Herschel Walker and his 3-year-old rottweiler, Al Capone, wind their way through the rolling hills and duck ponds in the plush southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Edina. It's an early Tuesday morning, a day off for the Minnesota Vikings but not for Walker, who is on the first of two four-mile conditioning runs. Walker, a 6'2", 212-pound running back who was a sprinter in college, glides effortlessly, prancing on his toes as if he were warming up for a race. He barely breaks a sweat. Capone, loping alongside his owner, is an awkward, beefy 120 pounds, his big butt swishing from side to side, his long tongue dangling out of his mouth.
"Come on, Blockhead," Walker yells to the panting Capone. "You can keep up with me."
Most pro football players relish their days off, taking the few hours to rest their battered and bruised bodies, doing anything to relax—not running eight miles. But Walker has always been different. He needs just five hours of sleep a night and exists on only one meal a day. Instead of lifting weights like most other players, he has a daily regimen of 3,500 sit-ups and 1,500 push-ups. He has never taken an aspirin, and he had his wisdom teeth pulled without using a pain killer. He has never tasted beer or liquor.
"When I'm running, I feel at ease. I'm in my domain," Walker says. "I don't even feel my footsteps touching the ground. It's like I'm running on clouds. When I'm running, I'm at peace."
But Walker has not been running very much on game days this season, and he is not at peace with the Vikings. For the first time in his otherwise illustrious career—from his Heisman Trophy days at Georgia to his brief romp through the now defunct USFL to his stint as a one-man offense with the Dallas Cowboys—Walker is caught in the middle of a football controversy. As the result of an extended period of weak performance, his football skills and his desire to play are being questioned in Minneapolis and around the league. Blame was first assigned to the Vikings for failing to utilize Walker properly in the team's offense. Now blame is being fixed directly on Walker.
"Jumping on the anti-Herschel bandwagon is chic right now—it's the cool thing to do," Walker said last week. "I am not a dog. Al Capone is."
A blockbuster trade on Oct. 12, 1989, sent Walker from the Cowboys to the Vikings in exchange for five players and seven draft choices, including Minnesota's first- and second-round picks from 1990 through '92. He was heralded by Viking president and general manager Mike Lynn, the mastermind of the deal, as the "missing spoke in the wheel," the savior who would lead the Vikings to the promised land. Lynn went so far as to proclaim that the trade would be judged a success only if the Vikings won the Super Bowl. There were high hopes for the team, and the expectations for Walker were off the map.
With Sunday night's 27-22 victory over the Denver Broncos, the Vikings have a 2-6 record. And Walker has hardly been worth the $2.25 million salary he's making in this last year of his five-year contract. In what for Walker has become a typical game, he had 10 carries for 58 yards and four kick returns for a 26.3 average against Denver, with six carries for 36 yards coming when the Vikes were running out the clock. For the season, he has 307 yards in 82 carries, one touchdown rushing and a 23.7-yard average for 23 kickoff returns.
"I feel like I'm more of a burden than a help to this team," Walker says. "This team never needed to trade for me. I'm in a no-win situation."
"Herschel has never been in a slump before," says Viking offensive lineman David Huffman, "and maybe he is folding under the pressure."
Consider this string of formerly un-Herschel-like performances:
•On Sept. 30, in a 23-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Walker carried the ball 11 times for eight yards.
•The following Sunday, early in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions, Walker dropped a catchable pass on a fourth-and-one play from the Detroit 21. The score was tied at 20, but the Lions then drove for touchdowns on their next two possessions to win 34-27. "It's something I have to live with." Walker says. "A lot of people miss passes. What can I do?"
•On Oct. 15, in a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Walker fumbled twice in crucial situations—at the Philadelphia eight in the first quarter and at the Minnesota 15 on a kick return in the third quarter. On another return, in the first quarter, Walker ran into the back of one of his blockers and fell down at the Minnesota 15. Banished to the sidelines, with three carries from scrimmage for three yards, Walker did not touch the ball for the final 21 minutes. The Eagles won 32-24, and the target of blame shifted from the Vikings to Walker.
"Mentally I wasn't in the game," Walker says. "I woke up that morning sick. I was dizzy and nauseous. I felt like I was going to throw up. I geared myself up to play, like I was going to fight Mike Tyson, and then in the first quarter and a half, they played me at wide receiver. It was different from what we had practiced. I wondered what in the world they were doing with me. My mind wandered. I got lost. I should have taken myself out."
