Football great Herschel Walker’s anger is a perfect fit for modern US politics

The former running back’s US senate run seems like a flight of fancy but more frivolous candidates have achieved high office

Two weekends ago, as the new college football season dawned, Herschel Walker rendezvoused with the Fox network at the Georgia-Clemson game to discuss his heel turn from gridiron great to Georgia Republican candidate for US Senate, hitting all the familiar notes. He played the victim, (“I have the left and even the right coming at me sometimes,” he said), moaned about not recognizing his country anymore (“I see so many things I disagree with”), and vowed, “I’m going to fight” before making a case for the return of Reggie Bush’s Heisman trophy. Most delicious of all: the receiver on the other end of these underhanded bromides was none other than Clay Travis – a foundational stick-to-sports moralist. In a world where political analysis apes sports commentary and rickety old jocks seem to never run out of bombastic opinions, one could hardly imagine a more worthy kickoff for a late-career pivot into public service than a college football pregame show.

To be sure the American political arena has seen its share of ex-football standouts before. Steve Largent (the hall of fame Seahawks receiver turned US representative), Alan Page (the Purple People Eater turned Minnesota supreme court associate justice) and Gerald Ford (the University of Michigan star turned president) are three of many who have straddled both worlds. The desire to see the 59-year-old Walker run dates to the early-80s, when delirious Georgia football fans waved signs that read: Walker for President.

Back then Walker was the Bulldogs’ bell cow running back – a 6ft 2in, 222lbs man-boy who’d quickly emerge as perhaps the finest rusher the college game has ever seen, confounding defenses with his singular blend of speed and power. His work ethic (defined by a daily regimen of 5,000 pushups and 2,000 crunches) isn’t just legendary; it’s been touted as a bar to reach for.

Walker was a household name, college sports’ most bankable star. And when he decided he wanted a piece of the action and signed a record $4.2m contract with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, an NFL challenger that undercut the old league with a rule allowing college juniors to turn pro, a nation clutched its pearls. “I’m extremely disturbed,” huffed University of Washington coach Don James. Bob Woolf, the legendary sports agent who would usher in the era of the million-dollar sports celebrity, said the Walker signing “opened a Pandora’s box.”

In the end it was much ado about nothing. The USFL lasted just four seasons, and Walker eventually landed in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. But Walker was heavily criticized during his time with the Cowboys for shying away from contact and looking out for himself, essentially completing the reversal of field from his otherwise sterling college reputation.

Still: his residual talent proved intriguing enough for Dallas to ship him to Minnesota in exchange for five players and six future draft picks (four of which came to form the core of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl dynasty) in what remains the most lopsided trade in American sports history. Even though Walker would distinguish himself as a more than serviceable offensive weapon, with the second-most all-purpose yards when he retired following the 1997 season, he never became a superstar on the level of, say, Emmitt Smith – one of the six draft picks for which Walker was traded.

On Saturday Walker is slated to speak at the “Save America” rally in the south-central Georgia town of Perry, his biggest campaign appearance to date. There, one expects Walker will blather on about how his life in football prepared him for a job that requires teamwork and compromise. (Never mind that football teams operate as dictatorships, and Congress can’t find common ground on anything.) But for greater insights into his overall fitness for office, well, it’s hard to imagine him being as candid at this critical stage as he was some 13 years ago, when he went public with his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. In an SEC Network documentary he spoke at length about how being bullied as a stuttering, overweight kid filled him with a hoard of anger and resentment – and how football became his release. But when there were no more games to play the feelings festered, and he became increasingly reliant on alter egos that ranged from crowd pleaser to young innocent. “I remember there was one guy in there [who] really believed he was white,” said Jerry Mungadze, Walker’s psychologist, in what had to be the first time an athlete’s alter egos were earnestly discussed in a made-for-TV hagiography.

What’s more, Walker talked at length about playing Russian roulette and even contemplating shooting a man who had “messed up my schedule”. Between all that, his ex-wife’s past allegations of violent behavior, the dubious campaign rollout, Walker’s overstated entrepreneurial accomplishments and conspiracy theories, and the fact that he lives in Texas rather than Georgia, his candidacy would seem to be dead on arrival. But Walker has a star teammate on side – Donald Trump, the former Generals owner who destroyed the USFL (and arguably almost sunk Walker’s career with it) with his greed. It was that impeached president who apparently encouraged Walker to run and why prominent Republicans in Georgia and beyond haven’t altogether dismissed him yet. They can’t. Walker is the only big name in the six-man GOP primary field so far, and the legend as boot-strapping, self-determined black American success story is sure to play well with social conservatives – especially those convinced running a country is no more complicated than running a football, both being measured in wins and losses.

But he may need a bit more than name recognition to take down Raphael Warnock, the pastor who notably beat former Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler in the 2020 runoff election to become the first black Democrat elected to a Senate seat by a former Confederate state. The historic triumph might not have been possible without Dream players wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts at games, or the Atlanta Hawks remaking their arena into a convenient polling place.

Surely, Warnock can count on that and more support. And if the Georgia Republicans decide to do for Walker what Alabama Republicans did in the last election cycle for Tommy Tuberville (the underwhelming former Auburn coach they elected to the US Senate), then you can expect those Peach state conservatives will empty every tactic in their political playbook – not least a new law that does more to restrict voting than secure elections.

Walker might attempt ridiculous feats – ballet, MMA and bobsledding just to name a few flights of fancy. He might seem and sound ridiculous as The Simpson’s McBain running for mayor of Springfield – or worse: like a puffed up Larry Elder. But be warned: you should definitely take the senior pledge from Nissan’s Heisman House seriously. More frivolous candidates than him have achieved higher office, after all. As long as anger and resentment remain the fuel that drives Walker, well, he’s as credible a candidate as any in this caustic arena. Which is to say: this could be his most hair-raising run yet.