If you were born in the late '80s or early '90s, you missed out on probably the best pure athlete in Alabama football history.
Before fans were in awe of Reggie Bush, there was David Palmer.
Before we watched Percy Harvin carve up defenses at Florida, Palmer was doing it at Alabama.
Before the young Alabama fans get excited over the return abilities of Javier Arenas, the old-school fans held their breath when Palmer touched the ball.
He had his trademark of flipping the ball in the air after a touchdown (which is now an unsportsmanlike penalty).
From 1991 to 1993, he was so electric, that Alabama Coach Gene Stallings had figure out ways to get him the football. He was more than a kick/punt return specialist and a wide receiver—at times he was a quarterback. He didn't run all the time while he played quarterback; he also threw passes to keep defenses honest.
He was an All-American in 1993 and finished third in the Heisman Trophy ballot. His third-place finish is the highest for an Alabama player (and maybe he would have won, if not for two DUI sentences).
Before Palmer was slithering his way through defenses in college, he was electrifying the crowds at Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham, Ala. Rumor has it his high school highlight tape trumps the moves he pulled off in college. That is hard to believe on my end, but when you hear the same thing from more than one person, you almost have to believe it.
The message board saying, "Pictures, or it didn't happen," never applied to Palmer.
The first time I saw Palmer play was against Vanderbilt in 1991, which was his freshman year. I was an eight-year-old pup at the time, a few months off of watching Michael Jordan switching hands on the Lakers in the Finals.
Vandy punted to him, and he caught it at the Alabama 44-yard line. The man was surrounded by six Vandy defenders (which is over half the defense), made one move to the left, then hopped back to the right, and took it back to the house. The sick part about the run was that no one touched him, and no one blocked.
If you think this is one of those exaggerated stories you hear from older people, you may want to think again. If Al Michaels was calling the play, it would have ended with him saying, "He did what?!”
After watching him play that first time, I was hooked to the television screen. I wanted to see Palmer at least touch the football. I remember begging my mom to buy me a No. 2 Alabama jersey, but, to my dismay, it never happened.
Palmer's freshman year was nothing short of amazing. He made a name for himself with his 90-yard punt return against LSU, and followed that up with a quarterback sweep to the right side for a touchdown that made the difference against Auburn in the 1991 Iron Bowl.
But it was the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl against Colorado that made jaws drop, ankles break, and turned Palmer into the most exciting player in college football at that time. He caught a punt at the 50-yard line, high stepped and went back a couple yards, then he split three defenders, made another one miss, and the rest was history. Teammate Antonio Langham didn't have to block the punter on that play, but he did anyway.
The play of the night however, was when Palmer lined up at quarterback on a 2nd-and-10. He was under center, dropped back (and I'm not sure if it was part of the play), and four Colorado defenders got in the backfield. But Palmer spun out of the jam and broke up field for a first down. I scratched my head in amazement. He caught a touchdown pass later on, while I was still wondering how he got that first down.
Palmer may not have been the fastest guy you would see on the field, but he had what is called "next man" speed. Meaning, if the guy that was chasing him ran a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Palmer would run as if he ran it in 4.3 seconds.
That speed was evident in the 1993 Sugar Bowl against defending champion Miami.
We heard it from the media:
"Miami has too much speed."
"Alabama doesn't stand a chance."
"Alabama is too slow."
All it took was one punt return from Palmer to put 'Bama in Miami territory to make Miami look like the team that was slow. If Palmer had run to the open gap, it would have been a touchdown. If Miami didn't respect his speed after that play, then there was a reverse where a Hurricane player had the angle on him and Palmer ran right by him.
You can't look back at Palmer's statistics to measure his impact. Alabama didn't start to throw the football until his junior year, in which he had 61 receptions and 1,000 yards receiving (an Alabama record at the time), and a school record 217-yard receiving day against Vanderbilt. There's no telling how many yards he would have had if 'Bama threw the ball earlier in his career.
That year, due to Jay Barker's injury, Palmer also played a few games at quarterback and went 15-for-30 for the season with two touchdowns and three interceptions. His longest pass play went for 54 yards against Ole Miss. He also threw for a career-high 116 yards in a loss against LSU, while completing six of 10 passes.
Ask anyone who had a chance to see him play in person and they will tell you that he was worth the price of admission. Hell, I would have been glad to see him play on pay-per-view.
Players like Freddie Milons, Tyrone Prothro, AC Carter, and Javier Arenas, are players that come to mind as "the next David Palmer."
If Reggie Bush was called a "human video game," then Palmer was a "cheat code."
There are so many plays he made at Alabama, that it is hard for me to remember all of them.
To this day, if you ask a Tennessee fan about the 1993 game between 'Bama and UT, they still don't want to talk about it.