Ghosts of the confederacy: Herschel Walker and GOP ask Georgians to join them in erasing history
Herschel Walker speaks to the Class of 2016 during Basic Cadet Training in the U.S. Air Force Academy's Jacks Valley in Colorado Springs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

ATHENS, Ga. — Jesus gets Sunday in these parts. But on Saturday, 92,000 pack into metal pews, eager to witness miracles. There are no false idols here if you’d dare think of such sacrilege on the hallowed antebellum grounds of the University of Georgia. Here, the visiting devils don white; the ‘Dawgs rock red.

Anticipation. On any given Saturday, a leader could emerge. It happened before. His name is Herschel Walker. The Heisman Trophy winner isn’t here today, yet he’s ever-present at Sanford Stadium. Anywhere your eyes move, there’s a student, parent, graduate, grandparent, teen, toddler, or infant outfitted in ‘34.’

While his number’s immortalized in Athens and beyond, over in Atlanta, they’ve got pro teams. And Raphael Warnock, the Democrat Walker is trying to unseat from the Senate, inhabits a sacred space. The reverend preaches from Ebenezer Baptist Church, the pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. changed history.

Warnock and Walker grew up less than two hours from each other in east Georgia; the former the 11th of 12 children, the latter one of seven. Money was tight.

Both are now flush, especially with the millions in free dollars the Washington-based political machines keep infusing into the race. Distortion, drama and fear are costly commodities these days. But that’s the Washington economy of sleaze. We’re in the real world. Or are we?

Warnock’s known. This campus thought it knew Walker, but in these last days of a long election, many here aren’t sure they do anymore—but they aren’t concerned. As the mainstream media’s search for the real Herschel Walker continues, many of his Georgia peers are over it—over the accusations against their idol, done with the probing questions, and sick of the media bringing up the south’s own history.

Many are eager to vote against Atlanta, replace Warnock in the Senate, and rewrite their own history. Understandable. Though impossible. The past is here to stay.

History matters, or used to

In Georgia, history’s unavoidable, even as it's oft-forgotten and insanely controversial. For instance, a debate’s lingered for more than 225 years over whether the title "birthplace of the American system of higher education" belongs to UGA (chartered 1785; opened 1801), UNC-Chapel Hill (chartered 1789; opened 1795), or the College of William & Mary (chartered 1693, but via royal charter). Laughable to outsiders, even anyone who chooses a winner instantly questions the foundational tenet of the other two respected institutions.


In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, efforts to remove the 16-foot Athens Confederate Monument—which towered over downtown Athens and UGA for more than a century—were challenged in the courts, Georgia’s General Assembly, and by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp himself.


In 1872 the monument was finished and became “a gathering post for Klansmen, the self-proclaimed angels and ghosts of the Confederacy,” writes Prof. Scott Reynolds Nelson, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of History at UGA. “The second Klan, when it emerged in the 1920s, used this beacon as a gathering point before they went off to attack and murder black men and women. In the 1960s it was also a beacon and gathering point for attacks on black men and women who argued for voting rights and public accommodations and access to the University of Georgia campus.”

In 2020, after George Floyd was murdered with the knee and weight of a Minneapolis officer, protests erupted nationwide. In Atlanta, peaceful protests turned violent—windows shattered, buildings vandalized, squad cars torched. In Athens, protestors peacefully protested at the base of the centuries-old monument to slavery, bigotry, and hate. That became too much for Athens police who tear-gassed dozens of unarmed students and at least one city councilman.

A loophole in the law enabled leaders in Athens officials to finally move the monument. It towers no more. It’s a different story at the threshold of UGA.

To enter UGA’s campus, visitors pass under the school’s iconic Arch—a symbol emblazoned on the buttons and belt buckles of Georgia’s Confederate uniforms.

Just past the entrance sits an impressive Greek-columned building. Near it sits a plaque commemorating Jan. 9, 1961, the day Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter first walked these grounds—which thousands of white students had traversed for generations—and made history by simply registering, marking the moment the hate-infused wall of segregation was first punctured here at UGA (which led the then-governor to pull its funding…).

