the shame will fall on him.
If we no longer get to watch Gurley in Red & Black, the sadness will be ours, and by that I mean us neutrals as well as Georgia backers and even opposing fans. It’s not often any of us get the chance to see true greatness. We’d seen true greatness, at least on the field, from Todd Gurley this season. If he wasn’t quite as great as Herschel, it was only because Herschel was the best there ever was.
Herschel left having done it all — elevated his team to the highest heights and hoisted the Heisman to boot — and the remorse over him leaving early soon faded. Even after being caught in a lie, the man from Wrightsville had done Georgia proud. Todd Gurley had put himself and his team in position to work similar wonders, but there’s a real chance he is — pop culture reference — a gone Gurley.
If so, he’d be gone too soon, like Herschel before him. But unlike Herschel, who did it all, Gurley would be gone having left so much undone.