The legend goes like this: There was a young boy in Wrightsville, Ga. (“The Friendliest Town in Georgia!”) who didn’t like to do anything at all. He would just lie there on the couch all summer, dreaming his life away, until one day his father said that this just wouldn’t do.
“What do you like to do?” the father asked.
The son thought on this for a long while. What did he like to do? Heck, he was in Wrightsville. What WAS there to do? Watch the pulpwood truck drive by? Stand outside the textile mills and wait for life to disappear? The boy would later say the largest dream he could imagine then was that one day he might go to Atlanta … just to see it. Still, he knew that his father wanted an answer, a real answer, so he thought and thought and when his father came back, he knew what to say.
“What do you like to do?” the father asked.
“Watch TV,” the son said.
Not much of an answer, is it? But Willis Walker was a wise father, and he said: “OK, if that’s what you like doing, fine. You can watch as much television as you want. But during the commercials, you must exercise. That’s the deal.”
The son agreed. He would watch television. But during commercials, he would do pushups, sit-ups, chin-ups, he would go outside and run sprints. After a little while, he could feel his body changing. His arms bulked, his legs churned. He did more sit-ups, more pushups, more chin-ups. He raced his older sister, Christine, and she beat him, and he got mad … and he would do more sit-ups, more pushups, run more sprints.
The son would later say that he never really had a goal for all this work, never really had an idea where it might take him. He was just working out through the commercials. Most boys in Wrightsville knew they were going to the Army someday. So the son knew that, if nothing else, he would be ready for basic training.
Then one day, someone gave him a football, told him “Run.” He started running with it. Nobody could tackle him. When he was old enough, he went to Johnson County High, and they gave him the football and again told him “Run.’ His senior year he ran for 3,167 yards and he scored 45 touchdowns, and that very year a football coach, a Georgia legend named Vince Dooley, dropped out of the sky in a helicopter, landed right in Wrightsville, walked into to the school and asked this young man if he wanted to go to the University of Georgia. The young man said he was not sure — other coaches wanted him to go to their schools.
Then, the legend says, the son put the names of three schools into a paper bag, shook it up, reached down and pulled out a slip of paper. It said GEORGIA. So Herschel Walker went to the University of Georgia.
The legend goes like this: First practice in full pads at Georgia, and one of the upperclassmen told his mates that he would take it upon himself to introduce this new recruit, this Herschel Walker, to the ways of big-time college football. The others coaxed him on; they too had grown tired of hearing about this freshman, this Achilles in Cleats. Or maybe they had not grown tired — maybe they just wanted to know if he was real. Herschel did not talk much. He did not talk at all. He had this bored look on his face, and it drove them mad.
Herschel took a handoff, he ran, and the defender of the upper class charged at him full speed, launched himself head first, drove his helmet into Herschel’s helmet. The collision sounded like a car hitting a stone wall, it echoed through the shrieks. Then there was silence.
When the defender woke up, he was told by his mates that he had, perhaps, slowed Herschel down for an instant, though they did have to concede that he kept running for a touchdown after the crash.
“You showed him,” they assured the defender, as little Herschel Walkers circled his head.
The legend goes like this: Herschel did not lift weights. He had an aversion to weights — they seemed, to him, counterfeit, unreal. And yet his body was rock. Stone. All those pushups. All those sit-ups. The first time he ran the 40-yard dash at a Georgia practice, the coaches clocked him at 4.35. World class speed. He had not even warmed up.
He was a freak of nature — anyone could see this. He could run 100 yards in 9.3 seconds (and 100 meters in a world class 10.22). He stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 220 pounds, and no single person could knock him off his feet.
His coach, Vince Dooley, could see that Herschel was something new, something he had never quite seen before, and he was not quite sure what he was supposed to do with this gift. Vince was conservative by nature, all them Dooley boys were conservative. The Dooleys — Vince and Bill — had grown up in Mobile, and had their ears bent and pulled at the McGill Institute, where they learned about football and that we are put on this earth to build the kingdom of God. The Dooleys were famous for never underestimating an opponent — for in fact, making every opponent sound like a combination of Lombardi’s Packers, Noll’s Steelers and the army of the undead. It was one of them — probably the younger brother, Bill — who uttered the classic when he could not think of anything especially scary about that week’s opponent: “William & Mary has the finest long snapper I have ever seen.”
Vince Dooley’s conservative football nature told him that you could not build the kingdom of God with freshmen, not even unstoppable freshmen like Herschel Walker. And so, Herschel did not start that first game against Tennessee. He was, in fact, not expected to play very much if at all.
And then it came to pass that Tennessee led the game 15-2, and the Bulldogs were very much in danger of losing the season opener, and desperate times can turn even the most conservative of men inside out. “Get in there Herschel,” Dooley said, four words, and Herschel obliged, took the first handoff of his career, broke four tackles, ran over future NFL pro bowler Bill Bates and scored. He then calmly flipped the ball to the referee.
