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The Strange Tale of Herschel Walker and the Chicken Empire That Wasn’t

There is a biographical story Herschel Walker tells that illustrates why so many questions linger about his Georgia Senate election.

It goes something like this: The food conglomerate Conagra invited him to pitch breaded chicken recipes and wanted to know the name of his company.

A former Heisman Trophy winner, Walker wanted to use his fame to earn money after retiring from the National Football League after the 1997 season.

“I didn’t have a business, but I was staying at a Renaissance Hotel a few days before, so I named my business Renaissance Man Food Services, and they put it in the contract,” Walker said at a campaign event in Georgia on May 20, one of the many times he has publicly told versions of this story.

But Walker was already a partner in a business venture called Renaissance Man Inc. — a failed attempt five years earlier to sell health drinks in Walmart stores. That venture grew out of a friendship with the owner of a company of a remarkably similar name: Renaissance Manufacturing, a family-run South Carolina textile company that dates back five generations.

When asked to explain the discrepancy, Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, replied, “What an incredibly stupid story.”

It may not seem that important. Who cares about the origins of an ex-football star’s poultry business?

Walker, of course, is now the Republican nominee for the Senate in Georgia, hoping to oust Senator Raphael Warnock, the incumbent Democrat, and become one of the most powerful politicians in the United States. Walker has put his reputation as an entrepreneur at the center of his biographical story, describing himself as the “successful owner” of as many as a dozen companies.

But Walker’s original story about his foodservice business fits into a pattern of exaggerations, half-truths, and outright falsehoods that dates back to at least the 1990s.

A profile of Walker from 1996 in Sports Illustrated by columnist Skip Bayless called his statements “a wacky maze of contradictions” and portrayed Walker as someone who led himself to fail to live up to the “superhuman” expectations he had publicly set for himself.

“Beginning during his college days in Georgia,” Bayless wrote, “he almost turned himself into a cartoon superhero: a world-class sprinter who held a black belt, performed in a ballet, made the Olympic bobsleigh team, chased criminals, and even scored touchdowns in his free time.”

However, many aspects of Walker’s biography have collapsed under closer scrutiny. On Monday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: that Walker has repeatedly claimed that he has “worked in law enforcement” when in fact he has not.

Walker even lied about graduating from college, which he didn’t then lied about whether he lied about graduating from college, as CNN found out he did. He has also occasionally done some embellishment, claiming he graduated “in the top 1 percent of my graduating class,” which he didn’t.

Walker’s longtime business partner is George Evans Mappin, the heir to a family business that makes and sells textiles to hotel chains such as Hilton.

The way Mappin tells the story on his company website, the two men met while Walker was still playing soccer at the University of Georgia. That would have been in the early eighties.

“George realized that Herschel thought outside the box and was a hard worker; he then decided that Herschel would be a great asset to our growing business,” the website reads.

Mappin did not respond to a request for comment, but company data casts doubt on Walker’s story of how he came up with the name Renaissance Man Food Services.

In 1997, Walker filed paperwork for the creation of another company, Renaissance Man Inc., which sold an aloe-based health drink, Aloe-Lu-Ya.

At the time, Walker listed the mailing address for his nascent business at the same Greer, SC address as Renaissance Manufacturing, Mappin’s family textile business. The drink sold poorly, according to federal records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Walker didn’t start Renaissance Man Food Services — another entity that sells breaded chicken, among other things — in 2002, he said in a statement 2019 Judicial Impeachment

It seems an odd coincidence that Walker would have named his company after a hotel he stayed at rather than the family business of a close friend he’d known for over a decade and who had been his business partner in another company of the same name.

The origin of the name isn’t the only inexplicable statement Walker has made about his poultry business.

in a interview with Fox Business in 2018, Walker said Renaissance Man Food Services was “the largest minority-owned chicken company in the United States,” which was untrue.

He also said it was “essentially a mini Tyson Foods” with “over 600 employees”. Two years later, in an interview with Scott Murray, a Dallas sports broadcaster, Walker said the company had “about 800 employees.”

But in April 2020, Renaissance Man Food Services listed only eight employees on a loan application for the Paycheck Protection Program, the emergency response program from the coronavirus.

Renaissance Man Food Services also did not own the chicken processing plants that Walker claimed to own. As he told the court in a statement to a… wrongful termination case previously researched by The Associated Press“It is not my intention to speak of ‘own’ in a technical sense.”

Asked for the same explanation as he himself came up with the name of his company, Walker replied, “Yes, I’m the Renaissance man.” But when pressed for the origin of the name, he said, “I have no idea where it comes from.”

Walker has openly described his struggles with his mental health, including in “Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder,” his 2008 autobiography.

But in this case, frankness almost damaged his business. In a deposition as part of the same processKristin Caffey, a former senior official at Sysco who exclusively sells Famous 34, Walker’s food line, revealed that the food service giant nearly canceled the scheme.

“When he released his book that we didn’t know was coming out, on multiple personality disorder, it mattered to the company whether we could continue the relationship,” Caffey said. “It was a nightmare for PR perspective.”

— Blake

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