It appears that UGA football is still a reporter’s delight (and pain in the butt). Sometimes off the field.
The recent disastrous turn of events that disgraced a promising athletic director and probably altered the Dawgs sports fortunes, at least temporarily, got me to remembering, to use a current expression, I’ve seen this movie before. About three decades ago.
The star was Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs fleet tailback and Heisman Trophy winner, then in his junior year. I even had a tiny part, which brings another expression to mind: “Location, location, location.”
I was the only reporter in sight in the AJC newsroom on an early February morning, on general assignment, meaning that I could be thrown at anything. But there was nothing going on, and I was reading the morning rag over coffee at my desk when I saw Jim Minter, a former sports writer and the paper’s executive editor, suddenly accost Managing Editor Eddie Sears in the middle of the news room, say something briefly, and stalk away.
Sears spotted me, and hurried over.
Sears: “Are you on deadline?”
Sears: “You know Barry Wood (then and now chief spokesman for the UGA). You call Wood, and tell him I want to know: what’s all this f—— s— about Herschel?”
Me: “Gee, Eddie, has something happened with Herschel?”
Sears: “Never mind. You just ask him, for me, what’s all this f—— s— with Herschel!”
He walked away, and I dialed Wood’s office. His assistant, Larry Dendy, answered. Barry isn’t available, he said.
Me: “Eddie Sears wants to know, what’s this f—— s— about Herschel?”
Dendy: “Well, all I can say for sure is that the Macon News (Macon’s afternoon paper at the time) is reporting that Herschel is turning pro, that he’s signing with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.”
(The Macon News is gone now, merged with the morning Macon Telegraph. So are The Generals and the USFL. And Herschel Walker retired from the gridiron years ago.)
I was now aware that Sears was looking over my shoulder as I pounded out what Dendy was telling me on my typewriter (what’s a typewriter, grandpa). I saw Sears nod in agreement and walk away.
“The athletic department is having a press conference at 10:30,” Dendy said.”Are you or somebody going to be there?”
I answered with the old and off-color question about the Pope and a bear in the woods, thanked him and hung up.
Getting no further instructions about the breaking sports news, I went on to other stories I was working, and went to lunch. I was suddenly pulled back to The Big Story in mid afternoon, and dispatched to Walker’s hometown.
Go to his home, I was ordered. Talk to his parents, and to Herschel, if he’s there.
For the only time in my career, the AJC chartered a plane for me (a puddle-jumper, to be sure, but still…) to fly me to Dublin, southeast of Macon, where I rented a car, and drove north some 20 miles to Wrightsville.
I was familiar with the town, frequently described by AJC headline writers as “Racially Torn Wrightsville” for occasional faceoffs between the civil rights demonstrators, the local sheriff, and the sheriff’s admirers known, to borrow an overused and obnoxious name popular among some folks, as “good ol’ boys.”
Georgia native, political pundit, and AJC columnist Bill Shipp demolished the term, writing that a lot of the angry whites who confronted civil rights protests were “neither good, nor old, nor boys.”
Kudos to Shipp for an accurate, effective, and concise description in a half dozen words.
My thanks as well to Herschel’s parents, Willis and Christine Walker, who allowed me into their home briefly that evening. I recall sitting on the sofa with the football player’s brother Lorenzo and sister Carol as they watched with poker faces as Herschel’s picture flashed on the CBS Evening News. A UGA student, interviewed on camera, cracked: “Herschel took the money and ran while he could.”
“If he’s happy, I’m happy,” Lorenzo said.
That evening I reached Bob Newsome, the town Ford dealer, described as Walker’s close advisor. He said assured financial security was the main reason for Herschel’s choice.
Added Willis Walker: “If he made the wrong choice, I just can’t see it. Herschel’s satisfied and I think the public ought to be.”
A short time later, I left the Walker’s home (never did see Herschel) and drove to the town square. I found a pay phone (cell phones? what are they?), dictated my story to some impatient nightside reporter on the midnight shift from memory and almost unreadable scribbled notes and made it to the Dublin Holiday Inn before the bar closed.
Herschel went on to a lucrative football career as a pro. I went back to a living wage at a usually interesting and occasionally fun profession. So who am I to gripe?