“My God!” Georgia’s radio announcer Larry Munson shouted in the booth. “A freshman!”
The legend goes like this: Three South Carolina men had an angle to tackle Herschel. If you could choose only one moment in that unbelievable freshman season — still the greatest season any college football player has ever had — it would have to be that one. Three players had him dead to rights as he ran the sideline.
Up to then, Vince Dooley had been playing a fun little game — when he needed Herschel, he used him liberally. In the Tennessee game, with the Bulldogs in a tough spot, Herschel carried the ball 24 times in a little bit more than a half. Against those tough Aggies of Texas A&M, he carried it 21 times (one of those a 76-yard burst, and he covered those yards so quickly that one Aggie, after the game, would say he could not have caught Herschel in a cab). Against the relentless Clemson Tigers, Herschel carried it 23 more times (for 121 yards).
But then, the schedule dipped, and suddenly Herschel found himself on the bench. A freshman! He carried the ball only nine times against TCU and 11 against Ole Miss.
“He’s still just a freshman,” Dooley told his coaches, and they nodded and tried hard to keep straight faces. Herschel could afford to be “just a freshman” in a 34-3 victory over them Horned Frogs. The rest of the time, he was the entire Georgia offense.
Against Vanderbilt, Herschel got the ball 23 times. He ran for 283 yards and scored three touchdowns. It was the 60-yard touchdown that left people breathless; a few yards into the run a little guy wearing a No. 26 jersey tried to tackle Herschel — he bravely jumped in front of the moving train and was literally sent flying five yards in the air. It looked like something out of the cartoons or The Matrix.
“I don’t look to break tackles,” Herschel said. “People just keep getting in my way.”
Then came the South Carolina game, and it was on national television, and there was a subplot. South Carolina had a senior running back, George Rogers, who everyone was pumping for the Heisman, in large part because he was a senior. He had paid his dues. He represented the establishment.
And then there was this freshman from a little town in Georgia who people were whispering about. He was the new thing. Rogers was Pat Boone. Herschel was James Brown.
The game was close, but the fight between generations was no contest. Rogers had a critical fumble, and Herschel ran for 219 yards. The biggest play happened when Herschel got the ball, headed for the right sideline and those three South Carolina players had their angles. Herschel, when remembering the run, would say, “I know at least one of those guys had a good angle to tackle me. But then I remember thinking to myself, ‘Hey, I can run a little bit.’”
He could run. He blew by all three — and it wasn’t close. None of the three even got close enough to attempt a dive tackle. The speed was electrifying — it was like watching a football game jump out of the screen, like a pop-up book. The only thing that matches it in my memory was Bo Jackson’s Monday Night run against Seattle. But this happened first. No one had ever seen something that big move that fast.
There were more amazing runs — the next week he went 72 yards against Florida. The week after that he ran left against Auburn, stopped, turned around, and ran across the field for an 18-yard touchdown. The next week, against hated Georgia Tech, he broke the NCAA freshman rushing record in style, a 65-yard touchdown run.
He had done it all. Georgia was one-dimensional team. The Dawgs could not throw at all. Their offensive line was just OK. The defense was good, but not legendary. And still Georgia won all 11 games. Herschel ran for 1,616 yards, 15 touchdowns, he had four 200-yard rushing games, he knocked out George Rogers man-to-man (though Rogers still ended up winning the Heisman — you can’t beat the establishment). He broke long, breathtaking runs week after week. Defenses lined up every available man to stuff Herschel — half the time they did not even COVER Georgia receivers — and still he had his way. There would be a lot more to the Herschel story, but it would never be quite like this again, not for Herschel, and not for anyone else either.
“That freshman year,” Larry Munson would tell me years later, “if I had seen him fly away, I would have just said, “OK folks, Herschel Walker has flown off so he could be with his own kind.”
The legend goes like this: In the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, in the first quarter, Herschel got hit and was knocked on his shoulder and he heard a popping sound. He felt a different kind of pain. He wobbled to the sideline.
There a trainer said Herschel had dislocated his shoulder. The trainer said several other things, but Herschel stopped listening. He could only hear the quotes from Notre Dame players who said that they would stop this freshman, keep him from getting 100 yards. “Nobody gets 100 against us,” one of them had said. Herschel did hear the trainer say, “Hold still.” And then he heard another pop. His shoulder was back in.
There really never was any question about him going back into the game. “Sometimes,” Herschel would say, “pain is sort of in your mind.” But when he went back into the game, he was no longer the same man, he could no longer run behind his shoulders. He had to adjust, run more straight up and deal with the pain every time he got hit.
