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Curry Kirkpatrick
August 31, 1981
His roots are in the Deep South, but Herschel Walker sees the whole world as his stage
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August 31, 1981

More Than Georgia's On His Mind

His roots are in the Deep South, but Herschel Walker sees the whole world as his stage

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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."

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. 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?

"I don't 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 blacks.

"Herschel 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 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.

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