In late February 1983, martial arts instructor Lawrence Huff answered the phone at his studio in Athens, Georgia. It was one of his prized pupils—the then–college football phenomenon Herschel Walker.
“Mr. Huff, I need your help,” Walker said, recalled Huff. “My house is surrounded by photographers, and I just got to get away.”
Unbeknownst to Huff, the reason why Walker’s house was being swarmed by the media was that Walker had just announced he was passing up his senior season of football at the University of Georgia. He had signed a contract with the New Jersey Generals, one of the teams in the USFL, a fledgling league hoping to compete with the NFL by playing during the spring.
Back in the 1980s, Walker was a big star in college football—maybe its biggest ever. He was one of only three players in college football history with three top-three Heisman finishes. The fact that he might leave college to join an upstart spring football league was a shocking development. But Walker had also repeatedly lied to local reporters, guaranteeing that he was returning to school and denying signing a contract with the USFL (unlike the venerable NFL, the upstart league eschewed a rule preventing teams from signing college underclassmen). “Nobody knows what’s going on in Herschel’s mind except himself,” his college roommate Barry Young told the Atlanta Constitution at the time.
When the USFL news leaked, the media responded accordingly. Reporters and photographers tried to track down Walker, who was holed up at the apartment he shared with his girlfriend in Athens.
Huff drove over to help Walker out. He pulled up to a creek behind the football star’s apartment and waited until Walker could sneak into his car under the cover of darkness. Huff gave Walker a ride to where his girlfriend was waiting, and the couple was off to catch a flight to start his new life as a pro. It was the last time Huff would ever see Walker.
“I liked Herschel,” said Huff, now 74 and living in Japan. “I think he was raised right. He was always respectful, humble, and he didn’t talk much.”
When I spoke to Huff in late October, he told me he was tickled that people had started reaching out to him about Walker. But almost 40 years later and from 13 time zones away, Huff said he has found it difficult to reconcile the soft-spoken small-town Georgia star with the audacious imbecile running for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat at the behest of former President Trump.
Huff said friends have even teased him about being responsible for Walker’s run—which has been marred by embarrassing revelations that Walker paid for one partner’s abortion and pressured another into the procedure, despite his stance, as a Senate candidate, that he is opposed to abortion rights in all circumstances. But to Huff, his former student’s candidacy is no laughing matter. In addition to the abortion hypocrisy, Walker’s ex-wife alleged that the candidate had been abusive during their relationship. “I think he should get out of the limelight,” Huff said. “I think he should get some help.”
The limelight might be the entire point. The gamble Walker made in 1983 to pursue the USFL instead of finishing at Georgia might have been triggered by the former star’s constant desire for extraordinary adulation. But life has never been quite so good for Walker since he left Athens.
Because the thing that might most define Walker’s post-football life is his refusal to embrace the obscurity that could have come along with retiring. Since leaving the NFL in 1997, he’s seemingly been on a mission to recapture his former role as a man who is celebrated, worshipped, and known. He’s dallied with ballet, Olympic bobsleigh, and mixed martial arts; he started a fast food restaurant and a food services company; he appeared on a season of Celebrity Apprentice, trying to win the favor of Trump, his longtime mentor; and he wrote an autobiography meant to fashion himself as a mental health advocate that I can only describe as pitiful. Now he’s skipped several rungs of public service—no city council, state legislature, or even gesture at the House—hoping to wrest a Senate seat away from incumbent Raphael Warnock. After living near Dallas for more than a decade, Walker sensed an opportunity in Georgia and decamped to his home state.
Walker has chosen this pathetic, endless quest for continued attention and validation over a dignified post-football retirement. His candidacy, as bizarre as it has been, makes more sense when you understand it in the context of his yearslong effort to reclaim what he felt when he was known for being great at something.
And here’s the scary thing: It may work. Walker has no business anywhere near the Senate, but the same fearlessness—some might call it shamelessness—that made him a gridiron legend has propelled and maintained him over the past five decades. And, contrary to his pinned tweet proclaiming “I’m running for U.S. Senate because I love this country and I love my home state of GEORGIA!” he’s practically admitted that he’s never had any particular life goals outside of getting attention. “I didn’t dream of being a football player or an actor or anything like that,” Walker wrote in his autobiography, Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder. “That’s probably why my desire to play football had to do with being noticed.” The same is now true of his Senate run—he doesn’t seem to much want to be a senator. He still just craves the spotlight.
Walker’s ambitions have been transparent from the start, dating back to his youth in Wrightsville, Georgia, a town of about 2,200 that sits 140 miles southeast of Atlanta. In November 1981, near the end of Walker’s sophomore season, Henry Leifermann wrote a profile of Walker that was surprisingly skeptical for sports journalism: “It is also said he is not the quiet, reasonable, hard-working young man he presents himself to be, but a teen-age, black Svengali coolly calculating plans for fame and fortune ever since high school.”
His on-field accomplishments were enough to make him stand out. A three-time All-American in football and track, winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy, and star of Georgia’s only national championship in the modern era, Walker had already etched himself into state lore by the age of 20. ESPN recently ranked him as the second-best player in the 150-year history of college football. And with the same disciplined approach he took to football, Walker carefully built his own legend off the field.