And he got hit. Do you know how many passes Georgia completed in the game? One. Quarterback Buck Belue completed one pass. The gameplan, like always, was give it to Herschel, pitch it to Herschel, fake it to Herschel and then give it to him again. Even with a dislocated shoulder.
Herschel ran for 150 yards. Georgia beat Notre Dame and was named national champion. It was one of the most courageous performances in the history of college football, there with the Gipper and other stuff from the movies. But something very definitely changed that day.
The legend goes like this: Georgia had a third down and one yard to go, and every time Georgia had one yard to go they gave the ball to Herschel. Well, that’s not descriptive enough because pretty much every time Georgia had the ball in ANY situation, they gave the ball to Herschel.
That’s how it went his sophomore season. Great? Of course he was great. He ran for 1,891 yards, scored 20 touchdowns, carried a significantly younger Georgia team to a 10-1 record (the Dawgs only loss during the season was to eventual champion Clemson). He was incredible.
But he wasn’t the same. There was no mistaking that. The long runs — those impossible bursts of speed and power that made him explode out of your TV screen when he was a freshman — were gone. His longest run as a sophomore was 32 yards. He was hitting the line again and again, battering for 8 yards, 6 yards, 9 yards. The Herschel music, which as a freshman had been all horns and strings, sweeping symphonies, was now the music of drums and electric guitars. Bam. Ba ba. Bam.
Why? One theory is that teams had figured out how to tackle Herschel in the open field — defenders would dive at his knees and take out his feet. Nobody ever took Herschel Walker straight up. Another theory is that the Georgia gameplan had changed — the conservative nature of Dooley was coming out; he now wanted to take advantage of Herschel’s power running, grind out first downs, eat up clock. And so the coordinators sent Herschel crashing into the line again and again and again, 35 times per game. There was no time for artistry.
And then, some say that Herschel himself changed after the separated shoulder; he no longer ran with quite the same abandon. It is hard to say. There is a strangely touching scene from an awful Burt Reynolds movie called “Paternity” that I think about now and then. In the scene, the hot young Beverly D’Angelo asks Burt Reynolds why he wants kids (the plot of the movie is so convoluted and bizarre that I can’t even remember it precisely — I just remember that Burt Reynolds had hired Beverly D’Angelo to have his kid).
Burt explains that he once saw a little boy riding his bicycle on top of a fence. The boy would ride the bike over and over again on the fence. And then someone saw the boy and shouted, “That’s impossible. You can’t ride a bike on top of a fence.” The boy immediately fell and could never ride on a fence again.
Was that Herschel Walker? Maybe. The thing that’s so amazing about him as a freshman is that even looking back now, on grainy video tape, you can see that every single time Herschel gets the ball he believes he’s going to run 75 yards for a touchdown. He expects to go 75 yards for a touchdown. He runs like there is nothing in the world that can stop him.
“When you look up, you go up,” Herschel would say.
As a sophomore, there’s something more realistic about his running style. It is like someone went up to him and said, “You know, those 75 yard runs are impossible.’ It was as if, after Notre Dame, Herschel realized that a 12-yard run is really good. I don’t think he knew that as a freshman. I think as a freshman, he was like the first time golfer who hits an approach shot to within a few feet of the hole — and when his partner claps, he says, “What are you clapping for? The ball didn’t go in.” I think as a freshman, he thought 12-yard runs were failures.
As a sophomore, he had an almost unbelievable 72 runs for 10 yards or more. He was still the best running back around. But, I don’t know, he was just different. It’s hard to explain what it is to grow up. Maybe he wasn’t going for the storybooks anymore. Maybe he was going for first downs.
Of course he still did miraculous things. There was that third down and 1 against Ole Miss, and Georgia called for him go get the ball and do what they called, “the patented Herschel Walker leap.” It seems unlikely that he ever patented it (undoubtedly Walter Payton would have beaten him to the U.S. Patent Office), but he did it about as well anybody ever. His vertical jump was supposedly measured at 40 inches.
So Herschel went up, and some Ole Miss guy went up with him (well not quite as high) and the two collided in mid-air. They both fell to the ground, only Herschel fell on his feet. He then walked into the end zone for a touchdown.
“Rest of my life,” Walker would say, “people asked me to do that again.”
The legend goes like this: Herschel Walker was mad. This was against Florida. He had tried to catch a kickoff in the air only it went through his arms and bounced into the end zone. Herschel then did something he never did — he panicked. He tried to bring the ball out of the end zone, and he got tackled at the 1 yard line.
The next play, Georgia fumbled and Florida scored.
Herschel was an an even tempered young man. He did not talk much. He never celebrated his touchdowns. Georgia offensive linemen, when asked what Herschel was really like, would shrug.
