ATHENS, Tenn. - Taking the stage inside the McMinn County High School gym, just about an hour from where he introduced himself to the college football world by sending Bill Bates to his backside on the Neyland Stadium turf, Herschel Walker proved he can still energize a crowd.
The University of Georgia and NFL legend brought the crowd of nearly 500 to its feet several times by sharing stories of his faith, family and football for nearly two hours. Arguably the greatest running back in the history of the Southeastern Conference, Walker was the guest speaker for the annual Athens Area Chamber of Commerce dinner.
A physical specimen even in his 50s and one of those rare athletes identified simply by his first name, Herschel posed for pictures and signed autographs before he stood at the podium, and when one mid-20s girl asked her friend if she got his autograph, the reply was simple, "No, I just asked him if I could touch his abs."
He spoke not only about his playing career but also detailed how his faith helped him heal from the well-publicized struggle he had with multiple personality disorder, which he said he believed started when he began suppressing his anger after being bullied as a child.
"Life will knock you down," Walker told the crowd. "But it's never too late to get up. Look at me, young people. If you can dream it, you can do it. You just have to be willing to work for whatever your dreams are."
Raechel Crumley grew up in the historic southwest corner of the University of Georgia known as Five Points. Her family's house is close enough to the heart of the Athens, Ga., campus that on fall Saturdays, as a cool breeze blows through the open windows, so too does the roar of the crowd from Sanford Stadium.
"I watched his whole career from the time he started at Georgia," said Crumley, a 1988 UGA grad who now lives in Cleveland, Tenn. "I can't see a number 34 and not think of him, and if somebody jumps over a pile now, I always say they don't do it like Herschel did."
Crumley, who had the winning bid for a football autographed by Herschel, brought her 9-year-old son Connor, who was wearing a red No. 34 jersey, to meet her childhood hero.
"I've told Connor all about Herschel and how great he was," Crumley said. "I've got other autographs from him, but I'll add the ball to my collection. He's just a great man. A true success not just in football."
Sitting just down the aisle from Crumley and having nothing more in common with her than also having grown up idolizing Herschel, Dalton residents Mark Wooten and Ken Stafford made the hour-plus drive just for one more chance to see their childhood hero.
"I was about 10 or 11 when I watched him run over Bill Bates and then diving over the pile in the Sugar Bowl," said Wooten, a 1993 UGA grad. "I loved watching him and the Dawgs ever since, and that's one of the reasons I wound up going to Georgia.
"My wife went to Auburn when Bo Jackson played there, so our house is divided over who was the best player. For me, Herschel will always be the man, the myth, the legend."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.