Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn't believe his good
fortune. Last month his Cowboys were losing depth as fast as
face, and Herschel Walker's agent was calling to say his client
would play backup fullback and special teams for the NFL minimum
of $275,000? No signing bonus? No incentive clauses? The same
Herschel who made $2.3 million last season? The same 6'1",
225-pound, Heisman-winning tailback who was traded in 1989 by
Jones and then Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson to the Minnesota
Vikings along with four forgettable draft picks for five pretty
good players, three first-round picks, three seconds, a third, a
sixth and three championships to be celebrated later? The same
number 34 who vows he's as fast as ever at age 34? The same
Scripture-quoting, poetry-writing, push-up-doing owner of a
Dallas private investigation business?
Before re-signing with Dallas, Walker was among the most popular
former Cowboys this side of Roger Staubach; in light of the
team's recent rash of substance-abuse suspensions and the
exploits of the Midnight Cowboy, wide receiver Michael Irvin, he
is certainly a refreshing face for Dallas fans. "Herschel is an
icon," Jones says. "This was the easiest football decision I've
After star-crossed stints with the Vikings, the Philadelphia
Eagles and the New York Giants, Walker is back with the Cowboys,
saying and doing all the right things. As starting fullback in
Saturday's 20-3 loss to the Denver Broncos, Walker carried only
twice for five yards and made two receptions for 11 yards.
Nevertheless, teammates and coaches profess to be amazed by his
physical condition, his humility, his ability to catch passes
and his willingness to learn five positions (fullback, tight
end, nickel tight end, nickel running back and wide receiver).
Walker's constant refrain: "I'm just here to add some depth."
Yet in his rural-Georgia accent, the p in "depth" is silent.
Eerily, "depth" sounds more like "death."
August 25, 1996
A case can be made that Walker has added some death at each of
his pro football stops. His USFL-leading rushing total of 2,411
yards, with the New Jersey Generals in 1985, remains a
single-season pro football record, but it wasn't enough to keep
the league from folding. The Cowboys signed Walker after winning
the NFC East in '85--and missed the playoffs in each of his
three full seasons in Dallas. In Minnesota the Vikings' trade
for Walker led to an outbreak of Super Bowl fever. But Minnesota
lost in the first round of the '89 playoffs to the San Francisco
49ers 41-13 and then suffered through dissension-racked 6-10 and
8-8 seasons, after which Walker was released. In '92,
Philadelphia, picked by many observers to win it all, took a
chance on Walker, but the Eagles lost 34-10 in the divisional
playoffs to Dallas. Walker was voted Philadelphia's offensive
MVP during the 8-8 and 7-9 years that followed, only to be
released again. In '95 he signed a three-year, $4.8 million deal
with the Giants. New York went 5-11, and Walker was dumped.
Now some NFL general managers and coaches are hoping that Walker
will add some "death" to the Cowboys. Says the player personnel
director of one NFC East team, "If he's playing a lot for
Dallas, I'll be very happy, because I'll know we have a chance.
If they really think he'll block or make plays covering punts,
they're kidding themselves. And if he isn't playing much, it
will be interesting to see if he keeps his mouth shut. This guy
is one of the great manipulators of the media. He's never been
nearly the player a lot of people think he is."
More precisely, Walker has become a victim of superhuman
expectations he helped create. Beginning during his college days
at Georgia, he turned himself into almost a cartoon superhero: a
world-class sprinter who had a black belt, performed in a
ballet, made the Olympic bobsled team, chased criminals and even
scored touchdowns in his spare time. While the Herschel myth has
helped make Walker wealthy, it has frustrated coaches who
overestimated Walker's football drive and natural ability. It
has also alienated teammates who believe he is more interested
in befriending owners, enhancing his image and making money than
in winning games.
Now, however, he appears willing to do whatever it takes to
finally play for a champion. "All the adversity I've been
through has built a lot of character in me," he says. "Now I
just want to be part of a winner." Says Jones, "I know for a
fact Herschel could have made more money from other teams, but
he simply wants to win a Super Bowl ring."