“Get me the ball,” Herschel muttered in the huddle that day, and he never spoke in the huddle. They had never seen him so angry. Florida was lining up every available man and a few professors on the line to stop Herschel, but if Herschel wanted the ball …
“I never saw a player so determined,” Vince Dooley would say. Herschel ran the ball 47 times that day. Yes. Forty-seven. He gained 192 yards that that day. He caught two touchdown passes — both stunning runs where he ran through tacklers like the old freshman days.
And when Georgia trailed late, they gave him the ball 11 times on the game-winning drive. Georgia won.
The next day, Herschel asked Georgia’s kicker to come out to the field and kick 50 kickoffs to him.
The legend goes on and and on. There was the time as a junior when he ran for 143 yards against South Carolina with a broken thumb. There was the time he ran for 219 yards against Florida, after telling a friend before the game, “One thing I will never do as long as I’m at Georgia is lose to Florida.”
There was the time he ran for 177 yards against Auburn, two touchdown, carried the team to another unbeaten season, another Sugar Bowl (in his three years at Georgia, the Bulldogs lost one regular season game — to national champion Clemson — and two bowl games, to national champion Penn State and Dan Marino’s Pitt).
By now though, it hardly seemed that anything Herschel did was surprising. He had the Heisman Trophy wrapped up before the season even began, and so he won it when he put his his usual numbers — he ran for 1,752 yards, scored 17 touchdowns, had three more 200-plus yard rushing days.
But at this point, strangely, it all seemed almost ordinary. He was still getting almost all of his yards on those short, hard runs that gain first downs and win games but don’t get the heart racing. I don’t know, but when I look back at Herschel highlights from his junior year, he seems almost bored. Wilt Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior year because he was tired of dealing with four men covering him. I wonder how Herschel felt during his junior year, after he had done everything, when there were no miracles left to perform.
He did have one more moment, though, one more run which left them all gasping. That was in the last game, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, and it has become my favorite Herschel run. I don’t know the names of the Georgia Tech players involved, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they are in bars telling the story.
Herschel took a typical handoff and ran hard into the line. The first man to get to him jumped in from the right side and grabbed Herschel’s right leg. A split second later, another guy came in and hit Herschel high on his left shoulder. Together they spun Herschel around and had him about toppled over — I would say Herschel’s body was at about a 60 degree angle to the ground. He was practically down. And right then, just as he was about to fall, a THIRD guy came in and grabbed Herschel’s other leg.
I have watched this run 50 or more times in my life. I just watched it again a few moments ago. I have no idea how Herschel did not fall. I don’t know if he realized that it would be his last game at Georgia (he still had a bowl game, but those are different). I don’t know if he had it in his mind to leave everyone with a memory. I know this: He did not fall. He spun around, threw off the first tackler, twisted away from the second, jumped out of the grasp of the third. And just then a fourth tackler came in, someone wearing a No. 8 jersey, and I love this young man because he completed the picture. He dove at Herschel, and that’s when Herschel just stopped, sidestepped, let No. 8 go by.
And then, Herschel lifted his right leg and he actually reared — the way horses do in the movies — and he was off, 59 yards, the last touchdown, everyone else left in the dust.
“He had NO business not falling down,” a crazed Larry Munson shouted up in the radio booth. “No business at all!”
No business. He was Herschel one more time, the kid who trained during commercial and believed, deep down, that nobody could tackle him.
“How did you do it?” I asked him once at a banquet.
“I don’t know,” he said, and he smiled. “It seemed like the thing to do.”
The legend ends there. Herschel went pro. It was, looking back, a better pro career than most remember. He went to the USFL for some obscene amount of money (something like $16 million guaranteed), and he rushed for more than 5,000 yards in three years, and one of those seasons he ran for 2,411 yards. Nobody really knew what that meant though — being the USFL and all — and nobody knows now.
He then went to the NFL — and he gained 1,500 yards for Dallas one season, and he still had enough status that Minnesota traded five players and six draft choices to get him. Think about that. Eleven players. Unfortunately for Minnesota, a couple of those draft picks turned out to be Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, and so Herschel was not too appreciated in Minnesota. The fans booed him relentlessly and then the team got rid of him, and he played a few more years for Philadelphia, a little time with the Giants, and he finished again in Dallas.
By then he was a very different type of athlete — still fast, still strong, but his instinctiveness as a runner seemed gone and he hardly ever seemed to break a tackle. There are a million theories, and I suspect the truth is probably in all of them. He was a pretty decent pass catcher and kick returner. And all in all, hey, he did rush for more than 8,000 yards, and he caught more than 500 passes, and he made a couple of Pro Bowls.
But that’s not the Herschel Walker that this is about. No, the Herschel I’m talking about here was the greatest college football player who ever lived. At least that’s how the legend goes in my mind.2