One of the first buildings throngs of tipsy undergrads pass is a testament to the complexity of the south. Demosthenian Hall dates to 1834 and served as the headquarters for ‘occupying’ northern troops.

The debate society boasts an impressive roster of alumni. ‘Diverse’ fails to capture it fully—'opponents,’ ‘opposites,’ or even ‘enemies,’ may be more accurate. For instance, a notable member was the proud 'slave-owning’ Robert Toombs, the first Secretary of State of the Confederacy. Another, Robert Benham, went on to be named Georgia’s first Black Supreme Court justice.

If the south is complicated, Georgia’s confusing, at least to carpetbaggers (guilty as charged, though I did do my undergrad atop Lookout Mountain). In recent years, a haze of forgetfulness—an American pastime still not afforded the descendants of slaves—has uncomplicated the narrative to countless thousands.

Nuance and knowledge are everywhere, for those who open their eyes.

As I search out the field the Bulldogs first played in 1892—under the coaching of Dr. Charles Herty, a professor of chemistry and pusher of sport—I come across an alum walking a few yards away from his tired-legged, if too excited to care, six-or-so-year-old son.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the old field is?”

“Old field?” he says/asks himself. “I don’t know about an ‘old field?’”

We walk and chat for just a few more stripes.

“This is Herty,” he reads from a sign.

“Yeah, this is the old field,” I say, comparing my notes to the geolocation on my phone.

He drops to a whisper.

By Pruddle at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

“Actually, I took a picture earlier for my buddy. When I was here, we used to go and drop acid on this field,” he says.

“Really?” I laugh.

“Yeah. I literally just took that picture to say, ‘Hey, remember that time you tripped on that…’—it was a Tuesday! We’re all in school, and I’m like, ‘Hey Johnny, where you at?’ He’s like, ‘I just took a bunch of acid and am up here in this field with the fountain.’ So I always thought of it as that field. True story,” he reminisced in between a lot of mutual laughter. “Those were the days!”

Indeed, they were. Just as these are new days. Ones where the country’s, seemingly, debating among itself whether to go back to the ‘good ole days’—they mean, John Adams' 1800, Reagan’s 1980s, Obama’s 2008, or Trump’s 2018?—or whether to follow progress’ lead as humanity keeps marching forward into the great unknown. The choice seems simple. It’s not. Like Georgia, its complexity can be confusing.

Just look at Herschel Walker. The victim of racism is now accused of being the pawn of white nationalists. He begs to differ. Even so, it's undeniable his foray into politics has made him a mere mortal in the eyes of millions.

#MeToo meets Trump era

Gods, icons, idols, heroes, creeps, and weirdos have fallen like gnats in this #MeToo meets the Trump era—where Black lives matter, to some, until they kneel when told to stand.

Walker opened himself to criticism, derision, and mockery when he palled around with the Trump administration, especially after the football icon stood with Trump and threw predominantly Black players under the bus when he joined Trump’s call for the NFL to ban kneeling.

Having an opinion is one thing. Having a vote in the United States Senate is in a league all its own. And Walker surrendered his protected status as a living legend upon hopping in Georgia’s US Senate primary. And Washington politics is known for leaving previously pristine resumes shredded into oblivion. With the election upon us, voters here continue being drowned in more than $360 million in ads presenting Walker in a new, dangerously felonious light.

Not Isolated

Jerseys cloak many sins. But stepping out of the gentle spotlight offered by America’s sports-industrial complex and into the probing lights of the Washington press corps leaves scars.

Walker’s classic moves, some say ‘miracles,’ always dazzled fans—along with subsequent generations of YouTubers—but his highlight reel has been overshadowed. The new portrait of Walker that’s emerged includes allegations the ‘anti-abortion’ candidate paid for two girlfriends’ abortions, held a gun to his then-wife’s head, was abusive to past lovers and his son (oh, and that he has an estranged son and daughter he hid for years), and once threatened a “shoot-out with police,” to name just a few.