Few current Cowboys have a sense of the jealousy and bitterness
that Walker engendered among veterans when he arrived in Dallas
in 1986. Only safety Bill Bates and offensive linemen Nate
Newton and Mark Tuinei remain from that year's team. These
Cowboys have been too busy winning Super Bowls to keep up with
Walker's also-ran travels. Dallas coaches have been careful not
to offend Emmitt Smith by mentioning Walker as even an emergency
tailback. Even though Smith suffered a sprained ligament in his
left knee against Denver and will be out at least two weeks,
Sherman Williams remains the No. 2 tailback; Walker isn't even
listed on the depth chart at the position. If Walker truly is
tired of being viewed as the Super Bowl key who failed to unlock
the door, he has come to the right place. Says Cowboys director
of college and pro scouting Larry Lacewell, "The beauty of this
situation for Herschel is that in this locker room, he's just
another guy. He doesn't have to worry about expectations."
So far, so great. Smith has marveled at Walker's work ethic and
skills. Quarterback Troy Aikman told The Dallas Morning News,
"For a guy of his stature to be the way he is, it gives the NFL
a good name."
Others say they've seen this act before. Former Dallas
cornerback Everson Walls recalls the two seasons during which
Walker shared backfield duties with Tony Dorsett. Walls says
Walker was fine, except when Dorsett was getting the bulk of the
carries. "Herschel was great at telling the media in that
country-boy accent of his, 'Gee, I don't call the plays. I can't
figure out what's going on,'" says Walls. "And the fans just
jumped on his bandwagon. Herschel talked Tony right out of town."
Dorsett, arguably the Cowboys' best running back until Smith
arrived in Dallas, was traded to the Broncos in 1988. "Going
with Herschel was the beginning of the end for [coach] Tom
Landry," says Walls. "It wasn't that anyone had anything
personal against Herschel, but our chemistry was broken up." And
that was only part of the problem, according to Walls. "We could
see right away Herschel wasn't that fluid or nimble," he says.
"He couldn't turn the corner on sweeps or swing passes. He
couldn't dictate the game the way Tony did or Emmitt does. He
was more like a big brute who could run like hell if he got
through a hole. I guess he could just run over guys in college
football or the USFL, but this was the NFL."
Publicly, Landry tried to sell the concept of a dream backfield
of Heisman winners Dorsett and Walker. Privately, he told his
coaches, "Let's try to figure out what to do with Herschel." A
shoulder injury from his college days seemed to make Walker
tentative on plunges. He ran robotically upright and reduced his
gait to choppy steps if he sensed any traffic in the hole.
"Tippin'," the players call it. Tiptoeing.
Paul Hackett, now offensive coordinator for the Kansas City
Chiefs, served as the Cowboys' pass-offense coordinator during
Walker's three full seasons in Dallas. After the Cowboys' 3-13
showing in 1988, a frustrated Hackett said, "Herschel is an
immense talent with dramatic speed. But what people don't
understand is that though he's supposed to be a big power
runner, he's best at running and catching out in space. The
question is, How do you get him there? We were statistically
successful with him [in '88 he became the 10th player in NFL
history to amass more than 2,000 combined yards rushing and
receiving in a season] by lining him up in lots of different
places. But we never felt he was completely committed to
winning. Every year it's: 'Well, I may want to join the FBI.'
You wonder how much football really means to him."
Walls agrees. "You want to know that the guy beside you will put
it on the line," he says. "You never were sure about Herschel."
Walls and other players were also skeptical about the number of
push-ups and sit-ups Walker says he does every day. "We heard
that he did 1,000 push-ups and 2,500 sit-ups [Walker says he now
does 750 and 2,000], and that he ate just one meal a day. We'd
kid him about it. We'd say, 'Herschel, you have little kids all
over America trying to be like you by starving themselves and
tearing up their pecs doing millions of push-ups.' He'd just
smile and say, 'Hey, it pays the bills.' We'd see him sneaking
hamburgers into the dorm late at night. We knew it was an
exaggeration, and he knew it. But he's got a mystique."
