B Y - K E N T - H A N N O N
UGA threw a party to celebrate Herschel Walker's induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. But will he have the votes to make it to Canton, where all the NFL greats are enshrined? His pro stats say yes, but a chunk of them came in the wrong league.
Tues. evening, Dec. 7
New York City
s welcome-home parades go, this one is a decade and a half lateand missing a number of key elements. No marching band. No ticker tape. No conquering hero riding through town on a float. Out of necessity, it takes place indoorsand, ironically, in New York City, where a forgotten team in a misbegotten league once waved an $8 million contract in the face of a poor kid from Wrightsville, Ga., and convinced him to leave college a year early.
Left undone when Herschel Walker said goodbye to UGA on Feb. 25, 1983, and headed off to the New Jersey Generals' training camp was a chance for a 7,000-yard collegiate rushing record that would still stand today (see box below). If he'd returned for his senior year, Walker would've been the odds-on favorite to win his second Heisman Trophy. And Georgiawhich won 10 games in '83 without No. 34 in the backfieldwould likely have won a second National Championship in the Walker Era.
How big a parade would UGA have thrown for Herschel Walker if he'd stayed in school and accomplished all that? But he didn't. He turned pro, and used part of the money to buy his parents a new home. Nothing wrong with that; it's the American dream. The sad part is that when Walker left town abruptly back in '83, Bulldog fans missed a chance to tell their native son goodbyeand in a style befitting someone who was recently named by CBS-TV as college football's Offensive Player of the Century.
Walker wasn't content with just college laurels. His pro career spanned 15 years, beginning in 1983 with the Generals of the now-defunct United States Football League and ending in '97 after a second tour of duty with the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League. In the course of those 15 years, Walker logged more all-purpose yardage (rushing, receiving, kick returns) than any pro football player who ever lived.
On the list of preeminent sports records, Herschel Walker's 25,283-yard totalmore than 14 miles of gridiron real estatemay be as unassailable as Pete Rose's 4,256 hits. But the record will forever be accompanied by an asterisk because Walker didn't follow the normal path to the pros. Normal would've meant finishing his college career at Georgia and being the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NFL draft. (The New England Patriots used that pick to select Nebraska receiver Irving Fryar.) The NFL didn't take underclassmen back then, so Walker became the poster child for a renegade league that was destined to fail. For three years, he carried the USFL on his back, earning MVP honors twice and gaining more than 7,000 all-purpose yards. He then spent 12 years in the NFL, which doesn't recognize statistics from other leagues. In the NFL's mind, Walker's USFL career never happened. The NFL credits him with only 18,168 all-purpose yardswhich is still good for fifth place on the all-time NFL list.
Left: Walker accepted the honor for all 16 members of the Class of '99.
Top: On hand to help Herschel and wife Cindy celebrate his induction were Vince Dooley, Jan Ros, and Frank Ros, captain of the Dogs' 1980 title team.
None of this statistical vibrato matters when the elevator doors open on the fourth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria in early December, and 37-year-old Herschel Walker emerges, as if in a time warp, looking not only none the worse for wear but so young and exquisitely fit in a wide-shouldered jacket and white dress tee that it is impossible to tell he is 16 years and 25,000 yards older.
Walker has flown to New York from Irving, Texas, where he's lived since 1986 when the USFL folded and the Cowboys signed him. He has come to the Big Apple to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Famethe eleventh Bulldog to be so honored.
To mark the occasion, the National Alumni Association is throwing a party in his honor the night before. The makeshift parade route extends from the elevator bank down the hall and around the corner to the Conrad Suite, where previous Hall of Fame honorees Bill Hartman and Vince Dooley wait to greet the newest member of their fraternity. When Walker enters the room, he exudes the same boyish smile and small-town charm that Bulldog fans first came to know and love during his freshman year at Georgia in 1980.
"How are you? Great to see you!" he says, calling athletic department personnel by name, signing autographs on party napkins, and posing for photo after photo. On this night, he carries an important snapshot of his own. "Would you like to see a picture of my son?" he says, brandishing a photo of little Christian Alexander Walker, born Sept. 30 to former UGA track star Cindy DeAngelis Walker, who met her future husband while he was icing his ankle in the training room.
