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Out of this background Herschel Walker somehow developed terrific sociopolitical acumen. "The kid is a politician par excellence," says one Georgia man. In the 1980 election returns of Greene County, Ga., Walker received three write-in votes for President of the United States.
Lest it be forgotten that, above everything else, Walker is still a relative infant from the boondocks who has been forced too early to form—and asked to state—opinions on issues both athletic and otherwise, his open, almost baby face and pragmatic mind are always there as a reminder.
Examining the situation long and hard, Walker figured out correctly that the National Football League shouldn't be permitted to deprive a football player of a job because of his age. He also determined that it would be foolish—certainly now if not ever—to challenge the league in court, even if he were to win. Earlier Walker, rejecting the Canadian Football League, announced, "I grew up in America and I don't think I should have to leave the country to make a living." That was his and his alone. He came into Dooley's office one day, sat down and said just that. The Georgia people, hearts in throats, wrote up the press release. They didn't unfurl any flags. On the Bulldog 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.
The story is told of a disc jockey in Savannah whose mother called from New York last fall and asked who this nice Jewish boy "Herschel Somebody" was, the one running up big numbers for the Georgia Dogs. Well, the name happens to be a common one in Walker's neck of the woods. Lovett Stadium, the field where the Johnson County Trojans play, is named for a prominent former banker, Herschel Lovett. The county itself is named for a former Georgia governor, Herschel V. Johnson. Two generations ago Big Herschel Walker and Little Herschel Walker were brothers, distinguished not by name but by size. Big Herschel Walker was the grandfather of Biggest Herschel Walker. How 'bout them Herschels?
In their den in the unphotographed house up on the hill Willis and Christine Walker proudly point to plaques, ribbons and honors won by all of their offspring—Willis Junior, 25 now, Renneth, age 24, Sharon, age 23, Veronica, age 20, Herschel Junior (Christine just liked the name Junior. The family calls him "Bo"), and Lorenza, age 17. Everyone but baby Carol, 14, who can really shoot the basketball and may ultimately be the best athlete of the brood. That will take some doing. Sharon was quite the softball player in her day. Renneth and Lorenza made their marks in several sports for the Trojans. And Willis Jr.—"Spunk" to his buddies—was the first genuine Walker star. Because of an accident with a gun, Spunk played with one thumb as a defensive end for Johnson County. Back there in the ninth grade, he was as big and strong as Herschel was to get later, which is to say enormous and very. Nobody could run a play by Spunk Walker. He was a major college prospect, possibly a pro prospect. But he got married, took a night job and finally had to drop out of school. "Well, you know how kids are," says Christine Walker.
By his junior year in high school, Bo could finally outrace his sister, Nep, in their sprints by the house. He was chomping at the bit to whip his brothers, too. It wasn't that he even liked football. His mother hated it. "I just close my eyes until everybody gets up from the collisions," Christine Walker says. Peer pressure and sibling rivalry forced Walker into the game. Then a couple of unusual developments took place which were to color the legend born in Johnson County.
Unlike the other Walker children, Herschel was uncommonly quiet, always staying by himself. "I cherish privacy," he says. "I stayed by myself so I could grow." But how, physically, did he grow? He never lifted a weight. Still doesn't. He never even lifted a pitchfork. "I raked the yard once," he says. Suddenly, Walker filled out from his short, chubby frame into a veritable Hercules. Wrightsville veterans remember him in 11th grade as a speeding bullet, a muscle-bound hulk, an "elephant roaming through a toothpick factory." Herschel was nicknamed "Hurt" Walker for the way he applied himself on the gridiron. Whenever he appeared to be smothered at the line of scrimmage, he would "rise up from the ground and be gone." Local folks see him today as this marvelous physical specimen—6'2", 220 pounds, massive thighs, ox neck, peaked shoulders, tiny 31-inch waist tapering up and out to what the glistening fellows down at the flex salon would refer to as "the perfect upper-body V"—and insist he hasn't changed one iota. "I'm telling you, Herschel was a monster down here," says Chris Troup, the erstwhile quarterback. "And he had to ease up all the time. If he didn't, he would have killed guys, just broken their necks with one hit."
Calling defensive signals back then, Walker's shouting made his voice hoarse and may have harmed his vocal cords. In conversation now he finishes most sentences with his voice cracking into a funny, alto pitch, as if a "Wolfen" had instantly turned into Olivia Newton-John. When he grew up—that is to say, at age 17—he seemed to have had enough of food and sleep as well. "I think I overdid the vegetables," Christine Walker says. At any rate Herschel abandoned most accepted nutrition and started packing in hamburgers and junk food. Now in Athens milk and orange juice are necessary training-table evils, but his main sustenance is boxcar loads of Snickers bars. Pregame meals? Perish the thought. Walker hardly eats anything at all for up to two days before football games.
As for his sleep habits, or lack of same, those too were ingrained on the hill outside Wrightsville. He would reserve the wee hours for doing his homework or reading his books or writing his poetry...anything but sleep. A few years later, during Sugar Bowl week, Claude Felton, the Georgia sports-information director, would ask Walker in New Orleans if he wanted a wake-up call for his appearance on the TV show Good Morning America. "No need," Walker said. On the morrow he was waiting in the hotel lobby at 5:20 a.m. "I don't want to risk missing anything of life," Walker says. "I reckon late at night is the only time I get to think about anything."
Time has always been of the essence for heroes. In Wrightsville there was time enough to run for 86 touchdowns and 6,137 yards, 45 and 3,167 of those in his senior year alone, when Johnson County won the state Class A championship. Current Head Coach Jimmy Moore remembers the practices: "Track meets," he says. "Run a play—TD. Run a play—TD. I swear Herschel used to let people tackle him so he wouldn't have to run so far." There was also time to win the dashes and the shotput in the state Class A track meet. There was time to ride his horse and his motorcycle, to win dance contests and shoot pool, to serve as president of the Beta Club and prepare for his Brown Belt in karate, and to meet all the recruiters who made the Holiday Inn look like the site of an NCAA coaches' convention. There was time to do what Walker's mother says he does best—"pay attention to people." But there was no time to think. What a fine, harmless excuse for procrastination.