From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 31, 1981
YOU COULD say that we become what we are not so much in the sanctuary of the womb or the groves of academe but in that Elysian drive-in joint known as high school. It is there that we are nurtured, our personalities shaped, our bodies structured, our habits and moods and values all having jockeyed for position in the chaotic halls of puberty. No one is completely delivered from the days of high school.
This is especially true in the case of heroes who learn to be heroes in high school and stay that way. High school nerds can change and turn into real people, but high school heroes aren't permitted the luxury. So why all the hullabaloo over Herschel Junior Walker, 19 and never been hissed? Why such astonishment about his poise, intelligence, charm, graciousness, humility, charisma and ability to put together more than two words at a time?
Walker, the All-America football player, says he runs track better than he plays football. Walker, the world-class sprinter, says he dances better than he sprints. Walker, the jump-splits hoofer, says he spends more time writing poetry than sashaying around the disco floor. But if there is one thing he knows more about than all this, it is how to be a hero. Herschel Walker, out of little Wrightsville, Ga., learned that before he became anything else.
If all the Georgia Dawgs will please hunker down for a moment and cease woofing, we can put away Walker's historic debut against Tennessee and his historic NCAA freshman rushing record of 1,616 yards and his historic rookie-year third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting and his historic one-man-gang-despite-a-dislocated-shoulder Sugar Bowl routine against Notre Dame for the national championship and woof, woof, woof. All right, all right. Healthy all season, Hushel—that's the way you Dawgs say it, now ain't it? Hushel—would've gone for 2,000 yards easy. And, yeah, yeah, he got absolutely jobbed out of the Heisman. If the voters had waited two more weeks, Walker would have won it laughing.
On the Bulldogs' highlight film a voice off camera asks a 19-year-old sophomore-to-be in a letter jacket what he would most like people to know about himself. "That Herschel Walker is not some make-believe character," Walker says. That might take some doing. When Walker first arrived in Athens with all the bugles blaring, he proceeded to defuse any resentment on the part of his teammates by being the first freshman to unload the seniors' luggage on the opening day of practice. Following that, he continued to show humility. Like "I'm just here to make the traveling squad." And "the tailback position is one of the easiest to play." And "I play to satisfy my coaches and teammates. I'm just grateful to the offensive line for taking me in as a member of their family."
On campus, Walker's wholesomeness, his closeness to family, his inclination to do all the right things and use all the right phrases, including "yes sir" and "no sir" (simple, unadulterated quotes that sent the media into mass cardiac arrest), his respect for his elders, his manners in the presence of women, his patience with autograph-seeking children of all ages...collectively, these characteristics seemed almost too good to be true. Nevertheless, Walker's behavior was nothing more than a finely tuned emulation of a value system taught by his parents, Willis and Christine. He was, and is, a child of the Old South, possessed of all that implies—gentility, courtesy, devotion to Sunday School, punctuality at supper, loyalty to home and hearth. He is sincerely a mama's boy, Christine Walker's boy through and through. When Walker arrived at the state university, a school that first gave an athletic scholarship to a black in 1968, the fact that he was a black child of the Old South who hit the books, quoted from Macbeth and insisted he would graduate with a degree in criminology (he had about a 3.0 grade-point average last year) was the dynamic that shocked everyone. And, besides, the guy could run the football a little bit.
Immediately Walker disarmed potential critics (read: the press) as easily as he evaded potential tacklers. Herschel, don't you get tired carrying the football so many times? "No sir, the ball ain't heavy." This was great stuff for a while. But then: Herschel, don't you get tired signing all those autographs? "No sir, the pen ain't heavy." Enough was enough. The Georgia offensive line was good, but, hey, they weren't the 12 disciples or even the Seven Blocks of Granite. Walker's confession that he had never given the Heisman a thought was quaint, but, hey, he knew the precise number of juniors who had won the award and the seniors as well. After Walker received a summons for a traffic violation in Dublin, Ga., he telephoned his apologies to the officer who pulled him over, for wasting the cop's time. Given these downs and the yardage to go, it was inevitable that cynicism would rear its ugly head.
The net result, though, is that the person Herschel Walker has turned out to be is more, much more, than a little bit impossible to dislike. Just as his stability emanates from a tightly knit family, so his worldliness has been attained through travel. He asks not to be photographed in that clich�, out-of-the-backwoods shot in front of his home—a neat, one-story, white clapboard house six miles outside Wrightsville over the railroad tracks and up a dirt road that overlooks a picturesque hill with green pastures and wild flowers sprinkled across the horizon. Smoky, the horse, is out back. A pit bulldog and a chihuahua are on the porch. Trophies nearly fill an entire room. But inside, where a camera also isn't allowed, books are everywhere as well. The adults of the house, both factory workers who met picking cotton in the nearby fields, always tended to their book learning.
In their den in the unphotographed house up on the hill Willis and Christine Walker proudly point to plaques, ribbons and honors won by their offspring—Willis Junior, 25; Renneth, 24; Sharon, 23; Veronica, 20; Herschel Junior (Christine just liked the name Junior; the family calls him Bo); and Lorenza, 17. Everyone but baby Carol, 14, who can really shoot the basketball and may ultimately be the best athlete of the brood.