As freshman years go, Walker's was off the scale. In the 1980 season opener before 96,000 fans in Knoxville, he scored the first of his 52 collegiate touchdowns on a 16-yard run made famous by the fact that he flattened Vols defenderand future Cowboy teammateBill Bates enroute to the end zone. His second TD of the game rallied the Dogs to a 16-15 victory, and by the midpoint of the seasonafter ringing up 207 yards against Vanderbilt at halftimeHerschel Walker was the biggest story in college football. No one with his combination of size and speed (215 pounds, 9.1 in the 100-yard dash) had ever played the game, and his heroics transformed the Dogs from a 6-5 team in '79 to the top of the heap in '80.
Walker scored 15 TDs and gained 1,616 yards as a freshman. What's scary is that he did all that despite sitting out 11 quarters due to injury or Dooley's courtesy to vanquished opponents. Several of his touchdown runs were of the long-distance variety76, 75, 72, 65, 53, and 48 yards. The 76-yarder was especially memorable because it came on national TV, as Walker outdueled South Carolina's eventual Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers 219 yards to 168.
Left: assistant athletic director Dick Bestwick offers congratulations at a party sponsored by UGA's National Alumni Association.
Center: Walker signed more autographs than all the other inductees combined.
Right: well-wishers included fellow Hall of Famer and ABC commentator Lynn Swann.
What everyone remembers about the Dogs' last gasp, 26-21 victory over Florida was Buck Belue's 93-yard touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott. But Walker had 238 yards rushing and a TD in that game, and 205 more and three TDs in the season finale against Tech. Georgia went to the Sugar Bowl 11-0 and ranked No. 1. But when Walker dislocated his shoulder on the first series against Notre Dame, the Dogs' hopes for a national title seemed dim. Trainers popped it back into place, taped him up, and Walker was back in action on the very next series. Good thing. He gained 150 yards on that historic night, while the Irish defense held the rest of the team to -23 yards. He scored both TDs in a 17-10 victory, and for the first time since 1946 Georgia was the best college football team in the land.
Two decades have passed since Walker's heroics against Notre Dame. But as he mingles with the crowd of well-wishers at the UGA party, it's obvious his college years are still firm in his mind. Moving to the far end of the room, he steps to a podium while through a window behind him Christmas shoppers can be seen scurrying up and down Park Avenue.
"New York is a great city," says Walker, who was the toast of Gotham back in 1985 when he gained a pro football record 2,411 yards for the Generals and their flamboyant owner Donald Trump. "But I like Atlanta and Georgia a lot better!"
This is what the UGA faithful have come to hear, and a chorus of Bulldog barks breaks out at the Waldorf-Astoria. Nine hundred miles north of Athens, on the eve of a new millennium, Herschel Walker has at last come home.
Wed. morning, Dec. 8
he Hall of Fame press conference has ended, and Walker is helping a reporter sift through a box of his old press clippings. Included in the collection is a 1995 New York Times Magazine story entitled "Football's Finest Failure." The story is actually quite laudatory to Walker, but it points out that some observers think he never lived up to his potential in the pros. Walker smiles. He's familiar with the rap against him.
"I don't care what people say," he laughs. "The stats speak for themselves. Anyone with intelligence ought to be able to see that."
What a burden, to be defined by statistics your whole life.
Most of those marks either were or still are records of one sort or another. The prep TD record has fallen, but if you watch films of Walker running the football for Johnson County High in Class A ball a year before his breakout season at Georgia, it appears there were times when he actually allowed himself to be tackled out of sheer pity for the horde of 160-pound defenders trying to pull him down.
"The 60-yard dash time, set at the Dallas-Times Herald meet in 1982, was actually a world record for a few minutes," says Walker, "until Carl Lewis broke it in the next heat."
Archie Griffin won two Heisman Trophies at Ohio State, but Walker would've been the favorite to repeat in 1983and only his freshman status kept him from winning the Heisman in '80. The nine SI covers isn't a record, but among football players only Joe Montana, John Elway, and Emmitt Smith have had more. The bobsled clocking was good for seventh place in Albertville. Who knows? With a little more practice, he might have won a Winter Olympic medal.
Walker won the Heisman in 1982, and probably should have won it as a freshman in 1980.