•On Oct. 28, against the Green Bay Packers, Walker fumbled on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage. "A stupid, stupid mistake," says Walker, who was ordered out of the game by Minnesota coach Jerry Burns. The Packers converted the mistake into a field goal.
"When I fumbled I thought, Oh, man, I can't believe this," Walker says. "I was trying too hard. Coach [Tom] Moore came up to me and said, 'Hang in there.' But you hear comments, like one coach cursing me, 'Hang onto the——ball.' I'm not a kid. I don't want people to treat me like a kid. If you feel that way, tell me to my face. Don't do it when my back is turned." Green Bay won 24-10, and Walker finished with three carries for six yards. He also dropped the two passes thrown to him.
Some of the Vikings believe that Walker has lost his confidence.
"He's not playing with the same reckless abandon as last year," says quarterback Rich Gannon. "So much pressure has been put on him, it has worn him down. He has had so much to carry on his back, and he has taken a lot of heat. I see it in his eyes. When he fumbled against Green Bay, he looked upset, like, 'Jeez, what's going on?' I admire him and respect him, but I wouldn't want to be him."
Suggestions that he has lost his confidence anger Walker, who is a great believer in mind over matter and the power of positive thinking.
"I don't think my play is affecting my confidence," he says. "I'm not saying it. Everyone else is. What affects me is what my family and closest friends are saying. Those are the people I care about."
Well, Herschel, your family and closest friends have noticed a change in your running style. In the old days Walker used to punish defenders, hurting linebackers and defensive backs, plowing through them like a freight train. This season he has been observed running out of bounds to avoid would-be tacklers, and he appears to be protecting his left shoulder, which has bothered him occasionally since his days at Georgia. Instead of bursting out of the backfield, Walker has been hesitating, taking a stutter step before approaching the line of scrimmage. Before the season Walker lost 10 pounds because he thought it would help his quickness, and one confidant of his theorizes that the weight loss has meant less power on impact and less protection for his body.
Thus far Walker has appeared unfazed, almost oblivious to the harsh criticism. The Minneapolis-St. Paul media has been brutal, questioning his physical ability, suggesting he is worn down from carrying the ball more than 3,100 times in his college and pro career and wondering whether he still has the heart to play the game well. Writers have harped on the fact that after the Detroit loss Walker spent one off day in Lake Placid, N.Y., attempting to qualify for the 1992 U.S. Olympic bobsled team. When Walker came .01 of a second from setting a bobsled push record at the trials, Bob Sansevere, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, "Is it really a surprise that Herschel Walker would excel in a sport where the idea is to go downhill?" The local media also ripped him for cutting the palm of his right hand while in Lake Placid, making so much of it that Walker held up the hand to show the small gash during a taping for his Sunday morning TV show. "You would have thought I'd cut my hand off," he says. And when he came down with the flu a few days later, just before the Eagles game, the local media blamed that on his bobsledding expedition too.
"Guys can go hunting on their days off and shoot themselves," Walker says. "Guys can go swimming and drown or play basketball and tear up an ankle. What do people want me to do on my day off, sit home and watch The Young and the Restless?"
It wasn't long before the national media joined in. On NBC's NFL Live a few weeks ago, Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson commented that Walker lacked courage. "O.J. has never liked me," Walker says. "How do you measure toughness? Do you have to have your teeth knocked out?" Gary Myers, on HBO's Inside the NFL, reported that he had talked to "a close friend" of Walker's who claimed that Herschel had lost his desire to play and was only continuing his career because of the big bucks.
"That's absurd," Walker says. "I feel like I'm answering questions about things that somebody else makes up. The bottom line is this: I believe in God. He is everything to me. So are my parents. They are my role models. If I sat around and didn't try, then God and my parents would be disappointed."
Many Viking fans are also beginning to sour on Walker. The ratings for his Sunday morning TV show on WCCO are in a steady decline. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has received plenty of anti-Herschel letters. Wade Reitmeir of Annandale, Minn., wrote: "I don't blame Mike Lynn for making the trade. He probably thought he was getting a legitimate NFL running back, not Mr. Full-Bodied Shoulder Pads, who is afraid to hit a hole with his nose facing the goal line." A fan faxed a cartoon to the various local papers of Herschel in his Viking uniform, running while holding on to a walker. Surprisingly, the drawing didn't appear in the papers. A novelty shop across from the Metrodome is advertising 50% off on all Herschel merchandise. T-shirts with the Words HERSCHEL SUCKS have appeared around town. And, of course, there's the latest Herschel Walker joke:
What's the difference between a Butterfingers and Herschel Walker? A Butterfingers only costs 50 cents.