After taking over as coach in 1989, Johnson saw that the emperor
wasn't wearing many clothes. Apparently, Vikings president Mike
Lynn was still blinded by Walker's speed, stats and status as a
Pro Bowl player in 1987 and '88. While Johnson immediately
called the October '89 trade "the great train robbery" in
Dallas's favor, Minnesota fans saw it as a plane ride to the
Super Bowl for the Vikings. "The mood was festive," recalls
Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Dan Barreiro. "One of the
first times Herschel touched the ball, he lost his shoe and
still went 50 or 60 yards. That cinched it. Here was the
mythical figure who would lead them to the Super Bowl."
Minnesota coaches, however, slowly realized that Walker wasn't a
back who could wear down a defense by carrying 30 times a game.
He ran hard on some plays, halfheartedly on others. Lynn was
blamed for trading so much for so little. Says Walker, "I became
the bad guy." Yet it wasn't his fault that Lynn made one of the
worst trades in sports history. Dallas got Issiac Holt, David
Howard, Darrin Nelson, Jesse Solomon and Alex Stewart, but more
important, with their slew of draft picks the Cowboys eventually
selected Smith, defensive tackle Russell Maryland and defensive
backs Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson.
An incident following the 1990 season further clouded Walker's
image. According to Walker, he was sitting in his car with the
engine running and the garage door closed early one Sunday
morning at his suburban Dallas home when he accidentally fell
asleep while listening to a favorite song. He was saved, he
says, by the barking of his rottweiler, Al Capone, who awoke
Walker's wife, Cindy. Walker was treated for carbon monoxide
poisoning. "Suicide?" Walker says to the inevitable speculation.
"Anyone who knows Herschel knows Herschel would never do
anything like that."
In 1992 the Eagles signed Walker, hoping he would be the final
ingredient they needed to reach the Super Bowl. "But there was a
real split among the players," says Ray Didinger, former pro
football columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. "Buddy Ryan
[who had been fired as coach following the 1990 season] had
convinced a lot of them that Herschel was a loser, a quitter.
Buddy preached that if the game was close and you hit the guy
hard enough, he would cough it up." Sure enough, as a Viking,
Walker had made costly fumbles in games against Philadelphia in
'89 and '90, and the Eagles won both games. "Herschel did not
walk into a locker room that welcomed him with open arms," says
Didinger. In three seasons Walker did everything but help
Philadelphia win lots of games. In '94 he became the first
player in NFL history to have gains of 90 or more yards rushing,
receiving and kick-returning in a single season. Yet Walker
accomplished that feat against three opponents who ended up with
a combined record of 19-29. The Eagles lost all three games.
When new coach Ray Rhodes arrived before the 1995 season and
signed free agent Ricky Watters of the 49ers, Walker again was
out of a job. But not for long. The Giants snatched him up to
replace third-down back Dave Meggett, who had signed as a free
agent with the New England Patriots. New York coach Dan Reeves
soon discovered, however, that Walker wasn't cut out for the
role. "He didn't have the ability because he couldn't beat
people one-on-one," Reeves says. "He's not an elusive guy. He
can catch the ball, but he's constantly off the ground when he
does. Then when he comes down he has to gather himself before he
gets going again. We also wanted him to be a fullback, but he
wasn't that strong of a blocker." Walker played sparingly during
the second half of the season, the Giants' worst since 1983.
Though he claims he pays no attention to his statistics, he
says, "I needed something like nine catches [actually, nine] to
reach 500. We were out of the playoff race. That would have been
good for the team [to let me go for 500]."
Same old Herschel. His statements are a wacky maze of
contradictions. He says Dallas pursued him; Jones says Walker's
agent called the Cowboys. Walker says the 49ers also pursued
him; San Francisco officials say they were never interested.
Walker offered his services to Dallas as a backup fullback yet
says he's too small to play fullback. Huh?
Now, with Irvin suspended for the first five games because of
violations of the league's substance-abuse policy, Smith out and
tight ends Jay Novacek (back) and Eric Bjornson (hamstring)
sidelined indefinitely, Walker becomes more of a necessity than
a luxury for Dallas. "It's a real blessing to have him, with all
the injuries we've had," Aikman said last week.
Will Jones curse the day he brought back the player he traded
for the foundation of his Team of the '90s? When the Cowboys
least expect it, will Walker make waves? For now, he's proving
to be a bargain. Says Dallas running backs coach Joe Brodsky,
"We are tickled to death."
There's that word again.