Why is Herschel Walker a big deal in Georgia? Here’s why

He was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. He traveled the countryside, accompanied by his faithful companion Babe, a blue ox. He was, and maybe still is, more powerful than a locomotive.

OK, none of the above is true, at least not of Herschel Walker. But there was a time when the young man from Wrightsville seemed capable of anything. Could he fell the tallest trees with one swing of an axe? Dunno, but he planted a Tennessee defender at the 5-yard line in Neyland Stadium. Was he as irresistible as a hurtling train? Unclear, but he did, and still does, thousands of pushups on an ordinary day.

And now, much later in a fascinating life, Herschel Walker plans to run for the U.S. Congress in Georgia (in a Senate race), which Davy Crockett – who, unlike Paul Bunyan and Superman, was an actual human being – did, serving three terms in the House of Representatives. With that, we’ll leave the political stuff, and the analysis of the personal issues that could cloud his campaign, to the great Greg Bluestein. Our aim today is to offer newcomers a crash course in why he was, once upon a time, the biggest name in this state.

Herschel was a legend before he turned 20. We know this because nobody calls him by his last name, there being other noted Walkers. Among Herschels, he’s the one and only.

He was the talk of this and many states before he graduated from Johnson County High. He’d been anointed the nation’s No. 1 prospect at a time when recruiting lists were compiled by a couple of guys with P.O. boxes and mimeograph machines. So heated was the competition for his collegiate services that Mike Cavan, the former Georgia quarterback who became an assistant coach under Vince Dooley, spent nearly every night from New Year’s 1980 through Easter living in Wrightsville.

As a recruiter, Cavan wasn’t allowed to speak with Herschel at length, UGA and most every program having exhausted their official visits. Cavan was stationed in Wrightsville so he could say hello as Herschel arrived at school in the morning and goodbye after he completed track practice at twilight.

This was known as “bumping.” Brief bumps were, in the NCAA’s eyes, permissible. Cavan was one of many designated bumpers who came to know every restaurant in Wrightsville too well. Clemson had a man in place. So did Southern Cal. There were so many recruiters hanging around that Herschel was asked if he might cut his list to three finalists and let everyone else go home. He told the assembled bumpers that wouldn’t be fair. Herschel hated to hurt anyone’s feelings.

The pursuit of Herschel was unprecedented, and not just because it went on so long. Back then, most prospects signed letters-of-intent in February. Herschel didn’t make up his mind until April. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution scared Georgia when it reported that a man named John Robinson had checked into the Macon Marriott, John Robinson being the name of Southern Cal’s head coach. This John Robinson was a salesman from Iowa who couldn’t understand why the phone in his room was ringing off the hook.

Finally, Herschel let it be known he’d announce his choice on Easter Sunday, the final day of the signing period. Barbara Dooley, Vince’s wife, had planned a holiday getaway to New England. Her husband said, “I can’t go.” She asked why not. Herschel is about to sign, she was told. Her response: “Screw Herschel.”

Cavan, Dooley and recruiting coordinator Steve Greer spent Easter sitting in a car outside the Walker home. A family member brought the signed letter out. Not long thereafter, the Dooley family had a Labrador named Herschel.

Dooley wasn’t overly impressed by Herschel – the tailback, not the Lab – in preseason practice. He told Larry Munson, the incomparable voice of the Bulldogs, he feared the heralded signee might be “just a big, stiff back.” For the opener in Knoxville, Georgia’s starting tailback was Donnie McMickens. His backup was Carnie Norris. The No. 1 recruit was No. 3 on the depth chart.

Herschel didn’t enter the game until late in the second quarter. Georgia trailed 9-0 at the half, 15-2 when Herschel began to ramble. In the third quarter, he ran over Bill Bates. The Bulldogs won 16-15. Munson’s frenzied call on WSB radio – “My god, a freshman!” – was the talk of the South by Sunday morning.

Dooley arrived home to be greeted by his children, who’d listened to the game. “We know what we want to name the dog,” they said, speaking of their new puppy. “Herschel.”

Dooley: “Wait a second. I’ve got to ask Herschel if he’d mind.”

Herschel didn’t mind. He told his coach, “I’d be honored.”

ESPN was a year old. Cable TV hadn’t yet become a thing. Schools were allowed only so many televised games per season. It wasn’t until the South Carolina game of Nov. 1 that Georgia graced national TV. He gained 219 yards and scored on a 76-yard run while outrunning three defenders, each of whom seemed to have an angle. That was Herschel. He outran angles. He was the fastest big man – or biggest fast man – anybody had seen.

Fact is, more people heard about Herschel before they saw him. When they finally did, he was better than they’d imagined. In the history of the world, how many people or products have been better than their massive hype? The Beatles, yes. The iPhone, yes. Herschel, absolutely.

My first sustained look came on the Sunday morning before Georgia was to play Kentucky. The day before, Herschel had run for 283 yards against Vanderbilt. I covered the Wildcats for the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Want to see Herschel?” defensive coordinator Charlie Bailey said, beckoning me into film room. Coach Fran Curci also entered, which was unusual. He never watched film of the opposing offense. “OK,” Curci said, “Show me this guy.”

After five minutes – and the astonishing run where Herschel flicked a defender off his shoulder pad – everyone in the room was laughing and yelling. “This guy,” Curci said, forgetting that his team was about to face Herschel, “is the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”

Georgia went 12-0 and won the national title. (AJC headline: “Unbeaten, untied and unbelievable.”) Herschel rushed for 150 yards – with a tender shoulder – against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs’ total offense that day was 127 yards. They were as close to a one-man team as there has ever been, and that one man, at least that year, was invincible.

An unintended consequence of Herschel’s freshman season was that he turned the tracking of recruits into a national industry. There had never been anyone like him – a No. 1 recruit who showed up and, as a freshman, turned his collegiate choice into the nation’s No. 1 team. Georgia fans have waited nearly 40 years for the Next Herschel. There won’t be another. There’s only the one.

His pro career was, almost inevitably, a disappointment. He spent three seasons in the doomed USFL. He had two Pro Bowl seasons in the NFL, both for Dallas, but his greatest value to the Cowboys was as part of the massive trade that helped rebuild that rebuilding team into a Super Bowl champ. If you take away his three seasons at Georgia, Herschel is more a curiosity – from the USFL to the NFL to Olympic bobsledder to MMA fighter.

Here in Georgia, he remains the Herschel who wore silver britches. Over his three seasons, Georgia lost three games and won three SEC titles. He was the center of attention in a state that had just seen a man from Plains serve as president of the United States. He surely was the most-interviewed collegian ever – Claude Felton, then as now Georgia’s publicist, saw to that – and he was among the media’s favorites. (Yours truly was granted three audiences.) He was patient and polite and cheerful and self-deprecating. He’d make it a point to say he didn’t think he was any better than Carnie Norris. Without fail, he’d mention his hopes of becoming an FBI agent.

When Herschel broke his thumb in a Saturday scrimmage before the 1982 season, the AJC tore up its Sunday sports front. Van McKenzie, the sports editor, also cleared two inside pages for Herschel reaction. At the top of those pages was a graphic – Van loved his graphics – of a large thumb wrapped in an Ace bandage.

On Labor Day night, Georgia was to open against Clemson, the 1981 national champ. Lights were installed at Sanford Stadium to accommodate ABC. Dooley told reporters there was no way Herschel could play. Nobody believed him. Sure enough, Herschel trotted on the field early in the third quarter. With the stadium going nuts, John Lastinger faked a handoff. Every defender ran toward Herschel, only to see Lastinger flip the ball to Tron Jackson on a reverse. The giddy touchdown was invalidated on a holding call. The eminent Loran Smith has deemed it “the greatest play in Georgia history that didn’t count.”

That was Herschel in those halcyon days. Even when he didn’t have the ball, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. One Sunday in Athens, Herschel came upon a man trying to extricate a 67-year-old woman from a car that had been in an accident and was beginning to smoke. The man couldn’t open the door. Herschel did. The man, whose name was Ted Shanks, told reporters: “It was like looking up and there’s John Wayne helping you.”

Herschel last played for the Bulldogs on Jan. 1, 1983. That’s a while ago. The memories, however, remain vivid. The first time you saw him, you thought what Curci said: This was the greatest player you’d ever seen. You think so still.