A pair of smoky, dim glasses hovering on the sldeline. Herschel Walker in 1982 was high-socked invincibility to a six-year-old, but he met a miserable end in the 1983 Sugar Bowl against Penn State. By the way, If you wondered whether Herschel was already being Herschel(s) in his youth, the answer is yes.
"A lot of people look forward to tackling me," he said. "If I was a defensive player, I'd look forward to tackling myself. I can dish out more punishment than a defensive guy can dish out on me."
I was watching on my cousin's floor, six years old and convinced of Walker's invulnerability. He ran with this high-stepping ease, this casual violence. His silhouette is still the largest piece of any single tangram of athletic shape my brain recognizes. In every running back, there is some shard, some fragment of Herschel Walker. I can't really piece together a back without putting him somewhere in the formula, and I blame living in Georgia in the 1980s for the fixation.
Walker would rush for 107 yards against the Nittany Lions. This would mark a quality day for any other running back, but against Penn State this made for his lowest production since his freshman year. Walker and Georgia lost 27-23 to a swarming no-name crew of white hats, Penn State won their first consensus national title, and I would owe my cousin the lost bet of one scoop of ice cream.
I have never paid my cousin that scoop of ice cream, nor forgotten the simple image of the tiny man on the opposite sideline: inky black hair, pacing the sideline in a tie and button down, a wiry gnome invented to support his totem, a pair of smoky lenses hovering on the sidelines. That is one piece of Joe Paterno; half-sentinel, half-demiurge, watching his war machine lay siege to the greatest physical genius of my youth, and winning.