Long ago, when Herschel Walker was perfecting the art of running, Tom Jordan would tie a car tire around his waist and make Walker pull it as he ran. There were no weights for the Wrightsville, Ga., high school track team to work with. One day, Walker laughed and told his coach he could outrun anything or anyone in Johnson County.

Jordan had a bulldog named Oscar. "You can't outrun him," Jordan told Walker.

They went out in a field and tied the tire to Oscar. The grass was wet that day. "Herschel was slipping but Oscar wasn't," Jordan said. "The dog caught him and tore his tennis shoes."

Walker was only human, after all.

"Herschel's the reason I'm still in education, starving to death," said Jordan, who teaches in South Carolina now.

Last week, Walker decided to forgo his last year of college eligibility to play football for the New Jersey Generals of the new U.S. Football League. They will pay him $5 million for three years. "If this is a mistake, it's the first one," Jordan said. "I'm pleased to see he is human."

Like Oscar, everything seems to be catching up with him. Some people find his decision surprising. Others are angry that he let Georgia go to the dogs, that he defied the sanctified rules on eligibility, that he is engaged to a white woman, that he lied. They say, "Well, he did what's best for him," as if he didn't have the right to do so.

People who assumed they knew him say, indignantly, that he isn't what he appeared to be. People who do know him say what he appears to be is not what he is. "The outside of Herschel is all you ever see," Jordan said.

Roberta Harris, a junior classmate at Georgia, said, "Georgia didn't care that much about Herschel. What he meant was new lights and 20,000 new seats. If they loved him, like they say they do, they would be happy that he left and got security for life. As long as he made them happy on Saturday, that's pretty much all that mattered."

One National Football League executive, who has followed Walker's career, said, "He looked like the next thing to sliced bread. He said he wanted to run in the Olympics, that he didn't want to play out of the country, that money isn't anything. Now it turns out it is. Unfortunately, lots of things that were built up as credible have been discredited. He was in the blessed area. Now he's back to being a plain old jock."

Every story added to the image. "He wins the Heismann and jogs down the street and pulls a lady out of a burning car," said Gary Phillips, his high school football coach. "They build him up to be more than he really is.

"You have to remember he's not even 21 yet."

Even those who know him best describe him rather than try to define him. "I always say I know him but I always say I never knew him," Phillips said.

"People used to ask him to explain himself as a runner. They'd say, 'Give me a word to describe you?' He always said, 'Surprising.' When you expect him to run over you, he'll dodge you. When you expect him to dodge you, he runs over you. His personality is like that, too."

Once again, Wrightsville, Ga., is buzzing about Walker. The town (pop. 4,000-5,000) hasn't changed that much since he left three years ago. "Wrightsville isn't that much smaller than New York," Walker said last fall. "After all, we just added another Piggly Wiggly last week."

This week, the helicopters came back, along with reporters on stakeout. Virginia Burns was home sick with the flu and missed all the excitement. She is a Georgia alumna, one of Walker's former teachers. "When he got the check (from the Generals), he gave it to his mother and told her to put it in the bank," she said.

Marie Duggan taught family living when Walker was a high school senior. "He was pretty interested in stocks and bonds," said Duggan, who is retired now. "One day, they gave me a complimentary copy of a book on how to invest. I gave it to Herschel. I told him, 'You're the only student I have that has a possibility of investing in the stock market.' "

Burns: "At school, he was the most polite thing I ever saw. When a recruiter came, they'd call him over the intercom to go and he'd say, 'I'll wait until the end of class.' "

Duggan: "One day, one of the boys in class said every boy should have a father. Herschel said, 'I disagree. I love my daddy but when my mother speaks we all jump.' When little bitty Christine spoke in her sweet kind way, Herschel jumped."

Jordan: "He'd set a goal and do whatever it takes to get it. In his younger years, he had a deficiency in reading. He graduated as president of the honor society."

Duggan: "The only way you could find out what he was thinking is if you could get ahold of his poetry. He wrote what he thought in his poetry . . . I wish I could have had 1,000 Herschels."

Burns: "I'll tell you something else. The trophy, he brought it home. His parents have a new house . . . Some kids found out he was home and went out to see him. They said they'd like to see the trophy. He had put it in his sister's room in the closet on the floor."

Jordan: "The whole game he plays is within himself, whether he pleases himself."

His first love is track, an individual's sport. His true love, Cindy De Angelis, to whom he became engaged this month, happens to be white. Athens, Ga., which has been buzzing about Herschel Walker since he arrived three years ago, is buzzing again--for all the wrong reasons.

His friend, Mel Lattany, the sprinter, says: "I think that young lady is holding him together . . . She loves him. She came from a wealthy family and she doesn't need money. The happiest I've ever seen Herschel was when he's talking about Cindy. I can see them dying together. What more can you ask of a marriage?"

Darryl Jones, another close friend, said, "The interracial relationship just doesn't cut it in the South. Herschel has done something they aren't ready for. He doesn't have many friends. He needs someone to talk to. He can't keep everything bottled up or he'd go crazy."

He keeps so much inside. "I've never seen him get excited about anything," said teammate Mike Weaver. "It's really strange. He'd score a touchdown in one of the biggest games and guys would jump up and down. Herschel would just hand the ball to the official and go back to the bench.

"When he broke his thumb, he didn't wince. When he disclocated his shoulder twice (in the 1983 Sugar Bowl) there was no grimace. Other guys on the team felt terrible if they showed pain because of the way he deal with it."

Lattany: "It's hard to tell when Herschel's happy or sad. He has the same look on his face no matter what, which is the way he learned to adapt to stress."

Weaver: "The only thing I ever saw him get excited about was dancing. Herschel liked his dancing."

One morning two years ago, Walker and Lattany were roomates at the NCAA track meet. "We sat on our beds from 8 a.m. to noon singing one song before we ran," Lattany said. " 'Jesus Is Love' by the Commodores. It was strange. All of a sudden two people, singing one song over and over again. That's the closest I ever felt to Herschel."

Some wonder whether Walker has done what he wants (as he usually does) or whether he was led down the primrose path. There is another possibility. Before every high school game, Phillips asked his players to name their goals. Walker always answered: "I only try to do the best I can at that moment."

Which may be exactly what he has done. Lattany says Walker told him the only thing he regrets "is the way it went down. It hurt his credibility. He said, 'I gave my all to the university and the public on the field. I hope they forgive and understand.' "

Others wonder whether he has changed. On Monday, Phillips asked him if the publicity was bothering him. "He said, 'I guess the president hasn't done anything lately so they have to write about me.' I never heard him talk about the president before."

Duggan says he's less fidgety than he was. Never could sit still. "He's the same: a big ol' hunk of Herschel."

If anything, he's become more what he was: more withdrawn, more private. "Herschel has withdrawn more inside Herschel," Burns said. "He realizes he can be hurt so badly."

Once long ago, Burns said, on teacher work day, Walker had the radio on in her classroom. "I said, 'Herschel, I've never seen you dance. Would you dance for me?' He went to dancing away . . . I think today, he'd hesitate to jump up and down for me."