The Big Toe From Cairo
BOBBY WALDEN punted his way to football immortality
Drive along Georgia Highway 84 East between Bainbridge and Cairo and you’re sure to see the large green and white sign proclaiming this stretch of road to be “Bobby Walden Highway.”
Yes, it refers to that Bobby Walden, the one so aptly named “The Big Toe from Cairo,” by longtime UGA Sports Information Director Dan Magill.
A leading punter in the Southeastern Conference and UGA’s punting record holder, Walden led the nation in average yards per punt in 1958. He spent 14 years in the National Football League, first with the Minnesota Vikings then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, played on two Steelers Super Bowl championship teams (1974 and ‘75) and earned a spot on the Steelers All-Time team.
The highway dedication, attended by some 300 people from Bainbridge and Cairo, and his selection to the Steelers All-Time team were highlights of a brilliant career; but the accomplishment Walden treasures the most, he said, is never losing to Georgia Tech in his four years as a Bulldog.
Just how good was Walden as a punter? He was the first athlete admitted to the Grady County Hall of Fame and is a longtime member of the state of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. He set an Orange Bowl record with 46.5 yards per punt. He was picked for and kicked in the NFL All-Star Game, predecessor to the Pro Bowl.
Although he was in a class by himself, as a punter, “Bobby could do everything on a football field,” said his Bulldog teammate, Bill Godfrey, who played in the same backfield as Walden. “He could kick off, run the ball and pass the ball,” Godfrey added.
No doubt about it, the Big Toe had no equal as a punter. He established a record for punting in one game in 1958 when he averaged 63 yards on three kicks against the Texas Longhorns. A few weeks later, he booted one 70 yards against Kentucky, setting the Wildcats back on their own three yard line.
After watching Walden punt in a Georgia football practice, Don Klosterman of the Los Angeles Chargers of the old American Football League, raved, “He is as good as any of the pros right now.”
In his long regular season NFL career, Walden punted for 40,529 total yards.
“Walden is the best punter I ever saw, college, pro or anywhere else,” said Fran Tarkenton, former Bulldog and NFL Hall of Famer.
The Big Toe got his start as a 7-year-old third grader playing PeeWee football. “By the time I got to Cairo High School I was already a pretty fair punter. But I could run, pass and play defense,” Walden said. He did it so well that he was selected to the South All-Star team, which defeated the North in the annual Atlanta Journal and Georgia High School Association game.
Scholarship offers rolled in, but when Walden broke his leg in the game, most colleges backed off. All, that is, except Georgia.
“Coach [Wally] Butts never flinched. He told me his scholarship offer still stands broken leg or not and that I would have my scholarship whether I was able to play a single game or a season,” Walden recalled. “‘If you break the other leg, you will still have the scholarship,’ Coach Butts said.”
Walden met his wife, Scarlett, on a blind date 44 years ago; she saw most of his home games at Georgia. They have one son, Robert E. Walden II, 43, a country singer with his own band.
After a pro career that lasted 17 years – three years in the Canadian League, four with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and 10 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Walden retired and has kept himself busy playing golf, fishing, hunting and helping his brother-in-law, James Boyett, at his business – Cherokee Equipment Co. in Bainbridge.
He still lists Cole Porter’s I Get A Kick Out Of You as his favorite song.