OPINION: In Herschel Walker’s Wrightsville, a favorite son comes home

The road to Johnson City High School was renamed for Herschel Walker in 2017.

Credit: Patricia Murphy

Credit: Patricia Murphy

The road to Johnson City High School was renamed for Herschel Walker in 2017.

WRIGHTSVILLE — “I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia and I’ve lived the American dream,” Herschel Walker says in his opening video as a candidate for U.S. Senate.

The two-minute spot features sweeping images of a small-town water tower, Walker running sprints on his high school track and then sitting on a porch with his mother overlooking the sunset.

It’s all meant to answer the sharpest attack on Walker so far — that as a Texas resident for the last 30 years, the famous former football player has long ago forgotten about Georgia.

But a trip to Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville will tell you quickly that Walker’s hometown has not forgotten about him.

The football field where Walker dominated and where he still holds the school records for rushing, rushing touchdowns, and tackles, is named “Herschel Walker Field.” The high school itself, where he graduated as valedictorian, is on Herschel Walker Road, renamed for him in 2017 by a group of his classmates.

Inside Wrightsville City Hall, in a corner storefront across from the town square, a blue-and-white sign on the wall reads, “43, Home of Herschel Walker,” with a nod to the number on his jerseys in high school.

Beyond the hometown-hero signage, it’s also hard to find anyone in Wrightsville who doesn’t know, or at least know of, the newly declared Senate candidate. And it’s even harder to find anyone who says they don’t like him.

Walker grew up here, went to school here, and returns frequently to visit his mother and sister, who still live in the area.

Most years, he is also the main draw at the town’s annual July 4th festival on the square.

“He and his family ride in the parade with his classic car collection,” the town’s mayor, Janibeth Outlaw, told me during my visit there on the day after Walker joined the Senate race. “He also does a football camp for elementary schoolboys.”

Outlaw said Walker had done other things for people in the town that he doesn’t publicize and that she didn’t want to share.

“I guess it’s like that verse, ‘Let your giving be done in secret,’” she said.

Like many Georgians who will be voting in the 2022 elections, the 36-year-old mayor wasn’t alive when Walker began making headlines and winning games as a running back for the Georgia Bulldogs. “But he has always been a household name,” she said.

Outlaw knows Walker now and usually hears from him before he comes to town. “He’s the most down-to-earth person you’d ever want to meet,” she said.

With just 3,600 people in the town, everyone seems to have a Herschel Walker connection. The mayor’s father-in-law sold Walker his first car at the local Pontiac dealership, a prized possession that Walker still keeps in a nearby garage.

The groundskeeper at the Johnson County High School football field also played on the football team and used to work for Walker’s father, Willis, mowing his lawn and doing odd jobs.

A man sitting on the street said his friend’s brother works on Walker’s car collection.

Curious to see if he ever stops into the Wrightsville Auto Supply for parts, I went in to ask at the counter.

Larry Hightower, a truck driver from Wrightsville, was checking out. He’s known Walker most of his life.

“I went to school with Herschel. We were raised up together,” he said. “He’s just always been personable. He’s all-around a decent person,” he said. “Herschel is loved.”

Another man walked past and overheard our conversation. “Y’all talking about Herschel?” he asked.

I explained I was writing about the Senate race now that Walker had gotten in. “Herschel’s going to win whether he wants to or not,” he predicted.

There’s no question Walker would easily win Johnson County and most of the rest of deep red, rural Georgia.

The most frequent sights you’ll see on the roads into or out of Wrightsville are cornfields, pecan groves, Trump flags and Georgia Bulldog signs.

As the most famous Bulldog in history and a friend of Trump for decades, Republicans couldn’t have built a better fit for this area if they’d assembled him in a factory themselves.

That Walker has returned home so frequently, even when no one was looking, also speaks to the kind of person Georgia voters might find when they get to know him better.

It’s especially notable for Walker, who in his memoir detailed the struggle he found growing up in a county where the Ku Klux Klan still marched as recently as the 1960s.

“Racism’s long history in Georgia was still deeply rooted,” he wrote of larger Johnson County.

Even with the motto, “the friendliest town in Georgia,” the town square still has a Confederate Memorial with two Confederate flags flying high beside it.

Craig Miller works in a kaolin plant in Washington County. As he sat on a bench next to City Hall, he wasn’t ready to say he’d support Walker for Senate, just because he’d grown up in town.

“You know you got poverty everywhere,” he said. To his point, 20% of residents in Johnson County live below the poverty line. “You’ve really got to care for the people,” he said.

I showed him Walker’s video featuring Wrightsville and his promise to fight to make the American dream possible for other people, too.

Could he envision supporting Walker after seeing that?

“I think so,” he said. with a smile. “I hope so.”

Whether Walker will be an effective, or even capable, Senate candidate remains to be seen. How a majority of Georgia voters will process his troubled personal history or close friendship with Donald Trump is not clear, either.

Will he even stay in the race? Who knows.

But that probably won’t matter in Wrightsville, where Herschel Walker will always have a home.