Discover more from The Writing Shed with Tommy Tomlinson
Not counting the games, I saw him twice. This was 1982. I was one of thousands of anonymous freshmen at the University of Georgia; he was a junior and the biggest college football star in America.
The first time, I was in line at a Burger King across the street from campus and somebody ran inside shouting “Herschel’s in the drive-thru!” Everybody went out to look and sure enough, there he was, driving his black Trans Am. Kids went up to the car to get his autograph.
The other time I was on the old North Campus when it was nearly deserted. He was on the other side of the quad, by himself, headed the opposite way. Even when he walked, he glided. I started to go over and say hey. But it was probably one of the few moments in his life when he got to be alone.
It was startling to see him out there in the world. I’ve never gotten excited about seeing somebody famous, but Herschel Walker was beyond famous. He was a mythical creature in human form, like Paul Bunyan. Both times I saw him, I had the same strange thought: He walks among us?
For more than 40 years now I’ve heard, and told, the origin story. Herschel Walker grew up on a farm outside the little town of Wrightsville, Georgia. He didn’t like to do much. One day his father asked Herschel if there was anything he enjoyed.
Watching TV, Herschel said.
Fine, his father said. Watch all the TV you want. But when a commercial comes on, you have to exercise.
So Herschel did pushups and sit-ups on the floor, and ran sprints outside in the dirt. Thousands and thousands and thousands of pushups and sit-ups and sprints. By his senior year of high school he had grown to 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, a slab of muscle with Olympic speed. He was faster than anybody bigger, and bigger than anybody faster. The power of TV commercials.
Every football school in America wanted him. Vince Dooley, the coach at Georgia, flew down from Athens on a helicopter. Herschel thought about going into the military instead of playing ball. In the end he put the names of his favorite schools in a hat and pulled out Georgia. In 1979, the year before Herschel arrived, the Bulldogs went 6-5. In his three years there they went 33-3.
He came into his first game as a backup and scored his first touchdown by running slap over a Tennessee safety named Bill Bates, who went on to play 15 years in the NFL. A lot of Georgia fans can recite Larry Munson’s call from memory:
He won Georgia a national championship in 1980, and when I say HE won it, I mean that almost literally. He dislocated his shoulder in the first quarter in the title game against Notre Dame, and still ran for 150 yards and both Georgia touchdowns. The yardage total for the rest of the Georgia offense that night, combined: minus-23 yards.
None of that gets at the thrill of watching him run. He would take a pitch and slip through a hole and all of a sudden be in open field, uncatchable. He shed tacklers like they were toddlers. Every time he got the ball it could be a touchdown. It was like watching the best part of the movie over and over again. Somebody wrote a song about him. We would hear it every game day walking down to Sanford Stadium to watch his latest miracles.
He should have won the Heisman Trophy that first year, but they had never given it to a freshman. He did win it as a junior, after two more brilliant seasons where every defender (and everyone else in the stadium, and everyone watching on TV) knew he was getting the ball. He left a year early, back in the days when the NFL wouldn’t take underclassmen, to join the upstart United States Football League—I still remember the punch in the gut when I saw the Sports Illustrated cover in the mailbox at my dorm. But by then he had cemented his place as one of the greatest college football players who ever lived.
THE greatest, to me.
I don’t have heroes except for my mom and dad. But no other athlete has brought me as much joy as Herschel Walker the football player. I’ve spent my whole adult life savoring the moments and memories he gave us.
Which is why things feel so strange. Because right now I am wishing, hoping, praying for Herschel Walker to lose.
It has been painful to watch Herschel’s run for the U.S. Senate for at least three reasons. One, he doesn’t seem to know even the basics on many issues a senator ought to know about. Two, he appears to have lied (or hidden the truth) about many contradictions between his public statements and his private life.
Three, he might win anyway.
Most polls show Democrat Raphael Warnock with a slight edge coming into Election Day. But it’s well within the margin of error. And I wonder how many voters will vote for Herschel even though they wouldn’t admit it to a pollster. Some will vote for him because he’s the one with the R next to his name. Some will vote for him because voting for a black Republican is a way to, as they say, own the libs. Some will surely vote for him to pay back the debt for how he lit up those fall days in Athens.
It’s not hard to figure out how Herschel might vote on various issues, but I don’t have a clue what he actually thinks. I’m not always sure he does either. He has written about having multiple personalities and considering suicide. Others have reported accusations that he threatened to kill his ex-wife. My friend Michael Kruse wrote last year about how Herschel has tried to dodge issues of race. He seems to have some kind of fantasy about being a lawman. And he’s been friends with Donald Trump ever since Trump bought the New Jersey Generals after Herschel’s first season.
None of that added up to politics until Trump became president, and it became clear that the old things we thought of as qualifications, or disqualifications, no longer matter when it comes to holding public office. Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville MAGAed up and got himself elected senator, and nobody in Alabama even likes Tommy Tuberville. Walker must have thought he would cruise to the Senate on his name and Trump’s alone. Maybe he figured it wouldn’t matter if the public learned about the secret children and the abortion allegations and the son who has turned against him. Maybe he thought they were just more pesky opponents he could drag across the goal line.
Maybe he’s right.
These last six or seven years have just about broken a lot of us who once believed that all our fellow Americans believed in democracy more than power. It cracks my heart a little deeper to see Herschel in the middle of this mess. If he were running on ideas, or things he wanted to accomplish, that would be one thing. But I don’t get a sense that he has a deep desire to serve, or any particular interest in helping run the government. It just feels like another game he can win.
One thing I think about a lot, maybe more than I should, is how to separate the artist from the art.
I’m wildly inconsistent about this. I still enjoy James Brown’s music* even though I know he abused women**. I can’t watch Louis CK clips anymore even though I once thought he was the funniest man alive. Bill Cosby is out but Michael Jackson is still in. I can’t explain why. Some part of me has decided I can live without Louis CK’s airplane bit, but I can’t live without “Billie Jean.”
*To add a layer to all this, James Brown made a record about Georgia football. It’s awesome.
**Much, much more about James Brown on my SouthBound podcast Wednesday, when I talk to Thomas Lake, who created this.
Celebrity can put a coat of varnish on people who are a lot rougher underneath. We’re all complicated. But when someone can can do one pure thing we love—whether it’s hit a high C or break off an 80-yard touchdown run—we often turn them into stuffed animals, with only the thoughts and feelings that we project onto them.
On the whole, when the complications finally come out, I like knowing. It’s part of my job as a journalist to dig them out and make sense of them. In the long run, a deeper understanding about other people can help us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
It’s better, as a human trying to understand other humans, to know that Herschel Walker is far more than a running back who had a brilliant career with the team I happen to root for. It’s better to know that he has been a hypocrite and done some dangerous things. It’s better to know he’s not suited to the job he’s applying for. It’s better to know I would never vote for him.
But it does make the memories crumble, a little bit, around the edges.
I knew some of this stuff about Herschel already, but he was a private citizen, somebody interesting but not important. Now he wants to be one of the most powerful politicians in America. He put himself back into the frame. And now his campaign and all that came with it is blended with Herschel plowing over Tennessee or speeding past South Carolina or diving over the top against Notre Dame.
The other night I went back and watched a Herschel highlight reel. He’s still the best I’ve ever seen on the field. But now there’s a low hum underneath, a glitch in the audio, a whisper just out of the frame.
I still love to watch him run. This time I hope to hell that Georgia rises up and stops him.
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