Lolo Jones at 50 should be quite a character. At this moment, she evokes a young Herschel Walker, though he has always existed as such an implausibility that the idea of duplication seems preposterous.
On Sunday, Jones' bobsledding career, still in its infancy, yielded a gold medal in an exotic combined-sport competition at the world championships. The glamorous Olympic hurdler accomplished this at age 30, almost exactly 20 years after a 30-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner represented the United States in the two-men bobsled at the Albertville Olympics.
From not too great a distance, both of them appeared to be public-relations plants intended to boost the profile of a sport that defies viewer comprehension both on TV and in person. In truth, though, recruiting football players and track stars to provide the launching push at the start of a run has become an American bobsledding custom. Bears wide receiver and world-class sprinter Willie Gault preceded Walker in the endeavor, and sprinter Tianna Madison competed with Jones for a spot.
The Jones and Walker personas intersect in a lot more places than the back of a sled. Make that the Lolo and Herschel personas. Those last names are far too pedestrian to do this pair justice.
At 50, Herschel looks shockingly young and buff. Two years ago, he became an MMA competitor, winning two fights and revealing that he hoped to play in the NFL again. The last anyone heard, he was about to open a sports bar near the University of Georgia campus. If Herschel's Famous 34 Pub and Grill carries only the purported victuals of the man himself, it won't stay open a week. He has long called himself a vegetarian and said he eats just one light meal a day. At the '92 Olympics, he told the media that he had cut down to mostly bread and water, with an occasional splurge on a French fry or two.
The website for the pub, however, carries a picture of the world's most robust ascetic with a chicken wing in one hand and the back of his other wrist wiping his mouth.
On close inspection, the wing appears bite-free, having never crossed No. 34's lips. Doubters have always sought evidence that the Herschel diet is a myth, and that many of his other tales may be a tad off, as well.
Lolo Jones will never match him for breadth of eccentricities, but Twitter gives her a chance to narrow the gap. Via the social network, she declared her virginity intact last year and ultimately made her chastity vow part of her Olympic platform. Independent verification is neither possible nor desirable. By contrast, staking out every Burger King within a five-mile radius of Walker to monitor his eating habits would seem like a thoroughly savory occupation.
The pair's professional lives have followed fairly parallel tracks: setting early and smaller stages ablaze, then faltering at the highest level and ultimately being remembered for their shortcomings stacked against their potential.
Jones led the sprint hurdles in Beijing, then clipped the second-to-last hurdle and fell out of contention. At the 2012 Olympics, she took fourth in her race and also took heat for drawing more media attention than Americans Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, who took silver and bronze.
An event largely beyond Walker's control -- except to the extent that he promulgated hype for himself -- will forever tie his legacy to an anvil. When the Vikings, in an act of irrational exuberance, traded their future to the Cowboys to land Walker, they created a small dynasty in Dallas and a dead end in Minnesota. The deal ended up in the lead paragraph of most obituaries for Vikings general manager Mike Lynn when he died last summer. When Herschel himself goes, the trade should appear lower down, but not by much.
Then again, it's hard to imagine him going at all. He's always seemed so eternal.
He and Lolo both know how to keep themselves out in front of the world. She is endorsement royalty, despite the lack of Olympic gold. Her childhood stories, including time spent living in a basement room at Salvation Army, prompted ESPN Films promoters to hyperventilate about its episode on her:
"The appeal of the Lolo Jones story goes beyond the track and field community. It is one of heartbreak, adversity and the hope of triumph at the end, the kind of storyline that appeals to the masses. This is her story!"
Herschel pioneered early exits from college football when he signed with the nascent USFL after his junior season at Georgia. The NFL soon altered its policy and accepted players only three years' removed from high school. But Walker didn't just want to get out of the amateur world in 1983. He wanted to determine where he played, to maintain a high profile, and the USFL allowed that. He went to the New Jersey Generals, in the New York market.
Of the two, Jones connects with the public more easily. She uses her Twitter account to make fun of herself, of rumors of matchmaking between her and Tim Tebow, and of her first crashes in a bobsled. Walker has always been fairly stiff, distant from regular people – which, for him, meant everyone. His teammates always marveled at the fact that he never taped himself for games, just one more piece of the Herschel mystique.
In a 2008 autobiography, "Breaking Free,'' he wrote that he had been diagnosed with dissociative personality order, a new terminology for multiple personality disorder, and that the condition nearly drove him to suicide. His ex-wife, Cindy, said he had threatened her life and that she believed that his many alternative personalities explained his wide array of interests – from the bobsled to ballet to taekwondo to poetry.
Within two years of that book came the MMA fights and the announcement that he wanted back into the NFL at his mid-century mark. Will he someday ascribe that all to mental illness or is that the real Herschel?
In another 20 years, we may still not know who Herschel Walker is. He may not know.
Where will Lolo Jones be then, at 50? It will be intriguing to find out, and it's a safe bet she won't keep it a secret.