Herschel Walker was sipping a glass of orange juice the other day in the family room of his $350,000, 10th-floor condo in Verona, N.J., enjoying the hilly countryside. The sky was blue and the grass was green for as far as the eye could see. The setting was comfortable. The conversation was pleasant. But the question had to be asked.
Ahem, excuse me, Herschel. Have you failed as a pro?
Walker didn't hesitate. He put his head down and slammed into the line.
"I know there are people who say I haven't done good. But I'm tryin'," he said.
May 26, 1985
Even to consider that Herschel Walker—big, strong, fast, body by God, moves by Magic, the 1982 Heisman winner—is a professional flameout is a contradiction that ranks with congressional ethics. Yet many have broached the notion. Said Larry Felser in The Sporting News of April 2, 1984, "Herschel Walker is the most overrated football player of the last 10 years, maybe the last 20 years." That said, Felser went on to characterize Walker's performance for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL as like that of "...any rum-dum, dime-a-dozen football player."
The Herschel Horror Show continued through the first six games of this season, in which he averaged only 83.3 yards per game. Definitely not Walkeresque. Good gracious, at Georgia he averaged 159 per. Then last month, on April 7, Walker exploded against Houston. He rushed for a league-record 233 yards and scored two touchdowns, one an 88-yard breeze. Since then, Walker has erupted weekly, as opposed to weakly. On Sunday he surpassed the 100-yard mark for the seventh straight week, gaining 142 even though the Generals lost to Denver, 28-24. He also caught three passes against the Gold for 106 more yards. In the six games before the Houston contest, the Generals were a bumbling 3-3; since Walker's resurgence, they have gone 5-2.
Now you should hear what people are saying about the USFL's leading rusher (1,592). "I don't know of another back who's even close to being in his class," says Memphis strong safety Barney Bussey. "He's a runaway freight train." Says Generals offensive guard Dave Lapham, "He's a runaway beer truck." Notice the operative word is "runaway."
Walker is not only dominating games, he's intimidating the opposition, just as Larry Csonka and John Riggins have done. Jacksonville coach Lindy Infante probably sums it up best when he says, "Walker has been playing lately like the back we all thought he was." But therein lies a big part of Walker's problem. Public expectations of him have always been impossibly high. We somehow think he should knock down tall buildings at the same time he's flying over them.
When Walker rushes for 150 quiet yards, observers say he should have made 200 noisy ones; when he scores on two short touchdown runs, observers figure it should have been three long ones. "No matter what Herschel does," says Generals president Jason Seltzer, "it's never enough." Veteran center Kent Hull says, "Herschel should remember that it's always impossible to fulfill fans' expectations." In fact, Walker does know that.
He wanders off to get more orange juice, then returns to a family room that's all glittery and mirrored and contains nothing that even hints of Georgia's red clay. "I never try to find out what people expect," he says. "That's not important. What is important is that my teammates expect me to do my job and make things happen, and that's what I expect to do."
Unfortunately, Herschel conditioned the fans to expect the world from him. Back home in Wrightsville, Ga., his high school track team won a state championship; Walker scored 34½ of his maximum 35 points. That's a cornerstone of the Walker legend. All he did for Georgia was win the Dawgs a national championship. Another cornerstone. He was the all-American boy. Good student (2.8 in criminal justice), all-this, ail-that. Once, he rescued a woman trapped inside a smoking car by yanking open a jammed door. Lord 'a' mercy, how good can good get? Everybody loved him and wanted him. With another college season remaining, he signed a big-bucks contract with the Generals ($2 million over two years, plus a one-year option the Generals picked up for this season at $1.25 mil), lied about it, then admitted it and walked away from the college life he loved. Georgia coach Vince Dooley told Walker to take his millions "and do the best you can with the rest of your life." But even though he had resorted to a money grab that betrayed a lot of people, Walker still remained a hero.
The hard times didn't really come until he joined the Generals. Until then, he had never faced any serious football-related adversity. Nor had he ever been anyplace where he didn't get all the attention. But when Doug Flutie arrived, Walker got to wondering, very privately, about sharing the spotlight. Reflecting on the hard times, Walker says, "God didn't mean for this to be easy. That's why he puts a lot of thorns in the path. If you are never depressed, how can you know what happiness is?"
A significant juncture in the Walker turnaround—and a point that nobody with the Generals likes to talk about—occurred when owner Donald Trump became furious that his star was not carrying the ball. After Walker carried just nine times in a March 30 loss to Arizona, Trump complained to coach Walt Michaels, "You've got the greatest runner in the history of football, and he ran nine times. This guy has to have 25 to 30 carries a game." Michaels wasn't very pleased by Trump's intervention. Asked last Saturday about the talk, Michaels bristled and said, "No comment." Then he couldn't help commenting, "I give the credit to the players and other coaches when we win, and I take the blame when we lose. Championship teams have running and passing. Defenses dictate what offenses do." Translation: Arguing with the boss is risky business, so it's best to be circumspect.
In any case, before the talk Walker was averaging 16.3 carries per game to get those 83.3 yards; since Trump's conversation with Michaels, Walker has averaged 28 carries and a whopping 156 yards per game. "Nobody can stop Walker," says Trump. "He is just tearing it up."
Orlando coach Lee Corso says it's "absolutely ludicrous" to call Walker a bust in his first 2½ years. And it's true that at first glance, the figures seem to be on Walker's side. After all, Walker arrived in 1983 scared and confused, a boy among men, following that circuslike highjacking from Georgia, that robbed him of his final year of college eligibility. He promptly went on to lead the USFL in rushing with 1,812 yards. Last season he rushed for 1,339 yards, third best in the league. Even so, Trump says, "Everyone was disappointed."