He told people about how he didn’t drink or smoke. How he did 2,500 situps and 1,500 pushups every day, “come rain or shine, feast or famine, on the road or at home,” as he eventually put it in his autobiography.
In that autobiography, Walker couldn’t help but flatter himself while talking about high school classmates who’d joined the military after graduation: “I really wished I could have joined them. With all my reading of military history and my disciplined ways, I thought I would be a natural as a United States Marine.” Later, Walker wrote, he almost left Georgia after his sophomore year to join the Marines because he wanted to serve his country. (Further in the book, Walker notes that a broken thumb during football season prevented him from enlisting.)
But Walker also wanted to assure fans that he was no brute. For years, he claimed that he graduated as the valedictorian of his high school and that he graduated in the top 1 percent of his class at the University of Georgia. CNN later found that both claims were untrue—Walker hadn’t even earned a college degree (the USFL stint came at a cost). He also liked selling the image of himself as a homebody, not just a jock enjoying the spoils of celebrity. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1985 that he was most comfortable watching soap operas and writing poetry. “In elementary school I began writing strange poems, like floating alone in space and death,” Walker said. “Those were my feelings.”
He had achieved his goal: to be noticed, on his terms. He pitched himself as a Renaissance man, an athlete and a scholar, a warrior with a sense of patriotic duty and a poet who preferred to be alone with his thoughts. Walker wanted us to believe he was Superman and Clark Kent.
And he mostly pulled it off.
“He knew what he was about. He was not braggadocious,” Huff told me. “He was not a party animal. He was a quiet kid, and he knew what he wanted to do.”
Walker may have kept quiet and kept his distance because he struggled to relate to others. Jeff Pearlman, who researched Walker for his book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, found that Walker wasn’t close to many people, including his teammates.
“He was always viewed as weird,” said Pearlman, who recently released a biography of another Southern athletic legend, Bo Jackson. “Bo and Herschel were rivals in track, and Bo was like the new Herschel. I interviewed a few of Herschel’s teammates at Georgia, only because they ran against Bo, and they all said they didn’t know Herschel. They knew Bo better than they knew Herschel.”
It’s worth remembering that Walker’s climb out of small-town Georgia didn’t come easy. He’s recounted many, many times how he grew up in Wrightsville overweight and with a speech impediment, making him a target for schoolyard bullies. His childhood, he wants everyone to understand, was his motivation to escape and thrive.
“For a lot of my life, I’ve felt like an alien, and tried to put a great distance between other people and me,” Walker wrote. “So, believe me, I was sorely tempted to succeed on the football field, in the classroom, and near about anywhere else I could as a way of putting other people in their place.”
That drive has shown up again and again during his campaign, with Walker pressing on in spite of blunders that would have shamed a weaker man into surrender. His ignorance on issues ranging from voting rights to climate change should have been disqualifying. There was that meme-able moment during his debate with Warnock when he produced a prop police badge as evidence that he worked in law enforcement (he hasn’t). Somehow, the incident became another rallying cry for Walker and his campaign. It is impossible to embarrass the man, or his supporters.
Walker got used to being extraordinary. When he showed up at Huff’s studio in college, it became clear that he couldn’t work out with the other students. Walker was such an impressive physical specimen, such an indefatigable athlete, that he needed special attention from Huff.
“He was the kind of person that, I would have to put him through the rigors that I would go through,” said Huff, who was a nationally known karate champion in the 1970s. “I can evaluate each person’s limitations so I won’t hurt them. If we did something, his intensity was greater than his capacity at that time. Each time, it would level up.”
He brought that same dogged approach to the Fort Worth Ballet, when he joined the dance company for a show in April 1988. Walker agreed to perform while he was still playing for the Dallas Cowboys. “I’ve got great flexibility for a guy my size and that helps. Some football players are so stiff they can’t raise their arms above their head,” he told the New York Times after the show. The Associated Press later published a photo of a shirtless, exquisitely muscled Walker holding aloft a petite dancer.
“He was so serious about trying to do a great job, pouring sweat before he could do anything,” remembered Paul Mejia, a choreographer who was then artistic director of the ballet. “He moved his way, like a big panther. I didn’t turn him into a dancer, but he looked terrific.”
The evening was a boon for Walker, from the audience’s raucous ovation to its staying power as an anecdote meant to show his sophistication.
Mejia is typical in that he liked what he knew of Walker—but the thing was, he never knew him well. “We follow him in the news, that’s for sure,” Mejia said of Walker’s Senate run. “We’re rooting for him.”
That might be something that Walker is counting on in this election—for his name recognition to carry the day. But he also has more complicated demons. Last month, former NFL quarterback Tommy Kramer made a comment about his old Minnesota Vikings teammate on Twitter: “When Herschel got to the Vikings, he would talk in the 3rd person. Herschel is headed home, Herschel will see you tomorrow. We were like….. who the hell is talking to?” Kramer didn’t elaborate, and he didn’t respond to an interview request.