"If he doesn't run for 100 yards, then he's just——in everybody's book," says Viking Pro Bowl defensive tackle Keith Millard. "What kind of crap is that? I've heard guys say, in phone conversations, whispers and mumblings, 'He shows no remorse for his failures.' Well, why should he? He's human. Players make mistakes."
Publicly, none of Walker's teammates are blaming him for the Vikings' dismal start. However, since he went to the bobsled trials, his dedication to the team has been repeatedly questioned.
"Some guys go hunting on their days off," one Viking veteran says. "They go drinking, too. Some of them sit in a dark room and contemplate what happened in the game. Herschel went off to go bobsledding. The perception is this: He doesn't give a damn. He makes more than everybody on the team, and we gave up everything to get him. Guys want to see him talk about doing what's right for the team. We want a Super Bowl so bad we bleed for it. What does Herschel want?"
"I don't know if his priorities are straight," Millard says.
Walker says he is focused on football. "My biggest problem is that I've been answering questions honestly," he says. "Reporters asked me about bobsledding. I said I'd like to do it when the time comes. The time is not now. They asked me about my love for martial arts, and I admitted that someday I might like to be in a martial arts movie. But not now.
"In the past, I've said I'd like to fight Mike Tyson. I've danced with the Fort Worth ballet. I went through FBI training two off-seasons ago. I've always said I'd like to go into the FBI, but the chances are pretty slim that I ever will.
"Look, to be honest, I don't know what I'm going to do after my football career is over. I don't know what I'm going to be doing 10 years from now. I have no idea what I'm going to be doing two weeks from now. They may cut me. That's how bad I'm playing."
Recently, Walker's wife, Cindy, has seen signs that things are beginning to wear on her husband. A person who keeps his feelings to himself, Walker has withdrawn even more and has trouble sleeping. But after listening to Cindy talk about his problems for several hours last week, Walker finally let down his guard.
"I don't know, maybe I am running the ball differently," he says. "I don't know.... I do know if you tell a kid long enough that he's worthless, sooner or later, he'll start believing it. I don't feel like I fit in here. I've never been given a chance to fit in. I don't feel like I was ever meant to fit in here. Whose fault is that? I didn't ask for the trade.
"Look, I run best from the I formation and when I get the ball a lot. I haven't said, 'Only put me in the I formation, and give it to me 20 or 30 times a game.' I don't know what an optimal number of carries would be for me. I just need some. All I've been doing with this team is just being there, and that isn't enough.
"I may not be the back I was two years ago, when I was 26. I'm 28 now. But I know what I can do. I guarantee you, right now I can outrun any back in this league. I'm as strong as any of them. I can catch a pass as well as anyone. I want to have the opportunity to do what Herschel can do, to help this team out. I don't want to just be here. I haven't prepared myself to lose at anything."
From the moment Walker flew into Minneapolis last season, there was Herschel Mania everywhere he went. His arrival was trumpeted in one of the biggest press conferences in the city's history. Three days later, following one 2½-hour practice session during which he was taught just 12 offensive plays, Walker made a big splash on the field in his Viking debut. Before a record Metrodome crowd of 62,075, he produced the best rushing game by a Viking back since 1983, gaining 148 yards on 18 carries. He received three standing ovations, including one during a TV timeout.
But he hasn't had another day like it, and he has failed to rush for more than 90 yards in any game since. Walker had trouble finding holes behind the Vikings' bread-and-butter, trap-blocking scheme. He became a part-time player, often serving as a decoy for fullback Rick Fenney on third down. In goal line situations, Walker was on the sidelines. He finished the '89 season averaging just 14.8 carries and 58.2 yards in 12 games with Minnesota, including a nine-carry, 29-yard performance in the Vikings' 41-13 playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
"I never felt like I fit in with the team," Walker says. "I don't go to bars. I don't hang out. This is a big hangout team. They like to go out together. I'm private."
It's not surprising that Walker hasn't felt right at home with the Vikings. First of all, he had never been asked to be a team player or one of the guys. He had always been a superstar, the focus of every offense in which he played. When he was in the USFL, he was coddled by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump; in Dallas, he was the pet project of general manager Tex Schramm and coach Tom Landry.
