The author paints intimate portraits of the Cowboys' famed running backs, who are as different as they are exceptional
By Rick Telander
Issue date: November 17, 1986
You know these guys. Brothers-in-arms now, they have been in the limelight individually for ages. Tony Dorsett, 32, from Aliquippa, Pa., on his way to the second-highest career rushing total in NFL history, the feisty, troubled rabbit always just a step ahead of the hounds. Herschel Walker, the god from the piney woods of Georgia, savior of the state university football team, near-savior of the USFL, the greatest -- or is it most suspect? -- running back in the history of the game. Can it be he is only 24? Have we been reading about Ol' Hersch since he was in high school (3,167 yards and 45 touchdowns in his senior year alone)? Indeed we have.
And now these two remarkably different yet oddly compatible men are together on America's Team. They would appear to have the potential to be the most prodigious running tandem in the history of the game, but it almost certainly is not meant to be. The Cowboys are basically a tailback I-formation team with room for only one tailback at a time, and coach Tom Landry is ( resisting the temptation to play them at the same time (see box, page 82), explaining, to the consternation of those who would prefer to consider them as all-around football players, "They're runners, not blockers."
Lately, however, Dorsett has not even been that. Earlier this season he was running as well or better than he ever had, but he injured his ankle, then his knee, and missed three games and limped through six others. Through Sunday's game with the Raiders he had 450 yards, probably not enough to help him reach 1,000, something he has done every season since he came into the league in 1977, except the strike year of '82. Because of the injuries to Dorsett, and because of Landry's philosophy, Dorsett and Walker -- he also has an ankle injury -- haven't lined up together very much.
Age is the troubling factor now for Dorsett. His time is running out, and with Walker instantly establishing himself as a force in the NFL both as a runner (he has 522 yards on 114 carries) and as a pass receiver (49 catches for 563 yards), it is becoming clear that Walker is something quite different, and ultimately far more important, than Dorsett's running mate. He is Dorsett's heir apparent. "When Tony graduates, so to speak," says the Cowboys' offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, "it's Herschel."
In college Dorsett and Walker each led his team to an undefeated season and the national championship. Each is a Heisman Trophy winner (Dorsett in 1976 and Walker in '82). Their professional rushing numbers are stunning -- 11,282 yards in nine NFL seasons (fifth on the alltime list and just 70 yards behind fourth-place John Riggins) for Dorsett; 5,562 yards in three USFL seasons for Walker.
Playing for the USFL's New Jersey Generals last year, Walker rushed for 2,411 yards, more than anyone ever has anywhere, in any league. He also had an astonishing streak of 11 consecutive games rushing for 100 yards or more. Last season Dorsett gained 1,307 yards. Their combined total of 3,718 yards is more than any NFL team has gained rushing in a season.
Sure, sure, this is just playing with stats. But throw in receiving yardage (Walker had 155 yards in the Washington game alone) and deception yardage (openings created for other Dallas runners and receivers when Dorsett or Walker is out there) and all the plays the Cowboys haven't even designed yet for the two of them, and somehow it doesn't seem fair. . . .
"I want a dog," says Tony Dorsett.
, He settles painfully into his Mercedes 500 SEL outside the Cowboys Center and dials a number on his cellular phone. Busy. He hangs up and grimaces.
Dorsett is hurt, physically and mentally. His left ankle was nearly ripped off in the season opener against the Giants. He suffered a partially torn ligament in his left knee against Atlanta, and now he is worried about his future. He has never been badly hurt in his entire football career. No surgery, no knee problems. At 5 ft. 11 in. and 185 pounds he is of an endangered species, an exotic sprite who survives in the fissures between mountains. His streak of 93 consecutive starts came to an end on Sept. 29. And here it is the Wednesday before the Redskins game and he can barely jog.
"I am so scared," Dorsett says. "Is this how it ends?"
He rubs his knee; he pulls down his sock and looks at his ankle. "The longer you play this game the more invincible you feel," he says softly, as though talking to his leg. "And then you get this idle time, like now, and you don't really feel a part of anything. . . . All you know is that the system was here before you got here, and it'll still be here after you're gone. You're just a product to be used. The beat must go on."
He dials the number again. Still busy. He is trying to get hold of a woman who sells puppies. Chows. "I have just decided I want a chow," he says. "I like them."
He knows that this dog business is insane, that it neatly displays the personality traits that have made his off-field life such a mess -- the impetuousness, the failure to plan for the future, the sentimentality that leads him into traps he would never approach on the playing field. But he can't help it.
