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Loran Smith: Herschel’s 1980 backup McMickens makes best of situation

Donnie McMickens, long a trivia question in Georgia football, has resigned himself to his status with an appreciation for its historical value and identity and a resignation that he turned a negative into a resounding positive.

At the time however, it was nothing less than a circumstance of ignominy in his mind. When, after due diligence and an underscoring of the work ethic to the fullest, he started the 1980 Tennessee game and subsequently saw Herschel Walker take over. After a half, Herschel became the starter and kick-started Georgia to a national championship. (McMickens, perhaps, got something of a premonition when he was issued his game jersey. His No. 27 jersey carried the No. 34 on the sleeves.)

What do you do when you lose your job? You can hire the nearest fiddler and have him deepen your depression with woe-is-me music for the downtrodden or you can experience a rebirth, find a home and make a contribution to the team.

The latter is exactly what McMickens did three days after Georgia defeated Tennessee in Knoxville on Sept. 6, 1980.

Vince Dooley, then Georgia’s coach, knew that McMickens would be down after losing his job.

The Bulldog coach took a proactive stance and called his one time starting tailback into his office to reinforce what McMickens already had been thinking about — he had just lost his job but it was to the best young running back in the country. Herschel was a rare talent, one with whom the Bulldogs could build a championship team. There was glory on the horizon. Happy days would likely be a constant for the University of Georgia.

If McMickens could work his way into starting status at tailback, albeit it brief and short termed, he could find a way to establish himself at another position and help the team.

It didn’t take McMickens long to get over his depression which had caused him a fitful two nights of sleep as the rest of Bulldogland celebrated the coming of Herschel. He began to think about his high school career in Cumming when he had to play both ways and also play on special teams. He became determined to turn a lemon into lemonade.

“Monday after the Tennessee game was tough on me,” he recalled in a conversation not long ago. “Actually, if I had known that Herschel was coming to Georgia, I would have asked to play linebacker. I like defense and I always believed I could excel on defense even though I considered myself a running back.”

When you think about Herschel’s size and speed, you realize that he had God given talent which would make it hard for anybody to compete with him.

“It was easy to see that we should be winning championships with Herschel in our lineup, and I wanted to be a part of a team that could win, so I made the adjustment and it turned out OK for me. I am grateful for the way things turned out.”

At the end of the season, Donnie was named “Special Teams Player of the Year.”

Today, McMickens feels good about managing the challenges which he has endured in life. In high school after his wrist was broken, his daddy wanted him to give up football. “I was too hooked on the game to pass on playing,” he remembered. While he, like the rest of his teammates, did not foresee a national championship, they believed that something special was in the making following the game in Knoxville.

“Today, when I look back,” McMickens said, “I am very proud to be a member of a national championship team. A title like that is something so special and it is forever. It is something nobody can take away from me. I am very thankful for having that wonderful experience.”

At the reunions of the 1980 team, Donnie gets an “electric” emotion when he walks onto the field at Sanford Stadium.

“Seeing all that red and black sends chills all over me. I think most players feel the same, they are proud to have played for Georgia and worn that “G.” I see that enclosed part (East end) of the stadium, and I say to myself, ‘I helped build that.’ Our 1980 team caused that expansion. We liked the (railroad) track and the track people, but we are proud of what we accomplished and what it led to.”

As honorary captain for this year’s Tennessee game, McMickens wants to take away a special memory for his children and grandchildren. It will be special for him in that his championship ring and his No. 27 jersey were stolen.

“Someday,” he said, “I need to replace that ring because of what it means to me. It is not worth that much when you think of it in terms of dollars, but emotionally it is worth a million.”

• Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald. Email him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu

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