The former "boy" running back of the World Football League has some advice for a notable youngster in pro football today. "If Herschel feels he has accomplished all he set out to do by the time his contract's up in three years, he should get out before he burns out," says Ralph Nelson, who was 19 when he signed with the WFL's Southern California Sun in January 1974. Walker had just turned 21 when he made his first carry in the USFL in March.
Nelson's own pro career spanned only three years during the mid-1970s—one season each with the Sun, the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks. He's now a bus driver for Metro Transit in Seattle. "I didn't quite make enough to retire on," says Nelson, who's 29 and with the encouragement of his old coach, George Allen, plans to try a comeback next year.
Nelson didn't play college football. In fact, two years on the JV team at Centennial High in Compton, Calif. was the extent of his schoolboy career. He made the varsity as a senior, but quit the team before the season began because he didn't get along with the coach. "He had the talent, and he could run," says Willard McCrumby, Nelson's JV coach and now principal at Centennial, "but he never got a fair shake as a senior."
Nelson had been out of high school for a year and was working at a lock factory in Compton when he heard that the Sun was holding tryouts in nearby Santa Ana. He was signed as a free agent by Sun Assistant Coach Ernie Wheelwright, a former NFL fullback. "The whole time I was in football," says Wheelwright, now a movie and TV actor, "I saw maybe two guys with the cuts this kid had. [Gale] Sayers was one of them." Wheelwright wasn't bothered by Nelson's age. "He had hustle and heart written all over him, and he'd do things that some of the big shots out of college wouldn't."
May 8, 1983
In his first season Nelson, 6'2" and 192 pounds, rushed for more than 400 yards and was among the WFL's leading kickoff returners. He evaded head-on tackles and went to the sidelines when he sensed a jarring hit coming his way. "I didn't solicit punishment," he says.
He did, however, have to solicit his paychecks when he was with the Sun—the club had trouble meeting its payroll midway through the season—and Nelson claims he was the Sun's lowest-paid player. "I signed for $16,000 and was lucky to come away with half of that," he says. But his pay would get better. Wheelwright pointed him toward the NFL, where Allen, whose Redskins had always won with graybeards, signed Nelson just before he turned 21.
With Washington in 1975 Nelson played mostly as a kick returner and reserve halfback. He went on waivers to the expansion Seahawks the next year, where the nickname Junior, pinned on him by Washington's Over the Hill Gang, followed. Nelson was a spare running back for Seattle for a season. He and renowned Linebacker Mike Curtis were cut on the same day, following the team's final exhibition game in 1977. Nelson feels that he was let go largely because of the contract he'd signed with Washington. "It had a lot of deferred benefits and bonus clauses and was worth as much as some fifth-and sixth-year men were making—more than Seattle was willing to pay a part-time player," he says.
Nelson sat out a season and then got feelers from Canada and a tryout with the Oakland Raiders, who asked if he could bulk up 25 pounds for a shot at fullback. He didn't think he could gain that much fast enough, and having settled in Seattle, he started driving a bus there in May 1979. "It's a living," Nelson says, "but I'm still hungry for football." Allen fueled his desire to make it back by asking him to camp with the Chicago Blitz, but the call came the day before camp was to open, too late for Nelson to arrange time off from behind the wheel. He cursed his luck but was optimistic about making a USFL team in '84. "I'm 29 and feel five years younger," he says. "There's no wear and tear on me. Except for an ankle sprain, I've never been hurt. I may even have picked up a step in speed. It would be a shame if somebody saw my age on a fact sheet and automatically counted me out as too old."
Next year, if he makes it with the Chicago Blitz, Nelson will have what few, if any, men have had before: a second childhood in pro football.