A train track runs beside Herschel Walker’s childhood home near Wrightsville, Georgia. During the eighth grade, he got serious about getting in shape. Racing those nearby trains became a big part of his exercise routine.
Wiley Kimbrough is the grandson of my first cousin, Sandra Bowen Wiley. He’s about to finish the 10th grade at Fullington Academy. Two years ago, when Wiley was in the eighth grade, his teacher required the class to complete a scrapbook project. Everyone had to profile a famous Georgian. Wiley chose Herschel Walker.
Sandra, and her late husband, Lee, lived in Wrightsville for several years, about ten miles from the Walker home. She and Herschel’s mother have a mutual friend, a long-time neighbor of the Walker family. Their friend helped set up two interviews.
By Wiley’s account, Mrs. Christine Walker is a fine Christian woman and a gracious host. For the first interview, Wiley, Sandra, and other family members went to her home. She had arranged for a phone conference with Herschel. She invited them to stay as late they wanted, just so long as she made it to her church circle meeting at four o’clock.
For the second meeting, Herschel was there. He showed the same generosity with his time as his mother had. His brother, Willis, and sister, Sharon, also welcomed their guests. Willis showed them the trophy room, a place with no vacant spots. He said, “Herschel didn’t win all of these trophies.” He pointed to the wall and gave Wiley a big grin. Willis said, “That one is mine.”
ESPN was there for a scheduled interview. Herschel politely asked them to wait, while he spent some time with Wiley and his family. He talked about being an overweight child, who stuttered when he spoke. His classmates made fun of him. He told about being severely bullied one day in the eighth grade. He left school that day with an unspoken commitment to get in top physical shape. He was determined that he would not be bullied again.
That’s when Herschel started racing the trains. That’s when he started doing pushups and sit-ups in such numbers that most of us shake our heads in astonishment. Herschel’s workouts included more exercise in a day than some of us get in a year, maybe even in a lifetime. He still has an aggressive exercise agenda today.
Herschel’s transition was more than just physical. His coach told him that if he wanted to play sports, he would have to make better grades. Herschel didn’t just race trains. He raced books, and teachers, and other students. He graduated as valedictorian.
Life after high school could have gone much differently for Herschel. He was trying to decide between playing football for the University of Georgia or joining the Army. He flipped a coin three times. Each time it landed on Georgia. I don’t know if God intervenes in matters like that, but I’m sure there were some Georgia fans praying about it. Instead of marching with Uncle Sam, Herschel ran with The Dawgs.
The story of Herschel’s success at Georgia has been told many times. He is widely considered to be the greatest college running back ever. With a Heisman Trophy in 1982, plus an impressive professional career, Herschel has accomplished more than most of us would dare even dream.
Herschel’s childhood included some challenging years, but he didn’t let that define him. He caught a fast train near Wrightsville and rode it all over the world. We don’t all get to have a storybook ending, but we all have a train to catch.
Herschel rode his train to stardom on the football field. But if you took away his gridiron glory, he would still be an exceptional man. Herschel wasn’t content to just chase the train. He made the train chase him.