"I don't know what it is that makes me want a dog," he says. "I know it'll make a mess around the house. I know it'll drive me crazy. And if I'd had it these last two weeks, with my injuries, it would have had to stay in the garage the whole time." He shrugs, drifting to the larger issue. "But . . . how do I say this? . . . I'm me. I can't put on airs. I'm not a phony. I know the way I am hurts me more times than it helps. But somehow it's all tied up with my integrity, and my integrity is the last thing I'm going to let you take from me."
So much else has already been taken from this man-child whom Landry calls "the best running back for his size that I've ever seen." Gone are his wife and stepdaughter (to his 1984 divorce), part of his fortune (to poor investments), his father, beloved older brother and girlfriend (to early deaths), and gone, too, is the notion that nightlife-loving Tony Dorsett will one day simply change and become a solid, stay-at-home, Cowboy-approved family man. For more than a decade "new" Tony Dorsett stories have appeared like spring wheat. This writer wrote one five years ago. But it is clear that the man who says "nobody controls me" will remain uncontrolled and that his turbulent process of becoming is what he is.
And yet. . . .
"I must be getting lonely," Dorsett says, driving off to his big house in Dallas where he lives alone. He says that as a reason for getting a dog, but it also could mean that he has confronted the possibility of life without professional football. Or that he is ready to take on a pal like Herschel Walker.
"I'm getting a dog," says Herschel Walker in his high-pitched, cheerful voice. "A rottweiler. A very intelligent security dog, a dog my wife can handle and who is very nice. I'm gone a lot."
Indeed he is. Walker is the new celebrity darling in Dallas, and he's available to all. No interview or charitable request will be denied. If you want Herschel, just walk up and make your pitch. "Why yes, that would be fine," he'll say. Can I get your autograph? Can I borrow your car? "Certainly, no problem." You can ask him to go to lunch three weeks from now, and he'll be there, and he'll answer anything you ask him. And he won't say a bad word about a soul.
"I just love people," he explains. "Really, I do. I love the people in New York and New Jersey. They are so nice." Come on now, Herschel. "It's true. I really do. Players don't understand me because I do so much for free, when I could be getting paid. Hey, I know people cheat me, but I don't care. I'm a boy from Georgia who just likes people."
He is so sickeningly sweet that Dallas writers, accustomed to the mercenary rantings and ensuing apologies of the mercurial Dorsett, are a tad suspicious. "Herschel is simply too good to be true," Times Herald columnist Skip Bayless wrote recently, concluding that Herschel "runs on batteries," and "is as hard to get a grip on off the field as Dorsett is on one."
The irony, then, is that Walker is hard to fathom precisely because he is so open. "I have some secrets from the press," says the former 4-H Club member with a shrug. "My pear salad won first place at a club gathering."
Cindy Walker, a collegiate half-miler who met Herschel through his sister, rolls her eyes. She sits next to her husband on a couch in their rented home near Las Colinas, the new "urban village" that sprang one day from a mesquite plain 15 minutes north of Dallas. Earlier, Herschel had proudly brought out the blueprints for the house they are building in Las Colinas. It will have four bedrooms and special features designed not so much for children as for the imminent rottweiler.
Herschel is enamored of Las Colinas, a sheltered, high-tech enclave described by urban architectural critic Paul Geisel as "visually, everything you would want the city of New York to be," except that it has "no street life, no schools, no churches, no social organizations other than bodybuilding. Look right or left, you could be on the moon." No problem for Walker, the world's most adaptable man. "Dallas is very nice," he affirms. "But I would have gone wherever I was supposed to -- Indianapolis, Green Bay, wherever -- because they took the trouble to draft me. Yes indeed, I would have gone."
"People keep saying to us, 'You two are so innocent, so nice! Just wait till you've been here a year -- you'll change,' " Cindy says with exasperation. "But why should we change? We've been through Georgia and New Jersey. Believe me, we've been through it all."
Herschel nods in agreement. He has the equanimity of somebody about three times his age, and he knows others sense it.
"Everyone always seems to think that I'm so old," he says. "And it seems to me I've been around a pretty long time, too."