Walker’s campaign didn’t make him available for an interview and didn’t respond to requests to attend his events. But the candidate and his campaign continue to publicly deny the accusations, even as, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Walker verified his signature on the check his former girlfriend says was to cover their abortion.

The Republican has also been caught telling lies about his record. He’s claimed ownership of companies that no one can find in the real world (including the candidate himself). He’s claimed to be active in the veteran’s program Patriot Support, which an AP investigation found is accused of having defrauded both the federal government and veterans. After he claimed to own America’s “largest minority-owned chicken business,” Walker was accused of lying either to Fox Business viewers or to the federal government when his Payment Protection Program loan application listed only eight employees at his company, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While the false jobs claim has been thoroughly debunked, the lie remains enshrined in a headline on Fox.

In the past, Walker’s also claimed to be a member of law enforcement. He’s not, even as he’s fond of flashing the honorary deputy’s badge his home county gave him. Sen. Warnock used his false past claims as a dig in their one Senate debate, “One thing I have not done, I've never pretended to be a police officer.” Walker then broke the debate rules and flashed the badge. His campaign is now selling fake plastic police badges.

He's also claimed to be a graduate of UGA (including saying he was in the top 1%), but he’s not. He was drafted his junior year and never looked back. It remains a mystery why someone would embellish their resume if they enjoy a stat sheet as long as Walkers, including holding records for career rushing touchdowns (49), average yards per game (159.4), and for most career rushing yards (5,259; still an SEC record), most in a season (in 1981 he hit 1,891) and most in a single game (171.9, his sophomore year).

The Bulldog’s Dooley Field has been and remains his resume, at least in the minds of many at UGA who’d rather stick to his stats and highlight reels.

“I’m an annoying reporter in from DC,” I tell two young female students who just left the game in the 4th, because one is rocking Herschel’s ’34.’ “Herschel Walker fan?”

The young female draped in ‘34’ says nothing—her face stiffened as if she was being accused of a serious infraction—and refuses to even make eye contact with me. Her friend is smiling and willing to talk, if not answer.

“I can’t say,” her friend replies after an awkward silence.

“I’m asking her, cause she’s in the jersey,” I say, as ‘34’ remains silent. “So it's football and not politics?”

“Go dawgs!” the friend cheers.

Like Walker, ‘34’ was gone, as they sped off up the hill.

That’s the typical response from the dozens of fans I see outfitted in ‘34’ on game day. Silent stares. Friendly grins, even as their lips refuse to budge. Many simply replied, “Football.”

It is Saturday, after all. And the separation of church, state, and football is sacred to many here.

Georgia's Herschel Walker runs over Tennessee's Bill Bates

Will the real Herschel Walker please stand up?

One thing all sides agree on, Herschel Walker is flawed. His stumbles on the trail, and the steady stream of disturbing revelations from his past have caused perpetual heartburn among Republican leaders in Washington. On the left, they spent the summer and the majority of this fall smiling, thinking they’d easily seal the deal and knock off this wannabee politician. That was back when polls showed his Democratic opponent leading by some 7%. The left salivated, as it repeatedly dunked on the first-time candidate.

Throughout the election, Walker’s been mocked for being unpolished. MSNBC dismissed him as “an amateur slam poet” after he slowly read a message to his followers to kick off New Year 2022, while the Guardian (disclosure: I was an op-ed contributor there in ‘16 & ’17 ) described Walker as “indescribably vapid, a man with what seems to be a shockingly light grasp of the most basic of concepts.” The Atlantic (another outlet I’ve written for) dismissed the football hero as “a buffoonish candidate.”

His few critics on the right have been blistering as well. A Black Baptist pastor called Walker the embodiment of “White supremacy in blackface.”

Attacking a hero is risky business though. Herschel Walker endured personal attacks his whole life. In grade school, the Wrightsville, GA native was chunky and spoke weirdly. In grade school, his teacher dismissed him as “special” because of his debilitating stutter and then sat him in the corner of the room, alone. He was slow, both physically and mentally. It was obvious.

It was an incredibly lonely time for the tender young man. His town was poor, and his parents had seven children. Every once in a while, Walker’s father would give him and his siblings a single quarter so they could get a snack at school. Without his dad’s knowledge, Walker bribed classmates with the precious bounty.