Is there anything the man couldn't do in his prime?
That's actually been a blessing and a curse, at least where the press is concerned. Walker possessed so much athletic talent and showed it at such a young age that the media detected the makings of
Example A: When Walker caught a seven-yard pass in the second quarter of an NFL game in '95, he surpassed Walter Payton's much-ballyhooed NFL record of 21,803 all-purpose yardsassuming you include his 7,115 USFL yards. Which the NFL doesn't. As a result, no one stopped the game to give Walker the ball. No one even knew what he had accomplishedincluding Herschel, who isn't much for records, but who has always loved playing the game. Why else would he have returned to Dallas in 1996-97 as a special teams player andhard as it is to believea blocking back?
That kind of zeal would ordinarily play well with voters who determine which players end up in Canton. But making the Pro Football Hall of Fame also requires good PR, and there's some question as to whether you want to end your career that way when some voters are already unimpressed with the way you started it. Walker professes to have no second thoughts in either direction.
Walker brought an unprecedented combination of speed and power to the gridiron. In 1982, he ran a world-record time of 6.15 in the 60-yard dash.
"I went back to the Cowboys because I loved playing football so much that I didn't mind working for the minimum wage," says Walker, who earned the league minimum in Dallas before retiring. "And I don't regret signing with the USFL because I had so much fun! Donald Trump had a big influence on my life. He showed me a lot about finance. And people forget how much talent we had in the USFL. Players like Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Chris Carter, Randall Cunningham, and Steve Young all went on to make the Pro Bowl in the NFL."
So did Walker. It happened in his third season with Dallas in '88, when he led the National Football Conference in rushing (1,514 yards). He also had 505 receiving yards, making him only the tenth player in NFL history to gain more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. And he never stopped being a long-distance threat. In '94, at the age of 32, he became the first player in pro football history to record 90-yard TDs three different waysrushing, receiving, kickoff returnin the same season.
Taken as a whole, Walker's NFL resume is extraordinary (see p. 45). If his place in history is tainted in the minds of some observers, it's not just because he started out in the USFL. Dallas' record was just 17-30 during Walker's tenure from 1986-89, and some people blame him for that. Go figure. His market value was established five games into the '89 season when Dallas traded him to Minnesota for five players, a first-round draft choice, and seven conditional picks. When Dallas was finished dealing, the Walker trade yielded 19 new players for the Cowboys. The blockbuster deal ultimately helped Dallas become Super Bowl champions, whereas Minnesota never gave Walker the ball enough to realize an adequate return on its investment.
Walker in the USFL
In the New York Times Magazine story, an NFL executive says of Walker: "Nobody has won anything with him. In this league, we don't like people
Reggie White, an All-Pro defensive lineman who played against Walker in the USFL and with him in Philadelphia, calls him "maybe the best all-around football player I've ever seen."
But San Francisco 49ers executive Bill Walsh thinks Walker's versatility may have hurt him. "The better you are at one skill, the more likely you are to be noticed," Walsh told the Times. "One of the reasons he didn't get more rushing yards is that when his teams would fall behindand his teams usually did fall behindthey'd throw the ball to him."
Walker says he's as proud of his ability to catch the ball as run with it. "What a lot of people don't realize," he says, "is that when I caught 76 passes for the Cowboys in 1986, I set a new team record that stood until '94 when Michael Irvin broke it."
Wed. morning, Dec. 8
he College Football Hall of Fame banquet is underway, and old footage of the '99 class of honorees is being shown on several large TV screens. For those members of the Georgia contingent who don't own Georgia highlight films or haven't played with the interactive TV screens in the Butts-Mehre lobby of late, the videotape is a dramatic reminder of how big and fastand downright dangerousWalker was with a football in his arms. Seated near the back of the room, Vince Dooley recalls his college debut against Tennesssee.
Walker played for four NFL teams (from top): Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants.
Former Vols coach Johnny Majors is seated at the next table. "The biggest mistake we made that night was getting ahead early," Majors recalls. "If the game had been close, I don't think Vince would've put Herschel in."
"Oh yes, we would have!" says Dooley.
Sat. morning, Dec. 11
Walker's parents' home
he distance between Park Avenue and Walker's parents' home in Wrightsville is measured not just in miles, but in the directions needed to get there.
