Herschel Walker sits in the dining room of his Atlanta home, his blue shirt decorated with an American flag folded into a triangle. Emblazoned underneath are the words “Folds of Honor,” a charity that raises money for children of military members who’ve been killed or injured.
“I was really impressed with the work they did. I also really like the shirt,” Walker said with a disarming smile.
It’s easy to see why Walker, a pro-football running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982, easily won Georgia’s Republican nomination for the US Senate in May, his first-ever run for office. So far, the 60-year-old candidate has scored endorsements both from former president and long-time friend Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — two men who don’t always see eye to eye. Although Walker’s opponent, Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock, is leading by 1.5 percentage points according to current polling averages, some experts feel the race is even tighter.
Walker admitted to me that he doesn’t sound like a typical politician. And he’s OK with that.
Most people, he said, are pretty sick of politicians, “and I’m sick and tired of it.”
“We talk about the border. And how long have we been talking about school choice? We’ve been talking about guns. We’ve been talking about this stuff forever. Well, maybe they need some outsiders to come in now with some better ideas.”
Walker’s Senate run sparked the recent exposé that he “secretly” fathered two sons he has not publicly acknowledged. One is 13 and lives in Texas with his mother; the other is 10 and was born to a woman who went to court for a paternity declaration and child support. (Walker also has a very visible 22-year-old son, Christian Walker, who has played a role in his political efforts, and a daughter, Emily, now in her late 30s, whom he fathered when he was in college.)
Walker was accused of hypocrisy, given his previous criticisms of “fatherless homes” in the black community.
“I want to apologize to the African-American community, because the fatherless home is a major, major problem,” Walker said in a September 2020 interview. In a 2019 interview with Diamond and Silk, he added that men need to go into neighborhoods and become “fathers of those fatherless” children.
But Walker insists he never hid his two sons. In fact, he disclosed all four of his children when Trump appointed him to the President’s Fitness Council — a federal advisory committee that promotes healthy living. But once Walker decided to run for public office, he said he didn’t talk about the youngest two out of respect for their privacy and the privacy of their mothers.
“I didn’t want them to become political props,” he said in a statement to The Post. “I knew when I got into politics that people would come after me, but I ask them to leave my kids out of this.
“I have four kids and love every one of them,” he added. “Being a father has been one of my greatest accomplishments in life.”
Divorced from his first wife Cindy Grossman, the mother of Christian, Walker is currently married to Julie Walker, with whom he has no children. Though in 2005 Grossman accused Walker of violent behavior, he said they are now friends and have successfully co-parented their son.
Meanwhile, Warnock is facing his own domestic troubles. The senator and lead pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church recently asked a court to seal his divorce case, which details an ugly custody battle with his ex-wife Ouleye Ndoye, who claims he “harassed” her and neglected their children.
In short, Walker’s race against Warnock could be one of the most contentious — and important — in the November midterms. Democrats will spend millions to keep Warnock in office just to maintain their slim 51/50 majority in the Senate, while Republicans are betting on Walker to help reclaim their power in the chamber.
But Walker insists his attacks against Warnock will remain political, not personal, focusing instead on the policies of President Biden and his Democratic Congress.
“Gas prices, inflation, the crisis at the border, spending, crime. Let everyone be honest, we can’t live like this and I don’t know who can just sit back and say, ‘Oh, everything is fine.’ It’s not.”
Walker vs. Warnock is also the rare election in which both candidates are African-American. And on that issue, too, Walker said he is unafraid to challenge folks who call something racist that isn’t.
“The way they try to cancel people out . . . making everyone believe that we [Republicans] are all terrible people. Like we’re all these racist, bad people. And I’m like, guys, I know racism. I grew up around it.”
Walker is equally forthright about abortion. He’s vocally pro-life while Warnock is pro-choice. Abortion is expected to be a key issue for Georgia voters in November amid the reversal of Roe v. Wade, particularly among African-Americans. Traditionally, blacks have been less supportive of abortion than whites, but those views have shifted over the past two decades and some studies show blacks are even more pro-choice than whites.
