Former Georgia lineman Jeff Harper looks back on 1981 Sugar Bowl

ALPHARETTA, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) – It’s been 36 years since Georgia won a football national championship.

In 1980, the Bulldogs stormed through the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record. Not long after beating Georgia Tech 38-20 in Sanford Stadium, they learned they’d play Notre Dame for a national title.

The 1981 Sugar Bowl was at the five-year-old Superdome in New Orleans.

“You realize we’re here to play football,” says Jeff Harper. “We’re not here to enjoy New Orleans. You want to enjoy New Orleans, but in the back of your mind, you’re going, ‘We’re here to play football.’ And that was our mindset. It was kind of like a business trip.”

It was a business trip unlike any Georgia had ever seen or seen since.

Harper grew up in Macon and played high school football at Monroe Academy. In 1980, his senior year at the University of Georgia, he was the Bulldogs’ starting left tackle on an often overlooked offensive line.

“We were better than a lot of people think,” he says. “They can call us overachievers or whatever, but there was talent there. Then you look at Herschel (Walker). Herschel will be the first one I think to tell you, ‘I don’t care how good you are, if you don’t have a hole to run through, you’re not going to go very far.'”

The game plan that season was to give Walker the football. It was no different when the Dawgs met the Fighting Irish on that January day in Louisiana.

“You don’t change anything that got you there,” Harper says. “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, but a lot of people don’t realize Herschel got his shoulder separated.”

“When he got his shoulder hurt early in the game, I said, ‘Oh my God. We’re not going to win,” remembers Ronald Fritchley of Gainesville, who attended the game with his wife, Martha. “But he wanted to play.”

“He goes over to the sideline and tells you how tough he is and what a competitor he is,” Harper says. “They pop it back in place, and he comes back out.”

Not only did Walker go back out, he finished with 150 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The most memorable play of the game was his second quarter score that gave Georgia the lead for good.

“You know, I remember Herschel going over the top,” says Andy Jones, who traveled to the game as a senior trip in high school.

“Him not going straight forward but going over all of these players and scoring,” Martha Fritchley says. “I mean, we just all went bonkers. It was tremendous.”

It’s hard to look past Walker’s performance, but there were other moments worthy of praise, including the kickoff that set up that over-the-top touchdown.

“The kickoff–you know, how many times have you seen where somebody kicks off and nobody fields the ball?” Harper asks. “Nobody fields the ball! How does that happen?”

The final score that day was 17-10, Dawgs on top. After the game, Harper did have a little fun.

“I had to block a guy named Scott Zedek, and Scott was a great football player. He was 6’5″, 6’6″, 270, and I’m 6’3” and at the time I weighed about 242 and I’m playing left tackle, so I’ve got my hands full with Scott all day. After the ball game he wants to trade jerseys. He says, “I want to give you my Notre Dame jersey and let me have your Georgia jersey.’ My whole thought process was and my mentality was, ‘Partner, this is a national championship jersey. Your jersey’s not worth anything to me.'”

That priceless jersey now hangs in Harper’s office, a constant reminder of that unbeaten season.

In Athens, there’s a bronze statue of Harper and a teammate carrying coach Vince Dooley off the field after the team finished the regular season unbeaten.

“Nobody picked us to win the national championship that year,” Harper says. “But I look back on it and just think, right place right time. Wherever I go, whatever I do, it’s always somehow or another, ‘He played at Georgia. He played on the national championship team.’

“It could be a lot worse,” he says with a laugh. “I could be Herschel Walker.”

It’s a good thing Walker did go back in the game that day.

Georgia completed just one pass: Buck Belue connected with Amp Arnold in the fourth quarter to seal the championship win.

Harper is the proud owner and operator of Capital City Stucco in metro Atlanta.

Categories: Across Georgia Sports, Sports

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *