By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Former Georgia Heisman Trophy-running back Herschel Walker turned 50 years old on March 2.
Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t make Herschel feel old. The man that many people consider the greatest football player in Southeastern Conference history – “I don’t think you can ever say who’s the greatest,” says Herschel – still a rockhard 6-1, 225, who looks like he could carry the ball 30 times a game.
By the way, that was his career attempts per game at Georgia in just three seasons from 1980-82 – 32.1 attempts every Saturday. By today’s standards, that’s just ridiculously high.
For Herschel, the SEC’s all-time rushing leader with 5,259 yards on 994 attempts, 159.4 yards per game (which are all still untouchable league records) and 49 TDs, his motor has always run full throttle.
Aside from his 15-year pro career for five teams in two leagues, he has been an Olympic bobsledder, danced in a ballet and appeared for one season on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
He still does 2,000 situps and 1,000 pushups before sunrise, and may have the best body of any 50-year-old on the planet. He continues to train at the Dallas Cowboys’ complex (one of his pro stops) and said he was recently timed running a sub 4.4 40-yard dash.
Herschel never quits moving. Last week in Memphis, he spoke at a Salvation Army banquet, delivering a 38-minute non-stop speech in which he barely stopped to take a breath.
Sometime this week, he’ll join another SEC Heisman Trophy winning running back, Auburn’s Bo Jackson, for a portion of Jackson’s 300-mile charity bike ride that starts Tuesday through tornado-ravaged communities in Alabama. Jackson is raising $1 million for the Governor’s Emergency Fund to aid in the continued recovery from last April’s tornados.
Next week, Herschel will join former NASCAR star Kyle Petty on his 18th annual charity motorcycle ride across America, this time through the Southwest.
After that for Herschel, there’s another MMA fight – that’s right, a 50-year man fighting professional mixed martial arts. He’s 2-0 in the MMA, even though his mother told him, “You’ve lost your mind” when she learned he was pursuing the sport two years ago.
It’s ironic that his mother said that, because after Herschel retired from football he thought the same thing. With the urging of his then-wife Cindy, he finally sought medical help and he discovered he had DID (disassociative identity disorder), a relatively rare mental condition where a person has two or more distinct personalities.
Herschel is also the founder and CEO of Renaissance Man Food Service, a company with 900 employees that provides mostly chicken products from a chicken processing plant that he co-owns in Arkansas.
“I’ve been blessed to make a lot of money in football,” Herschel says. “But to open up a company that gives people jobs means a lot to me. As long as all my employees are paid and all the bills are paid, I’m not going to worry about anything else.
“I think having that philosophy and taking care of your people has helped my company do very well. I tell my people I want them to enjoy their jobs. When we do things, I want us to have fun.
“When we meet with people who want to do business with us and they are rude to us, I’ll say, `We don’t need this. A lot of other people want to work with us.’ ”
As much as anything Herschel ever accomplished in football, he has loved building a successful business, because people may have been shocked he could do it.
“At first when I went into business meetings, people would talk to me about football and talk to my employees about the business,” Herschel says. “It was insulting in a way, so I had to get those people straight. I’m the one that built this.
“I had to let people know I was the one responsible. When I first started selling chicken, I would go into a company to sell and they were real nice to me and say I can sell them two cases of chicken and let Tyson sell them 10,000 cases. I’m like, `I don’t want a handout. If you don’t want to give me business, I don’t want to be here.’ ”
“But every thing I’ve learned, about teamwork and motivation, came from football. When I played for Georgia, we were not the most talented team in college football, or the biggest or the strongest. Yet, we played together as a unit and we won a lot of games.”
Before or since, the Bulldogs haven’t enjoyed the three-year stretch they had when Herschel was being handed the ball and pounding away at defenses designed to stop him.
Starting as a freshman in 1980 through ’82 when he jumped to the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling United States Football League, Walker’s Georgia teams were a combined 33-3 with three SEC champions and a national title in 1980.
He won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 as a junior, after finishing second in the voting as a sophomore in 1981 and third as a freshman in 1980.
“I’m going to tell you a secret – the first time I was told that I was up for the Heisman Trophy, I didn’t even know what the Heisman Trophy was,” Herschel recalls with a laugh. “I had to look it up.”
The kids who knew Herschel when he was growing up in Wrightsville, Georgia, were probably stunned that the pudgy kid who used to get beat up in elementary school every day had turned into an all-American beast of a running back.
“I stuttered real bad as a child,” Herschel says. “My teachers put me in a corner and said I was `special.’ For four years, I wouldn’t go out for recess, because I used to get beat up.
“One day, I decided to go outside for recess. As soon I stepped outside, this kid named Anthony beat me up. I got home and I was sitting there watching `Gilligan’s Island.’ After awhile, I decided that no one was ever going to beat me up again and no teacher was ever going to put me in a corner again.
“So I started doing all these pushups and situps, 5,000 of each every day. I went to the library and began reading books all summer.
“When I showed for the ninth grade (at Johnson County High), I no longer walked with my head down. I no longer sat in the back of the room during class. I walked upright. I’d sit in the front of classes and answer questions. By the time I was a senior, I was getting academic scholarship offers from Harvard and Yale.”
Armed with a stronger, more athletic body, Herschel played football for the first time in the ninth grade. The reason he went out for the team wasn’t because he loved the sport.
“I knew if I went home after school, I’d have to wash dishes,” Herschel says. “I hated washing dishes, so I played football.”
In his senior season, he ran for 3,167 yards, Johnson County won the state championship and Herschel won the first-ever Dial Award given to the nation’s top-scholar athlete.
Naturally, he was at the center of an intense recruiting battle. Everyone expected him to sign with Georgia, because of the program’s tradition and consistent recent success under then-coach Vince Dooley.
But Herschel got tired of hearing he was supposed to go to Georgia because his sister was attending Georgia. He wanted to go in the Marines.
“I flipped a coin between going to college and going to the Marines,” Herschel says. “The coin said to go to college, but I didn’t want to go to Georgia, just because everybody was telling me I should go there.
“So I thought I should go to the place people in Georgia hated the most – Clemson. So I flipped a coin and it came up Georgia. I said, `Best out of five.’ I flipped and Georgia still won. Then I flipped between going to Georgia and Southern Cal. Georgia won. I said, `Mom, I’m going to draw out of a hat.’ I drew Georgia all three times.
“I still didn’t want to sign with Georgia, but my parents called Coach Dooley, I told him I’d sign. When he got there, I was too embarrassed to tell him I was joking and I didn’t want to sign with Georgia.
“But I signed. And after I do that, Coach Dooley came up to me and my father and said, `We’re happy to have Herschel at the University of Georgia. But we really don’t think he can play there. We’re happy to have him there, because he’s one of the smartest students in the state of Georgia.’
“All my life, I’ve heard kids tell me I wasn’t good enough. I heard teachers tell me I wasn’t good enough. So I began doing more situps, more pushups, ran more. I wanted to be ready to play when I got to Georgia.”
When Herschel reported to Athens in the fall of 1980 at 215 pounds, he blazed a timed 40-yard dash during preseason camp in 4.29 seconds. Dooley’s response was to stick Herschel on the fourth team with walk-ons and let him scrimmage against the first team defense.
“I had six carries for minus 30-something yards,” Herschel says. “Every time the quarterback would pitch me the ball, he’d run out of the way.’ And Coach Dooley would tell everybody, `Herschel’s just not ready right now, he’s just not ready.
“I called home and my mother said, `Don’t worry. The Lord will make a way.’ ”
Georgia opened the season at Tennessee, and Herschel said he didn’t expect to play, since he was third on the depth chart behind Donnie McMickins and Carnie Norris. But when the Bulldogs fell behind 15-2 during the first half, Dooley put Herschel in the game as the 2,000 Georgia fans chanted “We want Herschel.”
Herschel’s response was to run over Tennessee safety Bill Bates for a 16-yard TD. He finished with 84 yards on 24 carries, scored once more on the day and the Bulldogs won 16-15 to begin what became an unbeaten national championship season.
When Dooley confirmed he had a thoroughbred he could saddle up and ride to the finish line, Herschel posted numbers that are still untouchable today 30 years later.
Consider that it’s news these days when a SEC running back gets 30 carries in a game, partly due to offensive schemes that call for more passing and physical play that prevents one back carrying the load.
So when someone such as current South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore had 40 carries against Florida or 37 vs. Georgia a couple of years ago, it’s described as Herschel-like.
In Walker’s 33 regular season games – which is what is counted his career stats and not his three bowl games – he had 20 games with 30 or more carries, including three games of 40 or more carries topped by his still-SEC record 47 rushes vs. Florida in 1981.
And then there’s this mind-blowing stat – he had 28 100-yard games (not counting bowls) including 21-of-22 in his final two seasons. He topped 200 yards nine times.
“I never even looked at it like anything extraordinary,” Herschel says. “That’s what our coaches wanted me to do. That’s what I was supposed to do. I played in an I-formation backfield and in an I-backfield you’re supposed to run the ball.”
“That’s why I never thought receiving awards was a big deal. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then why do you need to get awards?”
After his first two seasons at Georgia, he thought about leaving school to join the Marines. But he broke his thumb and decided to play another season as a junior.
There are some people who thought Herschel made a mistake leaving school before his senior year to join a pro league that was just starting. But the USFL was a well-financed league, with a network TV contract and it attracted an impressive talent pool.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was signing with the Generals,” Herschel says. “If I hadn’t gone to the Generals, I would have been drafted by the worst NFL team. And when I went to the Generals, I was able to show I was able to do a lot more things besides run.
“(New Jersey coach) Chuck Fairbanks put me in the slot, let me run routes and catch passes. Later on when I played for the Cowboys, I set a record for number of passes caught by a running back.”
Like LSU’s Pete Maravich in basketball, who still remains the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader, anything that Herschel did in his pro career couldn’t equal his college exploits.
And like Maravich, who averaged 25 points per game as pro and was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Herschel put up some numbers in the pros that largely go unrecognized.
In the USFL’s three years of existence from 1983 to 1985 before the league dissolved after losing a lawsuit with the NFL, he ran for 5,562 yards and twice led the league in rushing. He holds the professional football record for single-season rushing yards with 2,411 yards in 1985, averaging 5.50 yards per attempt in 18 games. The NFL record is 2,105 yards by the Rams’ Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Herschel played 12 seasons in the NFL, starting and ending with the Cowboys (1986-1989, 1996-97). In between, he played for Minnesota (1989-1991), Philadelphia (1992-94) and the New York Giants (1995).
It didn’t matter where Herschel played, he always found a way to contribute. During his NFL career, he gained 8,225 rushing yards, 4,859 receiving yards, and 5,084 kickoff-return yards, a combined 18,168 total combined net yards, which ranked him second among the NFL's all-time leaders in total yardage at the time of his retirement. He also scored 84 touchdowns: 61 rushing, 21 receiving and two kick off returns for touchdowns.
Herschel is the only other player besides Derrick Mason to have 10,000 plus yards from scrimmage and 5,000 plus return yards (all of which were on kickoff returns), and the only player to gain 4,000 yards three different ways: rushing, receiving and kickoff returns.
He has two other unique records as the only NFL player ever with a 90-yard plus reception, 90-yard plus run and a 90-yard plus kickoff return all in the same season (1994), and the only player with an 84-yard plus touchdown run and an 84-yard plus touchdown reception in the same game (December 14, 1986).
Herschel retired from football when he said he realized that his teammates were the children of teammates he first broke in the league with in the mid 1980s.
“When they were calling me Mr. Walker,” Herschel laughs, “I thought it was time to do something else.”
And it always seems there’s something else for Herschel, who’s divorced with one child.
He has always loved embracing something new, because he feels he can learn from it. When he had a chance in 2009 to compete on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” a NBC-TV show in which contestants split into teams and perform various tasks to win money for charities from multi-millionaire Donald Trump (who was once Herschel’s boss with the USFL’s Generals), he jumped at the chance.
Comedienne Joan Rivers won the competition over 16 other contestants. Herschel was the 10th contestant eliminated, but took away a lot from the show working mostly on the same team as Rivers and country singer Clint Black.
“I learned to work with all sorts of different people meshing different personalities,” Herschel says. “I learned that Joan Rivers (who was the winner that season) is a heck of a woman. The reason I say that is that for a woman her age (then 75), she worked so hard. When she dealt with people, even on the street, I never saw her act mean to one person. She was always real courteous.
“She taught me that’s the way you need to be. Sometime, the old school people teach you a lesson. Some people don’t know how to work, but Joan does and I do, because my mother and father build a foundation for me. It stays with me today. You work and good things happen.”
Throughout Herschel’s life, even now, he always finds something that motivates him to rev his internal clock every day, something that drives him even harder.
“In my food business, I sell to the University of Alabama, I sell to the University of South Carolina, I sell to the University of Florida, I sell all over everywhere,” he says. “One of my toughest clients that I sell less to anywhere is the University of Georgia. I thought that it would be one of my biggest clients.”
That’s okay with Herschel. He still enjoys having his buttons pushed, because he never gets tired of a challenge.