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Sometimes when he says such serious things it is easy to be cynical, to suspect disingenuousness. But too many people of too many perspectives will testify to the fact that Walker's maturity and sense of mission are genuine, though not so cloying that he lacks either youthful high spirits or humor. His love of dancing, for instance, is such that he will break into the wave, say, or the gigolo at the first sound of a record he likes, regardless of where he is; he's as subject to music as wheat is to wind. In addition, he has a subtle wit, sometimes self-deprecating, as revealed in his description of his role as a tree in a high school play. Burt Reynolds had dropped by to watch practice one day, leading an interviewer to ask whether acting was something Walker had ever considered. "I was in a play when I was a senior," he said.
"Yeah. I was a tree."
"A tree? Did you have any lines?"
"No, but I was an awesome tree."
Or tongue in cheek, as evidenced in a televised interview following the recent Clemson game. It seems that one of the Clemson players had been quoted in a South Carolina paper as saying he'd been "dreaming of hitting Herschel." This quote, as such quotes are wont to do, found its way to the bulletin board of the Georgia training room. And, as fate would have it, the Clemson player responsible for the quote was the one whose body was crumpled by an oh-so-replayable block Walker threw early in the second half. All of which gave Walker the opportunity, when asked by the commentator about the block, to refer to the newspaper quote and say, with a small smile, "Well, I'm glad I was able to help make his dreams come true."
It is to be hoped that the future will find him increasingly willing to make such fine comments. A good sign is that he does seem to have gradually become more plainspoken. He has never lacked confidence, but he has the rural Southerner's deep-seated dislike of the loudmouth. And to this natural repugnance has been added supporting advice from people such as Ford dealer Bob New-some, his advisor and former employer in Wrightsville, a man who has given much to, and received much from, his relationship with Walker.
"I guess I've told Herschel a lot of times that he'd do well to let his ability speak for him, at least at first," Newsome says. "And I'm so proud of him, of how he's done, and how he's handled the celebrity business. I probably give him too much advice, but I can't help myself. I think of him the same way I do my sons. I do. And I used to be bad on the race question. I was wrong and I know it because of what Herschel has meant to me. Ten years ago, if anyone had told me I'd feel toward a black person like I've come to feel toward Herschel, I'd have just laughed. But he's helped me see past all that, and I'm thankful to him."
In lifting himself so far, Walker has lifted others, and not just other athletes. The chaplain of the Georgia football team, the Rev. Claude McBride, describes many instances of Walker's sensitivity and care in ministering to the needs of those around him, white and black. To many people ensnared in racial dilemmas, Herschel seems to walk a tightrope, but perhaps race is one more area in which he doesn't share the limitations of others. He has a serious romantic relationship now—the first of his life—with a former half-miler for Georgia, Cindy DeAngelis, a woman his own age from New York, whose father is Italian and whose mother is Argentinian. They are in love.
Herschel Walker is already a world-class sprinter, a football player of unprecedented ability and potential and a young man preternaturally wise. It is going to be fascinating to watch as he follows his calling, wherever it leads him. It will be especially fascinating to watch him confront the many pitfalls sure to lie in his path—the Balrogs and the Wizards and, most crucially, his own growing power. May he outhit, outwit or outrun them all.