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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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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.

Is Herschel 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 it out."

What happened 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.

The first 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.

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