But it’s clear what Kramer was referring to: Walker revealed in his autobiography that he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder in 2001. He claimed that he had as many as 12 different personality facets, sometimes known as alters. They’re described by their roles or function: the Hero, the Coach, the Enforcer, the Consoler, the Daredevil, and the Warrior, among others.
“One of the things my alters did for me was to make me forget most of the awful things that had happened to me,” Walker wrote. “I hope my legacy will be more than what I have achieved on the football field and on the track. I would rather be remembered for opening my heart and sharing my experience with DID so that others can understand this condition.”
Jerry Mungadze, Walker’s therapist, told CNN that he’d seen at least three of Walker’s alters and believed that after retiring from football in 1997, Walker “had to find another way of coping and couldn’t.”
In the book, Walker describes himself as a lost and angry man. He wrote that he played Russian roulette. That he had an affair. And that things truly came to a head when he considered killing a car salesman who was late with a delivery of a Mercedes.
He described a scene in which voices in his head tormented him as he drove toward the man’s house with a gun. “Every few seconds, I’d hear a voice telling me, ‘No, Herschel, that’s wrong. You can’t shoot a man down in cold blood over this.’ Over that voice I’d hear another urging me on: ‘You’ve got to take care of business. This guy has done you wrong. You can’t let him get away with that. Kill him.’ ”
Walker described this loss of control as a breakthrough, the moment he realized he needed professional help. He said he then sought out the services of Mungadze. “I felt like I was losing control, spiraling downward, acting out in ways I’d never thought possible,” Walker wrote.
Walker used his book—at the time of its release, and since—as a means of explaining away his erratic and increasingly violent behavior. Admitting to mental illness was meant to offer a story of redemption and rediscovery, a chance for Walker to offer himself up as not just the face of mental illness but a person who had triumphed yet again in the face of tremendous odds. It’s a story Walker still tells today, a convenient narrative meant to shut down questions about his fitness for public office. “As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health, even wrote a book about it. And by the grace of God, I’ve overcome it,” he said in a television ad.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The AP reported earlier this year that Walker allegedly threatened his estranged wife—that former college girlfriend he left Georgia with—with a gun at their home in suburban Dallas. Mungadze rushed to the scene, called the police, and calmed Walker down, according to the Associated Press. Walker wasn’t arrested after the incident.
And his story of his mental illness, as well as his supposed redemptive recovery from it, doesn’t really check out either. Experts familiar with Walker’s diagnosis said Mungadze’s methods had no basis in science and that the disorder isn’t associated with violent behavior. Walker has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to more fully explain those incidents, or what he has learned from them, besides speaking about them in terms of his recovery.
Pearlman said it likely doesn’t matter what Walker has to say anyway. “He’s actually just a chronic liar, a guy who lies all the time,” he said. As an example, Pearlman goes back to February 1983, when Walker, the son of a tenant farmer, was weighing the risks of returning for another year of college football. Walker and his family worried that an injury in his senior year could jeopardize his professional career and the millions of dollars awaiting him there.
That’s where the USFL came in. The league secretly offered Walker a contract with the New Jersey Generals—a contract that even included 25 percent of the profits from one of the owners’ oil wells. Walker signed it. But when it came time to reveal his decision to Vince Dooley, his college coach, Walker started telling a bunch of lies.
Walker told Dooley, who was furious at him, that there was no contract; later, he said there was a contract but that it included an out clause so he could return to Georgia. When media asked him about the contract, Walker said there wasn’t one: “I haven’t seen a contract. I’ve heard a lot of rumors.”
The truth came out days later, when the Boston Globe reported that Walker had signed the USFL contract and would be ineligible to return to Georgia. Not long after, Walker called Huff for help getting out of town. Walker went on to play in the USFL for three seasons, twice leading the league in rushing. His final two seasons with the Generals were spent playing for Donald Trump, who bought the team and soon convinced league owners to move to the fall to better compete with the NFL. The move was a bust: The USFL won only a dollar in its antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, the league folded, and Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys.
Walker’s relationship with Trump blossomed in the years following. “In a lot of ways, Mr. Trump became a mentor to me, and I modeled myself and my business practices after him,” Walker wrote in his autobiography. Walker went on to appear on Trump’s reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice and later served as co-chair of President Trump’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. Trump eventually recruited Walker to run for Senate and later endorsed him.
Back in Japan all these years later, Huff is finally seeing the parallels.
“I think the biggest thing, to me, is how he lies,” Huff told me recently. “The lies are so horrendous. Herschel is struggling with internal demons.”
Huff said he wishes Walker would just stop talking. That’s not going to happen. Walker has simply pressed ahead, with the same determination with which he once pursued football, karate, ballet, writing, and fashioning himself into a mental health advocate.
It’s working, to some extent. Twenty-five years after his final season in the NFL, Herschel Walker is a household name again. It certainly helps that his run is coming at a time when the sort of shamelessness he’s always been comfortable with is now celebrated as an essential quality of his political party. For a man whose adult life has been characterized by starving to be noticed the way he once was on the field, maybe simply being seen is enough of a win.