“I used to give it to people that talked to me. Give it to people to be nice to me, and they’d take my quarter and they’d go buy something with it,” Walker recounted in an ESPN documentary, SEC STORIED: Herschel. “And they’d talk to me as long as they had my quarter and they ate their snacks, but as soon as they were done eating it, then I’m a ‘jerk,’ I’m ‘fat,’ I’m a ‘weirdo.’ But having that little, short minute where they were nice to me for a little bit, that was enough.”

The loneliness wasn’t the half of it. Walker’s Black, while most of his classmates—including the bullies he calls “racist” who ran the playground—were white. And Georgia officials resisted school segregation until the seventies.

While the Supreme Court’s heralded unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling came in 1954, Georgia resisted. In its aftermath, a whopping 109 of the state’s 180 school districts, including Walker’s Johnson County, went to court resisting desegregation. Atlanta schools were forced to integrate first, and by 1969—more than a decade after the mandate was passed down by the high court—32% of Black students across Georgia attended integrated schools. After the Supreme Court applied more pressure, 79% of Black students in Georgia were enrolled in mixed schools by 1971. Desegregation cases continued to be argued in the courts through the 1980s, and the racial tension was tangible throughout the 1970s.

“You know, in my town, there was a lot of racist things going on back then, so I knew when I went out for recess I was gonna get picked on or get beat up,” Walker said in the documentary. “I used to walk around with my head down, you know, you’re scared to death.”

Throughout eighth grade, Walker refused to go outside during recess. On his last day of middle school, he decided to finally go outside during recess. A white boy got him to the ground and pummeled him as his classmates watched.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘That won’t happen to me again.’ I said, ‘I’ll never get beat up again,’ and then—all of a sudden—it was like, BAM, things just changed,’” Walker recounted before he explained how he forgave the racist attacker. “I look at it in the sense that I say, ‘It’s okay.’ It’s okay, because those kids had a problem. It’s okay they took it out on me, because it made me who I am.”

Herschel Walker got to work. He started doing some 5,000 pushups a day, along with another 5,000 sit-ups. If the TV was on, he positioned himself so he could see it while he worked out. When he wasn’t running circles around a track with a rope tied to his waste attached to a tire and a 10lb. weight that dragged in the dirt, Walker competed against trains.

“I used to go down there and run on the railroad track, and I used to try and race the train. The train used to go by, and I would run,” Walker said. “Pushups. Sit-ups. Pushups. Sit-ups. All the time.”

At the start of the next school year, his freshman year, Walker remembers that he towered over many of his classmates at Johnson County High School (remember the honorary deputy police badge? Same county). That summer, he had—in his own imagination, at least—stopped being like the rest of us.

“I don’t look at myself as transforming into an athlete, I look at myself as transforming into a superhero character, like a Superman that things just don’t hurt anymore. That’s a warrior,” Walker said, “when you don't think you go and you say, ‘Oh, just one more.’ But that’s what the warrior is, he’s gonna take that punch, and go, ‘Okay, let’s get it on.’”

Walker’s high school continued its tradition of holding two separate, segregated proms through 2003, even as the racist tradition continues elsewhere in the state. Still, in this year’s Senate race, Walker has downplayed contemporary racism, including attacking his opponent for calling bigots out.

Bring Us Together

“Democrats use race to divide us,” Walker said in one of his campaign ads. “Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people. I believe we’re a great country full of generous people. Warnock wants to divide us. I want to bring us together.”


You hear Boston’s ‘Peace of Mind’ blaring before you round the Phi Kappa Hall dating back to the 1830s.

I understand about indecision

But I don't care if I get behind

People living in competition

All I want is to have my peace of mind.

Boston - Peace of Mind (Official Audio)

The music draws you in before your eyes hear the message. There's a 25ft. flagpole bending with the wind that’s shouting, ‘TRUMP 2024 – SAVE AMERICA AGAIN.’ Under it, an ominous black flag screams, ‘F K BIDEN – TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT.’ Then I see the taller flagpole in back, a pristine American flag, with a Black UGA flag underneath. The flags extend from a Black Dodge Ram outfitted with a custom Bulldogs-red emblem. Its windshield is nearly covered by a white Herschel for Senate sign.