"To get to Herschel's house," says the proprietor of a local convenience store, "turn at the next road, cross three railroad tracks, then look to your left. And he is home, you know."
Wrightsville's most famous citizen was spotted at the Piggly Wiggly two nights earlier with brother-in-law Billy Richard, a former UGA track star who married Herschel's track-star sister Veronica. "Billy was buying a rotisserie to cook some barbecue," says Herschel, "and I was buying rice cereal for the baby. Word travels fast around here."
Everything else proceeds at a languid paceeven at the Walkers' place, where several of Herschel's siblings and their young children have gathered to welcome him home from New York and get a headstart on the holidays. There's ample room in the house he built for his parents, but the five-bedroom layout isn't ostentatious, inside or out, and the grounds are a work-in-progress. An aluminum shed where Herschel and his brothers plan to restore an old boat is half-finished. And beyond the driveway, at the end of a rutted dirt path that rises above and beyond the new house, is a simple wooden structure where the family of 10 once lived. It doesn't appear to be in bad shape, except for the roof line, which sags to one side. What's striking is how small the old house is.
When he was playing pro football, Herschel was usually in Wrightsville only once a yearon the Fourth of July. Now that he's retiredassuming he really is retiredhe's there more often, though he and Cindy and Christian will continue to live in Texas.
"I could still be playing," says Herschel, who is seated on a couch in the living room with Cindy by his side. "Jacksonville offered me a guaranteed contract for the '98 season. I took my football shoes out and was ready to go to training camp when I got to thinking, Are you sure you really want to do this? I know I can still competeheck, I can still kick the crap out of most players in the league. [When Herschel uses that word, he's really adamant about something.] But one thing that's always been really important to me is Cindy. She's my closest friendand I thought things were happening a bit too fast."
That's Herschel's gentle side talkingand what most people don't realize is that it's pretty much his only side. He may run over defensive backs on the field and ride a Harley off it, but how many pro football players collect Lladrosand consider their wife their best friend?
In the Times article, former Vikings teammate Keith Millard suggests that Herschel's homespun personality has a lot to do with the bum rap he's gotten from some members of the press.
"Herschel doesn't drink alcohol, so he doesn't socialize a lot," said Millard. "He stays at home with his wife and doesn't try to create a marketable image by courting the media. So he comes off kind of smug and distantwhen he's really not that way at all."
In his first game with Minnesota in '89, Herschel led the Vikes to victory on national TV and got three standing ovations from a crowd that expected him to deliver a Super Bowl victory. It didn't happen, and because Herschel had cost the team all those draft choices he took most of the blame. "I've never seen anything like it," said former Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon. "It was ugly."
Cindy remembers it all too well.
"There are so many highs and lows in football," she says. "The problem is that a lot of people are so into sports that they use it to escape their own reality. If their team loses, they take it out on the players. They forget that it's just a game."
Cindy DeAngelis Walker was a track star at Georgia. She met Herschel while he was icing his ankle in the training room.
"I want to start community mutual banks for poor people in inner cities," he says. "We tried it four years ago in Atlanta, but it failed because we couldn't get enough backing. You have to get the right people involved. One thing I've learned is that talk is cheap."
Christian Alexander arrives, courtesy of his grandmother, and sits encapsulated in his father's arms for the rest of the two-hour conversation, which ultimately comes round to Herschel's decision to sign with the USFL.
"I really don't know how it happened," he says, sounding a bit mystified by his own history. "I wasn't sure what to do. I never really thought that much about the money, though I remember thinking that nobody in the NFL was making a million dollars a year back then. But while I was thinking it over, the Generals announced that I had signed a contractand then it seemed like I couldn't take it back. What turned me off was that I hadn't taken a cent, but the NCAA has its rules."
Herschel hadn't been playing for the Generals that long when he received a letter, which read, in part:
"You made the right decision. You went to school to start your own business, and now what business can't you start?"
The letter was written by Frank Sinatra.
How's that for validation? A kid who insisted on doing things his way gets a letter from Mr. "My Way" himself, saying he's on the right track. If things continue to go Herschel Walker's way, maybe that letter will end up on display in Canton.