So much of Walker's adult life has been lived under public scrutiny that he has been shaped because of it. At one point during his high school years he wanted to join the Marines rather than go to college. But there was such intense recruiting pressure placed on him that he wound up carrying schoolbooks and footballs rather than a rifle. The fifth of Willis and Christine Walker's seven children, he grew up dirt-poor, making his own toys "out of wood and cardboard." When he was a renowned high school athlete he was asked to be part of a Wrightsville civil rights conflict. He refused and was ostracized by some of his black friends because of it. Called a "honky-lover," he retreated from everyone, black and white. At home sometimes he would fall asleep with his book of poems on his chest and his mother would sneak a look just to see "what was going on in his head." She was as baffled as everyone else by the outward calm Herschel presented to the world.
Is that calm real? "Yes," he answers. "It's like when people say, 'Oh, Herschel, you got all that money,' like that makes the difference. It doesn't. They say, 'Why don't you drive a Porsche or a Ferrari?' Why? Who am I trying to impress? The thing is, when you're dead, you've got nothing. I just have a pretty firm sense of who I am. Maybe I always have."
It took some kind of firmness to marry a white woman in the Deep South, to take the pounding he gets afield (Herschel has averaged 356 carries per year since he was 18), to carry the weight for whole programs and teams and leagues and to do it cheerfully.
"All my life people have criticized Herschel," he says, slipping into the role of observer, which he often assumes. "They said my high school was too small and I couldn't do it big time. They said at Georgia I ran too much. They said the USFL was a bad league. To be honest I don't think there's that much difference in the leagues. In the depth probably, but hey, football is tough and the USFL had NFL players in it. Here I am 24, and Herschel's starting over. But it's O.K."
Throughout his young life Walker has had a pair of disparate aids to help him along -- religion and TV. "Without my faith in the Lord I'd be without a backbone," he says. And of television he says, "I love it, I love it. I can watch anything. Movies, comedians, but no sports events. I never watch sports events. I love cartoons. In Georgia I'd get up early Saturday morning and sit in front of the TV and just watch the test pattern. Finally, the farm report would come on, then one little cartoon, then more news, then the rest of the cartoons." TV is the white noise for Herschel's life, the mind-deadener and critic-stifler. "Sometimes it drives me nuts," says Cindy. "He can lie on the couch and watch TV all day and be happy."
Through the years one of Walker's critics has been O.J. Simpson, who once said that Walker "doesn't have a clue about how to run." Walker shrugs it off, saying, "I'll put my stats against the people he likes."
But another apparent critic was Dorsett, who went nuts when Walker signed with the Cowboys in August. Walker's contract -- $5 million for five years -- was more than Dorsett's estimated five-year, $4.5 million deal, and Tony couldn't handle that, even though his long-range contract actually is worth a reported $9.65 million. He ripped the Cowboys for pulling "a publicity stunt"; he said he would walk out; he demanded to be traded. "Tony Dorsett is second to no back on this team," he roared.
The next day, of course, he took it all back. His contract, renegotiated last year, didn't look so bad to him. Walker would be a great new weapon for the Cowboys. Maybe, as everybody said, Walker's presence would lighten Dorsett's burden and extend his playing career. Tony apologized to all. "You've seen all this before," he said humbly.
"The ego that makes him react that way is the same ego that makes him great," said Landry knowingly.
"I regret only that I might have hurt Herschel when I blew up," says Dorsett now. "But I wasn't mad at him. It's just that when you've been brought up in the Cowboys' system, brainwashed, trained, or whatever you want to call it, you realize you're never going to make what other top backs make. There is no doubt in my mind that if I ever miss a beat on the field, they would love to get rid of me. . . ."
Dorsett sighs, realizing he's railing against the System again, talking about how he's just a piece of meat in the Cowboy meat grinder, a baby chow forever fighting his leash. The truth of the matter is that after all these years the System has come to halfway like him.
"He's so human," says Cowboys vice-president Gil Brandt.
"Things just happen to him," says Dallas's president and general manager Tex Schramm. "But it's not in his nature to be bad."
"You know what Herschel told me?" Dorsett says. " 'When you started in the NFL, I was only 15.' Damn."
Dorsett seems genuinely to like his eventual successor, even if he is a bit amused by Herschel's placid nature. "He's a nice guy," Dorsett says. "One hundred percent humble pie. But he'll attack you on the field." Does that surprise Dorsett, the transformation Herschel undergoes? "No, I've seen it before," Dorsett says.
"There's something tied up inside all of us."
When Walker first came to preseason camp, Dorsett took him aside. "There's a lot of s -- -- going on around here," he said. "Don't take it personally."
Herschel hasn't. "Tony is a super guy," he says. "It's an honor to be on the same team with him." And you have to believe him.