DC political moth, meet MAGA flame. I’m soon sipping one of the Modelos I have on ice in my backpack (I brought conversation starters…), as I gawk at the full-sized customized truck. It’s halftime and turns out the truck’s owner is out stretching his legs downtown. But his son’s manning their two trucks, two UGA tents, two TVs, grill, coolers, tables, friends, etc.

After apologizing for my poor career choice, we instantly hit it off when Riley Gaddis, 27, surprises me when he tells me he hates politics. He works at Georgia’s Caterpillar factory just outside of Athens, where they build earth-moving bulldozers and excavators (“those ones with the arms”). While his dad’s political side skipped him, he got the football bug.

“I remember Herschel. I don’t remember that much, I just remember my dad, ‘Come on Herschel! Let’s go!’” Gaddis recalls.

With his dad serving as a missionary in the church of Trump, I’m curious if he grew up having to toss the pigskin through campaign yard signs. He said no.

“Not even during Obama?”

“He didn’t have no sign. He did say, ‘F*** Obama,’” he laughs. “I’m just tired of it. I’m just tired of it. I try not to get into politics. I listen to my dad. I kind of understand where he goes, I just stay out of it.”

He vents about all the political ads inundating his YouTube time, and we both curse soaring gas prices. He then let me in on a convo he and his friend started the other week about what ‘the good old days’ even mean.

“Remember Star Wars? Remember Chewbacca? ‘The good ole days,’ that’s how he thinks,” Gaddis informs me. “And then all these millennials, Gen Z, they just want to change things. I kinda see where they’re going. I don’t speak, I’ll just listen. I try not to get involved.”

But this is 2022. Not sure if you’ve heard, but it’s the most consequential election in our lifetimes, or so the chorus politicians sing on two-year cycles goes.

“F*** that.”

As the Bulldogs keep winning on the field, I keep strolling through piles of empties and snapping pictures of red Solo cups in UGA’s impressive flower beds. I try to get a jump on the traffic jam locals have promised me is coming in my near future, so I wind back to the stadium’s northeast side and find the VIP tailgate section.

Guess the massive black tents are $16,000 to rent, a staffer informs me. His voice drops down, dripping with blue color disdain.

“Some come barely an hour before the game, and then go into the stadium.”

“F*** that.”

“Yeah,” he shakes his head.

I walk up and down each row, chuckling to myself at pampered living, but they’re mostly empty and the names of the sponsors—law firms, businesses, blah, booster clubs, fraternities, blah, etc.—bore me.

I cut through parking lots on my way to my rental. I’m refreshed to see a couple tailgating on concrete while drinking cheap beers. Their ‘Run Herschel, Run!’ stickers catch my eye. Herschel and his team were passing them out at UGA’s first game against Oregon. They made sure to grab extra.

“I’m not saying Herschel’s the best candidate, but he's better than Warnock for sure,” Emily, 26, tells me before her man chimes in.

“I just don’t feel like he fits the bill for an official of Georgia, unless you’re in metro Atlanta,” Taylor says as Emily laughs, “which takes up a lot of the population of Georgia, of course.”

Neither attended UGA, but they grew up tailgating outside the stadium and they bleed Bulldogs red. Taylor, 27, is in supply chain logistics, while Emily’s a project manager at a nuclear facility.

“He claims to be this like Christian Bible person, but he's not,” Emily continues. “I'm not saying I'm like super Christian. I mean we go to church, but we're not like hardcore into it, but you can't be like that. And he supports abortion. We hardcore don't support that.”

As for the two separate accusations—presented with proof Walker admitted was his signature—of Walker paying for abortions?

“That’s bulls***,” Emily, impressively, stops herself mid-curse. “I mean, I really don’t know, but I think it’s funny that’s just now coming out when he’s running for office. People can twist stories however they want.”