Herschel Walker, mild-mannered running back for a would-be great metropolitan football team, the New Jersey Generals, carried the ball 19 times for 74 yards last Sunday in a losing effort against the Boston Breakers before 15,798 fans on a scorching nook of Boston University called Nickerson Field. For the likes of Superman, it was quite a comedown. These were Walker's final duties of the USFL season. Whether he carried the new league or not, he'd run 412 times from scrimmage for one of the worst teams he will ever see, let alone play on. But when it was over he seemed daisy fresh. "Physically this season was no tougher than college football," he said. "The worst I've been hurt was a poke in the eye last week against Arizona. I was blind for three days."
Which was appropriate, seeing as he'd been leading the blind for three months. Was Walker's impact enough to solidify the USFL in the hearts and pocketbooks of America? Or did the battered condition of his team, the 6-12 Generals, nullify any impact he might have had? Walker was the Generals, all right, and the Generals were definitely walkers. Walker himself had been the only General worthy of rank, somehow rushing for a league-high 1,812 yards.
The Generals had generated the USFL's most intense excitement when they signed Walker in February. Owner J. Walter Duncan, football fans and the television networks, ABC and ESPN, which had signed on before Herschel did, had visions of Walker scoring a touchdown a game, which he did, with 18, and gaining 2,000 total yards, which he did, too. He had 2,370, in fact. Unfortunately, the rest of the Generals weren't up to snuff, nor was Coach Chuck Fairbanks, the mentor with the great resume who's in the process of proving the validity of the Peter Principle. "Upchuck!" some Boston fans chanted during the Breakers' 34-10 victory Sunday.
It was a still day in Boston, blisteringly hot. The Generals got a 36-yard field goal on their first possession. Then Quarterback Johnnie Walton guided the Breakers to 24 first-half points. Walker became a blocker for whoever was the quarterback, and that, in a nutshell, was about as spectacular as Walker, the Generals and, ergo, the entire league became Sunday, or any other time.
July 10, 1983
"We'll be better next year," said Walker. "I'm not Joe Namath. I can't guarantee, but maybe we can win 14 games next year." And after that? "I just go from season to season," he said. "That's the life of a paid athlete. In the fall I'll miss playing for Georgia, probably very much. And there'll be a time around the Olympics when I'm going to be hurt, and disappointed, but you can't do everything." This from a man who made the two best tackles, of the day, both after interceptions. "Good thing Herschel is versatile," said Breaker Linebacker Ray Phillips.
Walker's teammates were as much in awe of him as anybody. More than half the players had their pictures taken with Herschel on team photo day, and during the last week of practice they were still bringing footballs and hankies and anything that would hold ink for Herschel to sign into memorabilia. They knew Walker's place, if not their own.
USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons continues to rave about him. "All things considered," says Simmons, "he had a dramatically successful season. His presence, despite the Generals' record, was of utmost importance to us."
How do you spell importance? N-U-M-B-E-R-S. The Generals sold 36,000 season tickets, nearly half of them after signing Walker 11 days before the start of the regular season. The attendance at his nine road games averaged 9,303 more than the norm for the host city.
The television ratings the first week were sky-high—then the Generals keeled over and died. "Certainly, at the earliest point, Walker was the rating," declared Irv Brodsky, a spokesman for ABC. Even though the numbers plummeted late in the season, on average nearly a million more households than expected tuned in the USFL each week. And it certainly wasn't because of the smile on Chuck Fairbanks' face.
Scotty Connal, executive vice-president at ESPN, says, "Herschel Walker is a magnet. The viewing public realized he was a star player and we definitely hung our hat on him, like the AFL did with Namath." ESPN, which televised games on Saturday and Monday nights, averaged a 3.4 USFL rating overall, but 4.1 on the five Generals' telecasts. "We had the best football player in America on them," said Connal.
Walker has his doubts about that. "For me, the split backfield was the most difficult adjustment at first," he said. "I've always run out of the I, and it's a different kind of running. I'd use my vision to find openings. In a split backfield, you're in a three-point stance and can't see the defense. You have to hit up in there quick, run on instinct, and that's difficult for me. All the great runners are instinct runners. I'm not."
A former NFL 1,000-yard runner says Walker has "no magic" as a runner. Walker's comments on instinct would seem to give that assessment substance. But whoever bestows such gifts probably took a look at Walker and decided that world-class speed-and a weightlifter's anatomy were enough. Walker assisted by magic might have been difficult to believe. But then, Walker assisted by no one was, too.