On campus at
Athens, 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 which sent the media into
mass cardiac arrest), his respect for elders, his manners in the presence of
women, his patience with autograph-seeking children of all ages...collectively,
these responses seemed almost too good to be true. "But don't you see?"
Newsome, the car dealer, says. "Herschel knew exactly where he was going
and the best road to get there. This was all planned."
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.
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. Hey, what was this, Hill Street Blues?
Given these downs and the yardage to go, it was inevitable that cynicism would
rear its ugly head. Chinks appeared to tarnish the All-America armor.
It was noted
that, a year before Walker's matriculation, Georgia had created a women's track
team specifically to get his older sister Veronica ("Nep"), a sprinter,
up to Athens. But last April Veronica was suspected of shoplifting, though no
charges were brought; after she was called on the carpet about other troubles,
with her grades, she told school officials that if she was sent home, Herschel
might just go with her. Well, he was his sister's keeper, but this certainly
wasn't his fault, nor his idea.
And how about the
way Walker had made Georgia Coach Vince Dooley squirm during the 1980
recruiting season by waiting so long, until he was the 29th and last freshman
to sign? Surely he was coming to Athens all along. Or the way Walker had made
all of college football wriggle this past spring by permitting Montreal
Alouettes owner Nelson Skalbania's offer to play pro ball in Canada this fall
to dangle in the scalding Georgia sun?
remember his daughter's name," Walker says of Skalbania's emissary to
Athens, "but she sure was pretty." Certainly he never was going to
abandon the national champions to go take hand-offs for something called the
Alouettes? Walker's mother drove more than two hours up Highway 15 to school to
discuss the Montreal offer, but, she says, "Herschel wouldn't even turn
that stereo down. Lord, how he blares that thing."
Then there was
the aborted Herschel Walker Insurance Agency, a scheme devised by Newsome and
an Atlanta lawyer as an "off-season summer job." As if Walker would
have time to go door to door peddling fire and flood policies, what with all
those 10-and-change 100-meter dashes he would be running in places like Oslo
and Amsterdam between semesters. As that fiasco unfolded, to the horror of
Dooley as well as the NCAA, the previously benign press opened fire.
In the spring of
1980 Walker refused to get involved when Wrightsville black groups held marches
and boycotted stores in his hometown, protesting what they felt was police
mistreatment and a lack of job opportunities. Walker attributed the
confrontations to "outsiders." He says, "I never go jumping into
something I don't know what I'm jumping into." In Athens the small black
community began to wonder why Walker was always seen around campus with many
more white friends than black. Walker watchers of both races confirm that he
has gravitated toward white society and doesn't relate to his fellow
shouldn't be underestimated," says Dr. Leroy Ervin, a black who is the
assistant vice-president for academic affairs at Georgia. "There is a kind
of genius there that has enabled him to synthesize things at a much quicker
rate than most adults. He's not the kind to put an umbilical cord anywhere—even
where race is concerned. He gets close to some people...at a distance. In the
same way, he will never be directly offensive or affrontive. He has developed
all the appropriate responses at an autonomic level."
The net result 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 cliché, 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. (In fact, he
wants to demolish the house and build another on the site. That way he can, in
a sense, obliterate the past without abandoning it.) 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.