This week, forty years ago, Georgia had just defeated Clemson 20-16, between the hedges, aided by another of Scott Woerner’s masterpieces, with a nonconference clash with TCU coming up. Euphoria had become entrenched and would not subside. Georgia was fawning over its enfant terrible, Herschel Walker. His crimes, however, were the destruction of linebackers who got in his way. With a rare combination of speed and power, he ran the oldfashioned way. He punished defenders with his shoulders. They were like howitzers, blasting into defenses, taking its best shots by giving more in return. He numbed defenders into a deep freeze delirium that inspired his offensive linemen, a blue-collar contingent, to give him “just a crack.” Clog up the middle and put a committee in the box and he still made eyepopping yardage. Nobody ever kept the chains advancing more than this remarkable athlete with the most remarkable of attitudes, a super star who was given to passing out credit like a general following a consequential victory in battle. “Where would I be without my offensive line?” he would say convincingly.
Herschel was the best when it came to being a good teammate. In that especial attitude of his was a “pitchin” mentality when it came to team routines. When upperclassmen showed up for the beginning of the fall season, there was an eager, smiling, can-do freshman, who was grabbling luggage and home-away-from-home essentials and toting it to their rooms. He smiled for every camera, he paused to sign every autograph request and he attended every class. He was punctual. He was giving and forgiving. His insightful quotes still resonate.
When he flew to New York for the Heisman banquet, Claude Felton, the Bulldogs’ genial Sports Information Director, arranged for me to sit with him on our Delta flight to LaGuardia. The flight attendants kept sheepishly asking him to sign something or other for someone on the flight: other flight attendants, pilots and passengers who were sitting behind him.
Humble Herschel was also “Accommodating Herschel.” Practicing the golden rule was inherent in his nature. He has never lost his rock star status even today, forty years later.
Lately, I have been flashing back to 1980, gathering and researching for a reminiscing project. It reminded me of a winter scene in his hometown of Wrightsville, which is where I also grew up.
At the time I was not aware of Herschel’s reputation, which had already begun to turn heads. In those years, I began a routine of trying to help my hometown with speakers for its annual football banquet. Georgia had won the SEC championship in 1976, and Ray Goff was the star of that team. I asked him to ride down with me to speak at the Johnson County High School banquet. Ray, accommodating like Herschel, was eager to join me for the evening, even though in those years, he could not be paid to speak—if you followed the NCAA rules. It didn’t mean that he could not accept a gift or two like a Honey Baked Ham. Ray returned home very happy.
During the banquet, I sat by a long-time family friend, Ralph Jackson, who had the skinny on Herschel. He pointed down to the end of a row of tables and said, “See that kid sitting down there on the end? His name is Herschel Walker. When you get back to Athens, you should tell Coach Dooley that one of the best high school athletes in the country is right here in this county.”
I did as I always have done upon getting to the office the next morning. When I told the coaches about Herschel, they all laughed. “You men y’all play football down there in Wrightsville!” In the spring when Herschel ran :09.7 in a track meet all the coaches lit out for my hometown.
Johnson Country High was in Mike Cavan’s recruiting territory. He did not make fun of my scouting report. By the time Herschel signed on Easter Sunday, 1980, Mike probably spent more time in Wrightsville than I did growing up there. He developed a rapport with Herschel and his family and rendered a virtuoso performance in closing the deal— nothing short of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
In 1979, Herschel came to Athens and saw Willlie McClendon break Frank Sinckwich’s all-time rushing record for a season with 1,312 yards. Little did we know that Willie’s record would stand for only a year.
After Herschel signed with Georgia, nobody could have forecast the success that he enjoyed. Breaking Willie’s rushing record in 1980 was just one of the many highlights in Herschel’s career.
Herschel’s career was a champagne run and nobody was prouder to be within arm’s length than his fellow Wrightsville native.