Off the field, Herschel is the star almost nobody knows
You sit around the house and wonder,
You also think in bed.
Some days are bright, but most
You wish you were dead.
His brooding poetry to the contrary, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that Herschel Walker has ever had a bad day in his life. At 19, he is the most celebrated college football player of his generation—and possibly the finest ever. Last year, as a freshman, he led the University of Georgia Bulldogs to an undefeated season and the national championship. He carried the ball 1,616 yards, shattering Tony Dorsett’s freshman record, and roused his team to a win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl despite a painful shoulder injury that would have kept anyone but Clark Kent on the sidelines. For his efforts during the regular season Herschel came closer to winning the Heisman Trophy, given every year to the nation’s best college player, than any other freshman in the 46-year history of the award. This season it’s been more of the same. Herschel has rushed for 1,666 yards, carrying Georgia to a 9-1 record and a chance to be ranked No. 1 again when the final poll is taken in January. He is one of two leading candidates for this year’s Heisman; USC senior Marcus Allen is the other. Walker clearly feels he deserves the award. “If Ronald Reagan could vote for himself for President,” he says, “then I reckon I could vote for me.” (He can’t, of course, since the balloting is by a panel of sportswriters.)
Herschel is rarely so outspoken. In fact, there is an enveloping shyness about him that gives him an aura of mystery. “He’s exceedingly clever,” says a family friend. “He handles people by being very evasive in a very polite way.”
Already one of the nation’s top sprinters, he hopes to be the next Olympic champion in the 100 meters. “I started playing football in the ninth grade,” he observed earlier this year, “but I grew up running. If I had to pick, I’d go for track. I like competition on a one-to-one basis, and I want a gold medal more than a Heisman.”
Even so, virtually every NFL coach would spend a month in a locked room with Howard Cosell if that’s what it took to get Herschel’s name on a contract. “If he had been eligible for the NFL draft last year,” says a pro football executive, “he’d have been the first player chosen.” As it is, the NFL does not permit a player to be drafted before his class has graduated from college, a rule Walker says denies him the right to earn a living. Last spring he had Georgia fans in an agony of apprehension before turning down a reported $1.5 million, three-year contract to play football in Canada.
Born in Wrightsville, Ga. (pop. 1,700), Herschel, the fifth of seven children, is the son of a machine operator father and a mother who works as a supervisor in a pants factory. “I got along okay with my brothers and sisters,” he says, “but there was a lot of rivalry about who was the fastest in the family.” His competitive background served him well in high school, where in three years Walker rushed for 6,137 yards and scored 86 touchdowns. His intensity rarely reached flash point, but when it did the consequences were awesome. Once, after a high school teammate tackled him by the face mask during practice, Herschel demanded the play be run again. “He was like a wild bull,” remembers his coach, Gary Phillips. “He slammed into the kid, then he smashed everyone on the field. He even knocked over a kid on the sidelines.”
Recruited by more than 100 colleges, Herschel finally chose Georgia over USC by flipping a coin—but not until one enterprising coach had arrived at his high school by helicopter. “He’s not a normal teenager,” says coach Phillips. “He’s got so much ability it’s as if he’s from a different planet.”
Occasionally he may wish he were. When Herschel was a senior in high school, Wrightsville was racially tense over police reaction to civil rights demonstrations. Walker, already a celebrity, refused to join a black protest rally because, he says, he knew too little about the situation. “He went into total isolation,” recalls his ex-track coach, Tom Jordan. “One day he told me, ‘My friends won’t even talk to me because I won’t get involved in the protests.’ It changed him. He won’t give of himself freely now. He realized how few people he could count on.”
A criminology major at Georgia, Herschel talks of someday joining the FBI. Two of his cousins are agents. “I used to watch all the cop shows when I was a kid,” he says. “It seems exciting, and I love excitement.” On campus, he drives around in a gleaming black Trans-Am, a gift from his family. Though he seems to be content at Georgia, he remains tantalizingly vague about whether he will stay two more years. “I’m going to get a degree,” he says, “but I don’t know if it will be here or somewhere else.” A solid B student, Herschel has few close friends and no steady date. He rarely sleeps more than two or three hours a night, and writes his poetry when his teammates are in bed. Although he enjoys an obvious rapport with them, to most he is a stranger. “All last season he never said one word in the huddle,” says quarterback Buck Belue. “I often wonder what’s going on in his head.” Observes Herschel: “People really don’t know me. Anyone will tell you that. Even my mother will tell you she doesn’t know me that well. Tomorrow I could just dry up and blow away and you’d never hear from me again.” Obviously, he would prefer a little more glory before that happens. “Whenever I’m up for anything, I like to win it,” he says firmly. “If you come in second you haven’t really done anything.”