Herschel Walker, peach of a runner and a person, too

Herschel Walker may finally have a bead on the Heisman Trophy, which has side-stepped him the last two years.

Both statistically and artistically, Stanford's senior quarterback John Elway stands a chance for the title of best college football player. But Georgia's crunching tailback owns one important edge. He is playing on a No. 1 team for the second time in three years.

And in case anyone's wondering, neither Bulldog squad was supposed to be riding the crest. About the only constant was the thunder identified as No. 34 in your program.

That Herschel may wind up leading essentially two different teams to a national championship makes specifics practically unnecessary. For the record, though, he has scored 50 career touchdowns, averaged better than five yards a carry, and moved into fourth place among the all-time rushing leaders with 5,097 yards.

Given another year of eligibility, an almost unimaginable 7,000 yards gained is not out of the question. (Tony Dorsett's 6,082 yards are the current standard.)

As the consummate freight train in cleats, Walker has impeccable stats, but they tell only part of the story.

Herschel is as multi-faceted as any young man could hope to be, particularly one asked to devote so much time to football. But he doesn't eat, sleep, and breathe the game as some scholarship athletes do and hardly considers himself a sports fanatic. ''I never watched football on TV or anything,'' he indicates. ''I love to compete. I love to play it. I just never kept up with it.''

His non-football pursuits seem to run the gamut, from horseback riding and karate to poetry writing and dancing. That he seldom sleeps more than four hours helps him squeeze a lot into his days.

''I'm an active person. I can't sit down; I have to be doing something,'' he says. ''Before a game I'll be dancing or clowning around, and other people don't think I'm concentrating. I even dance putting my uniform on.''

Though he's smooth enough to have won several dance contests, Herschel never boogaloos in the end zone. When he scores, the ball is tossed casually to the official. The gentleman that's so evident off the field shines through.

''I think I'd vote on Herschel for the Heisman Trophy on character alone,'' says Gil Brandt, vice president of the Dallas Cowboys. ''He's one of the finest young men that I've ever had the privilege of meeting.''

With the press he's very well mannered and makes full, articulate answers the rule, not the exception.

During the season, Walker is made available to the media hordes during twice-weekly press conferences and after games. That he's uttered nary a curt, irritable word in three years is a testament to his upbringing if nothing else.

His parents have instilled in him a love for life, a respect for people, and a reverence for God. He and his mother are particularly close.Last year, when he finished second to Southern California's Marcus Allen in the Heisman race, she presented Herschel with a trophy resembling the famed statuette. It was inscribed: ''To the best son in the world.''

His coach, Vince Dooley, calls Walker ''amazingly disciplined'' for someone with such raw talent. Despite his professed penchant for movement, he sits erectly and listens closely in sometimes tedious team meetings. But then Herschel always was a good student.The valedictorian of a high school class of 104 pupils, he has maintained a B average studying criminology at college.

Eventually he hopes to enter law school, then become an FBI agent like several of his relatives. ''My mother wants me to be a lawyer, but I don't think that would fit me too well,'' he says. ''I love law enforcement and wanted to be a police officer. I talked to some patrolmen, though, and they said if I had a chance to do anything to go all out, because being a policeman is not the best job in the world.''

Walker quickly achieved celebrity status at Georgia in 1980, rushing for a national freshman record 1,616 yards as the Bulldogs went undefeated.

Herschel obviously was every bit as good as recruiters expected him to be. His high school exploits (6,137 yards, 86 TDs) had attracted them like ants to a picnic. The pitchmen swarmed Wrightsville, Ga., in such numbers that the National Collegiate Athletic Association sent in investigators to keep an eye on things.

He decided on Georgia because it was close to home (about 90 miles away) and because of the school's criminology department.

Considering that several good running backs, including 1980 Heisman winner George Rogers, had fled the state, wooing Herschel was an important step in reasserting the university's recruiting prowess.

There was initially some question about how he would fare jumping from small-town high school competition to the college big time. But before the season ended, most people were convinced he could have bypassed college altogether to play pro ball.

After his sophomore season, it began to look like he might take a crack at the National Football League. The NFL has a rule against signing players before their college class graduates, but Herschel feels the rule is unconstitutional and comtemplated challenging it in court.

Dooley believes his star running back was having too much fun in college to leave. So the pro talk has subsided for the time being, but it's sure to resurface for one reason or another before he graduates. If nothing else, he may be faced with delaying his NFL entry in order to compete in the 1984 Olympics. An All-American sprinter, he believes he could make the US team either in one of the individual dash events or as a relay team member.

That would be a fitting achievement, since it was once Herschel's inability to outrun an older sister that fueled his athletic dedication. By the time he finally beat her after his sophomore year in high school, he was well into an incredible training regimen that included countless sprints. Today his 6 ft. 2 in., 220-lb. physique bristles with muscles, a testament to an estimated 100,000 pushups and situps a year.

Surprisingly, Herschel is not inclined to gorge himself at the training table. In fact, he claims to eat just one meal a day, with ''a hamburger and half an order of fries'' his typical fast-food order. ''Eating never was my thing,'' he states.

While Walker doesn't really need bodyguards, he now receives a police escort leaving the field after games. It helps shield him from overexuberant fans.

Despite the attention, Herschel's helmet size is the same as when he arrived in Athens. And to the delight of Bulldog fans, he is still a team man through and through. Injured and not expected to play in this year's opener against Clemson, he nonetheless entered the game with the Bulldogs trailing 7-0 in the second quarter.

Herschel was used primarily as a decoy, gaining only 20 yards on 11 carries, thus jeopardizing his chances of winning a national rushing title. Considering he's yet to earn that individual honor (one that Heisman voters pay particular attention to) the act was especially altruistic. Georgia, of course, came back to win, establishing the pattern for the team's entire season

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