Second, the Vikings have a reputation for being one of the most selfish teams in the NFL. They are a group of talented individual stars—there are 12 Pro Bowl players on this year's team—who lack team chemistry. Yet none of these stars has ever stepped forward to be the strong leader needed to meld the Vikings into a cohesive unit. Burns, though he is liked by his players and loyal to them, is not a fiery leader, either.
As for the Vikings' offense, Walker was a bad fit from Day 1. "We are a pass-oriented offense," Huffman says. "We have never had a big-name, marquee running back, at least not since Chuck Foreman in the '70s. In our system, nobody carries the ball 30 times. The running backs are interchangeable parts. The system takes precedence over the individual players. With Herschel, what we have is a collision of systems. Where does it come together? We have so many offensive weapons. Who gets short-sheeted?"
Last April the Vikings made some adjustments in an effort to fit Walker into their offensive scheme. They took the play-calling duties from longtime offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker and hired Tom Moore, the Pittsburgh Steeler offensive coordinator, to serve as assistant head coach for the offense. Moore promised to utilize Walker as the Cowboys did in 1988, when he led the NFC in rushing with 1,514 yards and had 505 yards receiving. During that season Walker played at seven different positions: halfback, fullback, tight end, H-back, wide receiver, slot and flanker. Moore's mission was to create a scheme that would keep both Walker and tight end Steve Jordan on the field for every offensive down.
In training camp this summer, Moore made good on his promise. The Vikings worked a lot of I formation and power-running plays into the offense and used them effectively throughout the preseason and the first two regular-season games. Then the team was hit with two key injuries: Quarterback Wade Wilson tore a ligament in his right thumb and won't be back until at least Dec. 1; Millard tore ligaments in his right knee and is lost for the season. The Vikings' defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL in '89, started slowly, even with Millard, and has dipped to 16th overall. Because the Vikings have fallen behind in many games and have had to play catch-up by throwing the ball, they've abandoned the I formation and, along with it, Walker.
"I'm confused," Walker says. "I don't know where I'm supposed to be playing from week to week."
Three days after the Detroit loss, Walker visited Burns hoping to clarify his role on offense, offering to carry the ball more, and assuring his coach that, contrary to what the media was saying, he was dedicated to football. Burns raved about how hardworking Walker was, and even quizzed him about the nuances of bobsledding. Walker also tried to reach Lynn to ask how he could better attune himself to the offense. Lynn was unavailable, busy with his new added duties as president of the World League of American Football. Walker hasn't tried to phone Lynn again.
Instead he stands quietly on the sidelines, frustrated. "What can I do? I'm not a coach," Walker says. "I can't put myself into the game. I can't say, 'Psst. Rich, give me the ball.' "
Even if Walker gets back on track, it doesn't appear that he will ever be the focal point of the Viking offense as long as Burns is the head coach. "In my optimum offense," Burns says, "I'd like my receivers [Anthony Carter and Hassan Jones] and tight end [Jordan] to catch five or six passes. I'd like each back to carry the ball six to eight times and get 50 yards. If you do that, everybody will be fresh and everybody will be happy."
So why did the Vikings trade for Walker in the first place? Sources say Lynn did not consult with Burns before making the deal. Several Viking players believe Lynn used Walker to mend his public image. Before the trade, a handful of black players had charged that Lynn was a racist in his contract dealings with players. By obtaining Walker, a positive black role model with a large contract, Lynn could wipe away the racist label.
"Herschel Walker didn't make this trade," Millard says. "Mike Lynn did. If anybody should take the blame, it's Lynn. If anybody could bring the heat down right now, to have the fans and press leave Herschel alone, it's Mike Lynn."
But another question remains: What will the Vikings do with Walker at the end of the '90 season? They have four choices—trade him, waive him, make him a Plan B free agent or re-sign him. But how could the Vikings justify paying Walker another $2.25 million in '91?
In the meantime Walker operates in a five-back rotation every day in practice, trying to work himself into more playing time. He also runs before and after practice with Al Capone. He plans to study old game films of himself to try to analyze and imitate his running technique. The Vikings believe this difficult period might be a great equalizer for Walker.
"Herschel now has to be like everybody else," Huffman says. "He has to wait for his opportunity and make the most of it. We've got a saying here: The ship's sailing—be on board or be left behind. He has to be ready when he's called upon."