WESTLAKE, Tex. — The Herschel Walker you know is likely the one who won the Heisman Trophy, played 15 years of professional football, and pursued a number of competitions — from bobsledding to mixed martial arts. There’s the Herschel who collects antique automobiles, the Herschel who is trying to improve his golf game.
You are likely familiar with the Herschel who is still doing 3,500 sit-ups and 1,500 pushups daily, the one who weighs two pounds less than the 220 pounds of his playing days at the University of Georgia. Now aged 51, Herschel has always considered himself the best conditioned athlete in the world. Nothing has changed.
Then there is Herschel Walker the businessman. His business umbrella corporation is Herschel Walker Enterprises. His “Renaissance Man Food Services,” a subsidiary headquartered in Savannah, owns three processing plants in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and sales in the U.S. and Canada the last couple of years make him the largest minority chicken company in the country.
Then there is “34 Productions,” which deals with the promotional side of his business and athletic interests and is the parent of his new restaurant on Clayton Street in Athens, Herschel’s Famous 34 Pub & Grill.
Anyone who knew him as a precocious freshman tailback at Georgia and interacts with him today, gains a different perspective. Herschel, the corporate executive and business owner, is hands on.
Seasoned and introspective, Herschel hosts board meetings where team building is prominent on the agenda.When he shows up at one of his processing plants, he goes about meeting his employees, intoning spiritual and motivational thoughts and homilies into every conversation.
He’ll grab a broom and help sweep off a loading dock. He’ll sign autographs, but he mostly is about due diligence and production in the workplace. He never holds himself up as special, often saying, “I’m from little Wrightsville, Georgia. If I can do it, you can too.”
When you see summaries of all the well-known athletes — even superstars — who have gone wrong financially, you find the Herschel approach refreshing.
He travels, he works, and he seeks to motivate, inspire, and lead. (“We are put on earth to help people. Give a man a job and he can help somebody else.”) That view has become his mantra. He practices in his businesses that time-honored Bulldog theme authored by the late Erk Russell, “BIG TEAM, little me,” with deep passion. He tells his employees that “if we are on the same page and everybody does his job, we can do great things.”
When he reflects on Georgia’s winning the national championship in 1980, he invokes the team concept as being the difference, expressing himself in his familiar third-person vernacular.
“I have looked at the film. Did you ever see Herschel getting hit in the backfield? Never, which means the offensive line was doing a terrific job. We loved each other. We always believed in ourselves, that nobody could beat us. I tell everybody if Herschel had played quarterback we wouldn’t have won a game. With a team in football or in business, you only win or succeed if everybody is pulling together.”
He reminds a listener that he gained 235 yards against Florida in 1980 but points out that it “would have for naught if Lindsay Scott hadn’t caught that touchdown pass (93 yards from Buck Belue).” Just as it was when he was leading Georgia to the national championship, Herschel has good things to say about everybody.
For example, when he ran over Bill Bates for that first touchdown against Tennessee in 1980, he defends the Vol’s defensive back. “If you look at the film, Bill ducked his head just as I made contact, a cardinal sin for a tackler. I think he slipped on the turf.”
In other words if Bates had not slipped and had hit Herschel straight up, it might have been different. With the Cowboys, where Bates excelled on defense for 15 years, Herschel never brought up the Tennessee game. “I didn’t have to,” he says. Everybody else did.”
His home at the gated Vaquero Country Club is in an exclusive neighborhood with homes ranging from $1.5 million dollars and up. Typical of the conservative Herschel, he bought his house during a down time in the market.
His neighbors include Glen Beck of Fox News and Sean Peyton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, among others, which includes corporate CEOs and big-league baseball players. Herschel has a five-car garage, which contains an antique pickup truck which he has restored.
When he is not on the road, he spends time with his fiancee, Julie Blanchard, and his dog Cheerio. He works the cell phone and computer, keeping up with his multiple business enterprises. He is always exercising. If he wants room service for a quiet dinner, he can call the country club and ask for room service. If he goes to the club for lunch, an attendant will wash his car while he is enjoying a meal.
Do a casual check with Google, and you can find sad stories of athletes who have run through millions and are now broke: Curt Schilling announced in 2012 that he had lost his entire $50 million baseball fortune to a bad business venture; Boxer Mike Tyson has squandered $300 million, and Evander Holyfield, who earned $250 million in the ring, is busted; NBA star Allen Iverson, after making $154 million in salary and $30 to $50 million in endorsements, told a judge last year he was “flat broke”; golfer John Daly admitted he lost over $50 million gambling. Divorced four times, Daly said he has very little monthly income. Then there is Travis Henry, the NFL running back who fathered 11 children with 10 women and who cannot keep up with his child support payments.
Compare Herschel to the many who are bankrupt with no means of income, and you realize what an outstanding feat it is to find a professional athlete who has managed his money wisely. Even years later after attaining impressive financial success, Herschel went to purchase a bicycle for a competition.
He thought he would really be “splurging” if he had to pay $500. When he had to fork over $8,000, his thoughts were: “I hope my daddy doesn’t find out about this. He will kill me.” Herschel, even though his standard of living has him connected with a big cash flow, still operates with the view, “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”
Here’s to Herschel, one of the greatest names in football history, working for a living, trying to set a good example to kids, with a degree still on his mind, enjoying life and offering this reminder to all athletes: “What you did on the field may make it easy for you to get in the door, but after that you only succeed in business by working hard and looking after your money.”
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]