Where would he go
to college? A Clemson man supposedly requested a clandestine meeting with
Walker in a graveyard outside of town. Southern Cal Coach John Robinson
supposedly registered in a hotel, fully prepared to whisk him off to the
Pacific Coast; that John Robinson turned out to be a salesman from Huntsville,
Ala. Finally, on Easter Sunday, when Walker's decision was relayed to Mike
Cavan, the Georgia assistant coach who had virtually lived for six months in
Bob Newsome's lakeside cabin while pursuing his quarry, Cavan screamed so
wildly his family thought he'd been shot.
Four months later
Walker fled his sheltered, teen-age kingdom. "It is time to move on and
give life a try," he wrote in a poem entitled It's Almost Gone. The night
before Walker set out on the trail—of whom? Jim Thorpe? Red Grange? Thurgood
Marshall?—he paid a visit to the Troups, then took one final drive by the old
high school field. He was all alone. The next morning he left for Athens before
dawn. He didn't wake his family. It was easier that way.
Walker the first hero ever to ride off into the sunrise? No matter. From his
beginnings in the big time, this gentle, poised creature, blessed with such a
magnificent body, such immense talent, couldn't seem to escape the
circumstances which kept mounting to certify him as mythical. Either that
or...this was all planned.
In the Georgia
media guide, first-semester freshmen aren't listed on the depth chart. Under
"tailback" last fall there were five other names. During preseason
practice Walker moved up to third string, but his timing was off; he wasn't
hitting the proper holes and he didn't break one long gainer. Walker showed no
consistent power or quickness or assertiveness. He ran straight up and down,
not "under the shoulders," as the Georgia coaches teach. He was,
according to one observer, "a non-person. Herschel just chugged into the
line and disappeared into a heap."
There were easy
outs, of course. Walker had played in Class A, consisting of the smallest
schools in the state. The Georgia varsity was angered by his delay in signing
and was ready, gunning to nail him. Defensive Lineman Eddie (Meat Cleaver)
Weaver: "I just stuck him a couple of serious shots. No whoop-de-do. The
man just went down."
As is his wont,
Dooley issued daily pessimism pills to any fans who might inquire. The general
feeling was that Walker wasn't ready. Privately, Dooley told a friend, "I'm
afraid Herschel is just a big, stiff back."
Later, with the
full spotlight of the freshman's astonishing season blazing away, an opposing
theory gained momentum. It was simply that Walker, the sensitive soul, the
pragmatist, the babe from the backwoods who knew the best road, was playing
possum. He was never a practice player anyway, remember. "I play as well as
I want to," he said once, slipping. Could it be that this phenom was so
good he could deliberately set out to pace himself, to gradually fit into the
team picture, to be unspectacular, to drink no wine before its time?
Dooley says it
took Walker seven games to become a seasoned, intelligent runner, to
"escape the sandlot." Did Walker actually conceal his skills, refusing
to impose his stardom on his elders until it was absolutely necessary? Could he
get away with all that and then just, just happen? "It's like fishing, I
guess," the youngster would say in explanation of his gift many weeks after
the fact. "You drop the hook in the water and when you see it bob you pull
that first time, that cloudy night of Sept. 6 in Knoxville, Tenn. and, indeed,
what happened on all the rest of Georgia's fairy-tale Saturdays, furnished no
more logical explanation. Walker didn't enter the Tennessee game until the
second quarter. He didn't gain his 25th yard until his 11th carry. Then in a
span of a little more than seven minutes in the middle of the second half—with
the Dogs whimpering and seemingly long gone—Walker took command, carried the
ball on eight of 12 plays, gained 53 of Georgia's 91 yards and scored two
touchdowns to rally the Dogs from a 15-2 deficit to a 16-15 victory.
touchdown run was instantly burned into the souls of Dog fans forever because
during the few seconds it took Walker to slant right, cut back and explode 16
yards up the middle, they could see the future—and the future had WALKER MY DOG
plastered on bumpers all over the state. As his family, gathered on the front
porch in Wrightsville, listened to the car radio, screaming "Do it, Bo! Do
it, Bo!" Walker beat six different Tennessee defenders, most notably Safety
Bill Bates, who met him helmet-on and was toppled head-over-fanny backward as
easily as if he were an inflatable rubber toy with sand in the base. While
Bates was left to wonder if anybody caught the license number, Walker split two
more Vol defenders at the goal line and went in standing up.