The reason is that, in Walker's first year, the Generals were 6-12. If Walker was so good, why were the Generals so bad? Answer: Maybe Herschel wasn't so good. Never mind that carrying an entire team can be heavy work. But even Walker concedes, "It's a little bit different here than Georgia. Being here you have to be on a fast pace."
What ticked off folks the most, however, was Walker's new, tentative running style and his new habit of stepping out of bounds to avoid contact after a lackadaisical lateral run. After all, he made his name at Georgia by burying his helmet, shoulders and heart in any cornerback and drilling him for a gain of two more yards. Even Dallas Cowboys exec Gil Brandt confesses, "I thought maybe he had lost his desire to be the best. I thought maybe he had become comfortable moneywise and was content with what he had done."
In fact, Herschel was hurting. His left shoulder was giving him fits. It had been dislocated in each of his three Sugar Bowls. So by protecting it in 1983, he put a significant damper on his crunching style. In a pre-1984 scrimmage he hurt the shoulder again; during the year it was dislocated several more times. As is his wont, he kept his mouth shut and kept running. The nadir came during the last five games in '84, for which he averaged a crummy 51.2 yards per and never did better than 62.
After that, the snide tongues were wagging. And the rival NFL seemed pleased. Falcons G.M. Tom Braatz said last February, "It doesn't look like football is his number one priority anymore.... He doesn't run with the same authority he ran with in the past...." O.J. Simpson once offered the opinion that, while he was impressed with Walker's stats, "...sometimes he looks like he doesn't have a clue about how to run."
Walker answers, "Opinions are like dollar bills. Everybody has them. But I gained more than 1,000 yards last year, so did Mo [fullback Maurice Carthon] and the team was 14-4. That's pretty good." But not nearly good enough. It's significant that Walker was never named the league's Player of the Week in 1984, whereas guys named Sam Harrell, Eric Jordan and Todd Fowler were.
During the off-season, Dr. Mark Schottenfeld, the Generals' orthopedic surgeon, slapped Walker into Newark's University Hospital and spent a little more than an hour reconstructing the capsule and the muscle of the shoulder to prevent future dislocations.
At this year's preseason camp, Walker tapped his new shoulder and told running-back coach Clark Gaines, "This is going to be the year of Herschel Walker." Then he started the year by carrying five pitiful times for six pitiful yards against Birmingham. Fortunately for him, all eyes were on Doug Flutie that day anyway. Flutie says, "I didn't think he was that impressive when I first saw him."
These days Walker is thoroughly impressive and not the least bit defensive. "I'm catching. I'm blocking," he says. "Those are two things that are unique for a running back of my nature." Offensive line coach Larry Story agrees and says, "He has great talents and now he's putting them to great use."
Michaels, meanwhile, is positively elated. He says, "Herschel can be the greatest back in the history of the game in a short period of time." Already, Michaels says, Walker is more punishing than Jim Brown was—and Michaels played with Brown at Cleveland.
The run-pass-scramble threat of Flutie eases some of the pressure on Walker, though Flutie says, "I think the philosophy of other teams now is to stop Herschel first and worry about Doug later." But Walker has made huge strides since becoming a pro, Flutie notwithstanding. At Georgia, he ran mostly as an I-back. That's still where he appears most at home. But he has learned how to run out of splitback, single setback and wideout alignments. He's the club's leading pass catcher with 29 for 412 yards. Marvels Flutie, "He doesn't have exceptional hands, but that's Herschel. Whatever he does, he is good at."
Even the NFL is paying grudging, very grudging, respect. Giants G.M. George Young says, "He's playing very well—in that league. He has shown the potential to be successful in the NFL." The Cowboys think so; they picked him in the fifth round in this year's draft. Brandt says with a straight face that the fifth round "was a good place to roll the dice" considering that 47% of all fifth-rounders make NFL rosters. In truth, Walker is anybody's first-rounder, and the Cowboys are taking a chance that the USFL will fold, thus making Walker their own. Brandt got Walker on the phone right after Dallas drafted him (Herschel was watching the soaps, not the draft) and said, "We'll wait for you." Said Walker, "I hope to be around."
He should be around for quite a while. A rare and wonderful mixture of grace, slambang and brains, he describes his running style as "surprising." It's a style that lulls, then explodes.
"I've been learning a great deal," he told Gaines not long ago, "but now the young blood is out of me. I'm ready." He has got his money in order, too, under the guidance of the Cleveland-based International Management Group. Indeed, in March 1984 he signed a four-year, $6 million deal with Trump that runs from 1986 to '89; he has a $1.8 million arrangement with Adidas that goes seven more years; he has a five-year, $100,000-a-year package with Franklin Sports Industries; he owns a restaurant in Athens, Ga.; and he has a new $45,000 Mercedes. His prime investments are in marketable securities, oil and gas and real estate.
"The only problem about having money to buy anything I want is I don't want anything," he says. "I just bought the Mercedes because Cindy [his wife] asked if there was any way we could get one. So I figured out a way. I bought it."
For a player of star stature, Walker hasn't let New York's bright lights do him in, a common problem for young, rich athletes in the area. He makes occasional forays to the city (recently to see The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway), but he's not fodder for the gossip columnists. At home in Verona (he and Flutie live in the same building), he sips yet another orange juice and says, "I don't know what rich is, but I know what comfortable is, and I'm comfortable. What I really want is to be the very best I can be at everything I do. Being a good football player is easy. Being a great football player is hard."