Throughout his nine seasons in pro football, Herschel Walker has cultivated the image of a clean-cut, well-mannered Southern gentleman. Extremely private and protective of his feelings, Walker spends most of his free time with his wife, Cindy, and their 5-year-old rottweiler, Al Capone. He works out three times a day, in and out of the football season, doing everything from eight-mile runs to 20-mile bike rides, from martial-arts routines to his legendary regimen of 2,000 situps and 1,500 pushups. He doesn't smoke, drink or let so much as an aspirin touch his lips. Utter a swear word? No way. And when it comes to controversy, Walker tries desperately to steer clear of it.
Controversy, though, hasn't steered clear of Walker. In the 2½ years since the Dallas Cowboys traded him to the Minnesota Vikings in a blockbuster deal, Walker has been called gutless and has had his manhood questioned by NFL insiders. "He's a con artist," says one NFC personnel director. "Nobody has made more money and done less. Nobody has won anything with him. In this league we don't like people who duck, lay the ball on the ground and don't win the big game."
The Vikings tried to deal Walker after last season, but, says one team official, "We couldn't get a warm six-pack for him." That Walker had a reputation as an oddball who was less than single-minded about football didn't help.
He has been sneered at and rejected by most every team in the NFL. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, who signed him to a two-year contract on Monday, were persuaded to give him a chance. Now a new Herschel Walker has emerged, one who is willing to speak his mind because his pride has been hurt.
"People have questioned my heart," Walker, 30, says. "Go ahead and get in the ring with me. I'll tear your head off. I'll bust your butt. You can insult me all you want, question my game, say I'm ugly, I don't care. But don't ever question my heart, because then you're insulting me and my family.
"Not too many players want to win more than I do. I'll do whatever I can to help the Eagles win a Super Bowl, and if I don't rush for 1,200 yards this season, I'll be disappointed. You don't want to compete against me now. I'm past the boiling point. I feel like a thoroughbred who has been held too long in the chute. I'm crashing against the door, hoping to bust free. Let me run."
Despite the fact that he has averaged 4.5 yards a carry in his career, running has been somewhat foreign to Walker since he was traded to the Vikings on Oct. 12, 1989. He was coming off a Pro Bowl year in Dallas, where he had led the NFC in rushing with 1,514 yards and had gained an additional 505 yards receiving. Mike Lynn, Minnesota's general manager at the time, picked up Walker's $1 million salary, and the Vikings threw in some perks, like a $10,000-a-month furnished rental home and a leased Mercedes.
Following a 2½-hour practice session in which he was taught only 12 plays, Walker made a big splash in his debut, gaining 148 yards on 18 carries to lead Minnesota past the Green Bay Packers. The record Metrodome crowd of 62,075 gave Walker, who ended up having the best rushing game by a Viking since 1983, three standing ovations. But the cheers quickly faded, and eventually some of those fans were wearing T-shirts that read THE H-BOMB HAS LANDED ON MINNESOTA and HERSCHEL SUCKS.
Minnesota coach Jerry Burns never completely abandoned his pass-oriented offense and his belief in interchangeable running backs. Burns's ideal backfield was a handful of backs, each of whom carried six to eight times for 50 yards. A strong, straight-ahead runner, Walker is at his best working from the I formation and getting at least 20 carries a game.
Before last season Burns grudgingly tried to revamp the offense. After three games Walker led the NFC in rushing, with 283 yards, and had gotten at least 20 carries in each outing. After five games, however, quarterback Wade Wilson led the NFL in interceptions and Minnesota had scored merely 49 points, the second fewest in the league. Burns replaced Wilson with Rich Gannon and reverted to the musical-chairs backfield. Six times in the final nine games Walker carried fewer than 10 times.
Although Walker finished with 825 yards to lead the team in rushing for the third straight season, and although the Vikings were first in the NFC in rushing offense, the confusion over his role left Walker emotionally drained. "Most of the time I felt like I was only on the field because I had a name," Walker says. "They'd put me in at wide receiver, then not even throw to me. Every time I was out there, it was like some big statement. You know, 'Herschel is on the field.' Kind of like, 'Elvis has left the building.'
"By the second season it had become obvious they didn't want me. I was never sure where they would play me. They claimed I couldn't run behind trap blocking. Don't insult me. They claimed I couldn't run from a split backfield. What did I do in Dallas? I went to Coach Burns a couple of times and asked, 'Am I doing anything wrong? What else can I do?' He always said, 'You're doing very well. I want to keep you fresh.'
"I never felt a part of the team from the front-office point of view. The players took me in, but the people in the front office kept me out. I'll miss the players. But the owners and coaches, you want me to say I'll miss them? No. I won't."
Nor will Walker miss the Minneapolis media, which he blames for making him out to be an eccentric. There have always been stories of how Walker subsisted on one meal a day and four hours of sleep. He was into bobsledding, ballet, karate. He even took a training course to become an FBI agent. During his trip to the Albertville Olympics with the U.S. bobsled team, he opted for a training diet of little more than bread and water. But the incident that hurt him the most came in May 1991, after Walker fell asleep in his car in the garage of his Dallas house and had to be taken to the hospital and treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. According to reports out of Minneapolis, which were apparently unfounded, he had attempted to commit suicide.
"My problem is I have never let people get to know me, and that frustrates reporters," Walker says. "I haven't given up my soul, and why should I? I have never said I was Superman. I don't brag. I just answer questions. Now let me ask a question: Why is it when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders play two sports, nobody questions their commitment to football?"
New Viking coach Dennis Green, who replaced Burns after last season, ascertained Walker's dedication during a two-hour drive around Minneapolis in late February. He then tried to persuade Herschel to remain with Minnesota. "Denny will do wonders," Walker says. "But mentally I couldn't go back."
Over the next two months, right up until the draft, the Vikings tried to trade Walker. The Atlanta Falcons were interested in bringing him back home to Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship and won the Heisman Trophy in '82. But after studying tapes of his games, they thought he wasn't blocking as well as he should. The Los Angeles Raiders were in the hunt until they traded for Indianapolis Colt running back Eric Dickerson on the first day of the draft. Word was that the Raiders didn't feel Walker could dominate a game the way Dickerson could. Tampa Bay and the New York Jets also watched the tapes, but they too passed, citing, among other things, a lack of aggressiveness.
On May 29 the Vikings released Walker, and that's when the Eagles got serious about him. Walker met secretly with team president Harry Gamble and coach Rich Kotite at Cindy's parents' home in Saddle River, N.J. They grilled him about—you guessed it—his commitment to football. Philadelphia, which finished 21st in the NFL in rushing last season, tried and failed to land several veteran running backs, including Dickerson, Plan B free agent James Brooks (the longtime Cincinnati Bengal who ended up with the Cleveland Browns) and former New Orleans Saints running back Reuben Mayes, who had been out of football for a year. Disgusted by the Eagles' inability to shore up their running game, the morning deejays at WIP, the all-sports radio station in Philly, decided to see if they could pressure the team into signing Walker. One deejay even started a Honk If You Want Herschel campaign, and fans started blasting their horns as they drove by the team's offices at Veterans Stadium. Eagle All-Pro defensive end Reggie White campaigned on his own, telephoning Walker to assure him that he was wanted. That was all Walker needed to hear.
"I feel reborn," he says. "A weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I'm ready to fly. Just don't give me a butter knife to kill a bear. Please, let me run."