For Walker, however, abortion is a very personal issue for him. “I am not going to shy away from it on the campaign trail. You have to understand I come from a church town; everything in town centered on church.”
Growing up in the tiny town of Wrightsville, Ga., as one of seven siblings, Walker was a stuttering, overweight child who overcame his personal hardships to become a star not just in football but also track and Olympic bobsledding.
“I always tell people my mom said I was big boned because I was fat. I was fat. I used to stutter to the point where I couldn’t put a sentence together. So, for many years of my life, I never went out for a recess. And for many years of my life, I used to get bullied a lot in school,” he said.
“My life changed when I got beat up one day after school by this kid in the eighth grade. I went home crying and when I got home I said, ‘That’s enough. I won’t get beat up no more.’ That’s the day I started working out. That’s the day I started going to the library, getting books, reading to myself in the mirror to help me with the stuttering.”
By high school, Walker excelled at track and football. At the University of Georgia, he became a three-time All-American champion in both sports. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy and was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1983, Walker began his pro career with the New Jersey Generals, then part of the United States Football League, which allowed college athletes to turn pro after their junior year. (Trump bought the team in 1984.) In 1985, Walker moved to the NFL, first joining the Dallas Cowboys, then the Minnesota Vikings, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants, before finally returning to Dallas, where he retired in 1997. Despite his prowess and long career, he never won a Super Bowl.
In 1999, Walker started the chicken distribution company Renaissance Man Food Services, which forced him to make public appearances and spend a lot of time rushing through airports.
“Sometimes I would miss my flight because I got there late and I was sleeping in the airport overnight and leave the next morning,” he recalled. “People thought I really needed a job, [but] I didn’t need a job. That’s what I was taught from my parents, how to work hard.”
In 2008, Walker detailed his battle with dissociative identity disorder — a multiple personality disorder due to unresolved childhood trauma — in his memoir “Breaking Free.” He’s also visited military bases across the country to talk about mental health.
“It was all in an effort to remove the stigmas of addressing and admitting you are dealing with a problem,” he said. “[Mental health] is an issue no one wants to deal with or is equipped to deal with but it is impacting so many things in our society.”
Walker is likable and personable, with an air of authenticity that helps him connect with voters. And this might just be his “secret” formula for winning the election.
“He is very raw,” said Republican voter Joe Cobb, an executive from suburban Atlanta. “He’s like, ‘I’ve had mental issues’ and that’s hard for someone of his stature to do.
“He’s not a politician,” he added. “In this day and age that plays to your strengths and not being a politician is Herschel’s strength.”
Atlanta-based conservative radio host Erick Erickson agrees. The press, he said, doesn’t “understand how unsettled voters are over things like inflation, the border, crime, you name it. Voters don’t want to put the people back in office who caused this, so they’ll take a risk with the outsider.”
Walker said that at every stage of his personal journey — whether it be football, business or politics — he has prayed. Faith, he said, is a cornerstone of everything he has achieved. When he decided to run for Senate, he said he listened to both God and voters across the state.
“People were like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to hear what the people have to say, because when you go to Washington, you’re supposed to represent the people, not yourself.’ ”
As he was going through his listening sessions, Walker found that “70% of the drugs coming into the United States goes through Atlanta, where you got human trafficking. Fentanyl is killing, it’s increasing crime, but yet we’re not even addressing it.”
In 2010 the DOJ reported that the Atlanta area is the principal bulk cash consolidation center for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations operating in the eastern US. More recently, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a 106% spike in fentanyl-related deaths between May 2020 and April 2021.
Walker’s positions will become clearer when he eventually debates Warnock before the election. Because he refused to debate his Republican challengers in the primary, his performance will likely be heavily scrutinized.
But, despite his unconventional background and lack of political experience, many Georgia political observers say this is Walker’s race to lose come November. Sure, he may be a bit messy, but “everything is working against the Democrats, especially in Georgia,” said Erickson, who despite early reservations is now fully behind Walker. “Spend some time in the state and you’ll understand why Warnock is in trouble.”
Walker feels the same way about his face-off with Warnock.
“As I told everyone,” he said, “Guys, I know I can beat this guy.”