University City, Calif. — The place was the entrance to the Universal Studios Tour, and Frankenstein was doing what many of the nation's best defensive players had been unable to accomplish during the regular season.
The Monster had a bear hug on All-America freshman tailback Herschel Walker of the undefeated University of Georgia gridiron team. Walker was laughing so hard that, had he been carrying a football, he probably would have fumbled.
This is the same young man who finished third in the 1980 balloting for the Heisman Trophy behind South Carolina's George Rogers and Pittsburg's Hugh Green. He also gained the most yards ever (1,616) by a freshman in the history of college football. The previous record was held by Tony Dorsett, now of the Dallas Cowboys, with 1,586.
Herschel was visiting California to appear in a TV spectacular that would present in person all 22 members of the 1980 Kodak All-America football team. As any tourist, he had trouble keeping his eyes off Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera, all of whom sometimes roam Universal's back lot.
Walker is what you would get if it were possible for football coaches to go to a custom body shop and order a 6 ft. 1 in., 220-pound runner with 9.2 speed for the 100; legs the size of highway guardrail posts; and the instincts of a jack rabbit. Most National Football League teams say they could find a spot for him right now.
But Herschel doesn't do it all with speed. He is also a punishing runner who often shifts the football from one hand to the other while he's moving -- the better to stiff-arm opponents who attack him from the side. The pros like that about him, too, and can't wait to see him and Georgia take on Notre Dame on New Year's day in the Sugar Bowl.
"once the quarterback hands me the ball, I'm not what you'd really call a fast starter," Walker told me while we toured Universal together. "I never hit the line that quickly, because first you have to make sure you have control of the football. Fast isn't necessarily good if it cuts down on the time you need to see where you're going."
"i kind of pick my way through the secondary before I start to take advantage of my speed," he continued. "It's not anything anyone ever told me to do. It's just me. I watch game films of myself and Georgia's opponents sometimes because I guess all coaches like their players to study films. But I've never felt that I learned much from them. I think a good runner gets to where he's going by instinct or else he doesn't get there at all."
For Walker, who was the top student in is high school graduating class of 104 , there was virtually no transition period from high school to college football. He was never what you might call a rookie, but a kid who made his presence felt right away and took his duties as a pass blocker just as seriously as the more glamorous job of carrying the ball.
When the Bulldog coach, Vince Dooley, recruited Herschel he used two primary arguments -- that Georgia wasn't that far from where Walker lived and that the university had an excellent criminology department. Herschel, a prelaw student at the moment, is very eager to become a member of the FBI someday, like two of his relatives.
Walker, wise beyond his 18 years, is basically a great all-around athlete, who scored 45 touchdowns in his senior year at Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., giving him a four-year total of 86. He also won the state high school 100- and 200-yard dashes and the state shotput title.
"But at no point in my thinking did I ever feel like the switch from high school to college football would be easy," Herschel said. "I came in respecting the opposition, because in college there are always 11 great defensive players on the other side of the line. Frankly, I was really surprised when I finished third in the Heisman balloting, because I didn't expect anybody to pay that much attention to a freshman."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Walker is his seeming lack of interest right now in professional football as a career."
"I'm still only a freshman in college, and how do I know what I'll be thinking about three years from now," Herschel said. "I might want to do something entirely different. I've never had a favorite pro team or player, and most of the time I don't even watch the game on TV. And my reason is because there are other things that I'd rather be doing."
At this point in his career, I have no doubts that Walker means what he says. But in another three years, when some professional team pushes a multi-year contract worth more than a million dollars in front of him, he's going to find it awfully hard to say no!