The Cowboys got Walker by choosing him in the fifth round of the 1985 draft. At the time he was playing for the Generals and locked into a four-year guaranteed contract with Generals owner Donald Trump. Still, it seems amazing that no other NFL team picked him sooner, just on the chance the USFL would fold its tents and the ego-heavy Trump would settle up with the star and release him. But then Dallas has a knack for swiping long shots on draft day. "People forget we once drafted Merv Rettenmund and Carl Lewis," notes Schramm. "We also were the first team to draft a basketball player, and we took Roger Staubach when he was in the Navy." When the USFL did suspend operations this summer and Walker became a Cowboy, Landry immediately issued a directive to his staff: Without changing Dorsett's role, find as many ways as you can to get Herschel into the offense. Walker has now lined up at every position on offense except interior line and quarterback, and he has terrified defenses wherever he has gone. His pass receiving skills have been the real shocker. "Put a defensive back on him and he'll break his tackle. Put a linebacker on him and he'll outrun him," says Dallas cornerback Everson Walls. "The only way to stop him is the way Denver did (he had only 33 yards in 15 carries in a 29-14 loss on Oct. 5): Hit him low, then bring everybody."
Hackett is ecstatic over the options Herschel gives to an offense that was aging and fading fast. "Tony is still the main man here," he says. "The guy can still accelerate like nobody I've ever seen. But Herschel just gives us a whole new way to attack. The exciting thing to think about is where we'll be a year from now."
"It's not mystical, it's simple physics," says conditioning coach Bob Ward, explaining that when a man of Walker's size travels as fast as he does (4.3 40s are routine for him) and hits somebody, the odds are he will continue moving, gaining yards. He did that in his first NFL game, against the Giants, on a 23-yard screen pass, breaking 7 tackles along the way. "We've had Tony for 10 years and if nothing freaky happens, we'll have Herschel for 8 or 9 more," says Cowboy tight end Doug Cosbie. "It's nice to go along for the ride."
Tony Dorsett eats dinner at a Dallas restaurant and thinks about Herschel Walker. "I worry for him," he says. "He is a great talent, but he isn't as fluid as other runners. He runs kind of up-and-down, and he takes a lot of shots. You can be as strong as you want in this business, but you still better be elusive.
"How long would I last if I ran like that? Ask Wilbert Montgomery. Ask . Larry Brown. Even ask Earl Campbell, a big man. I remember calling Earl one time and saying, 'Why don't you let one man tackle you sometime?' "
Dorsett has zeroed in on the criticism that has dogged Walker from the start: He runs like a mechanical man. Herschel may get yards, but some people just don't like the way he gets them. It's an odd rap that lingers on. Running back coach Al Lavan admits Herschel "needs to let go of some of that analytical, technical stuff and be more instinctive," but then he compares Dorsett to a cheetah and Walker to a lion and says, "Which is better? I guess it depends on how you want to die."
Dorsett thinks for a while, then says, "I wish I could be his coach. To have that many tools. . . . Jesus! I've always wanted to be six-one, 220-230 pounds. It's always been my dream."
He looks dreamy now, as he shoots pool on the billiards table at his house. The home is comfortably decorated, because some of the furnishings were left by the previous owner, including the volumes by James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the bookshelf. Like a hermit crab, Dorsett simply upped and moved himself into someone else's abode, paying that person to leave whatever was there.
He shoots pool bare-chested, apparently for the freedom it gives him, limping as he moves. He is well put together but small-framed, with shoulders unsuited to big loads.
Tony doesn't have religion as a support the way Herschel does. He tries to struggle and finesse his way through a world he has often said is befuddling to a black kid from a poor background. If he and Herschel were Karamazov brothers, Dorsett would be Dmitri, the wild sensualist, while Walker would be Alyosha, the sweet, pure one.
"I'm not like Herschel," says Dorsett. "He's from rural Georgia, and I'm from up North where it's more upbeat and fast-paced. Fishing and stuff like that doesn't interest me. I guess I could see throwing out a rod if somebody would bait it for me. But I don't like touching fish."
Ambivalence and contradiction swirl around Dorsett. He needs people, but he shuns them. ("Marriage was probably the worst mistake I ever made in my life," he has said.) He is suspicious but trusting. (Though he has lost thousands of dollars on bad business deals, he still retains the adviser, Witt Stewart, who, along with Dorsett, was responsible for many of the deals.) Though he sporadically thinks about the future, he has done little to prepare - for it. "I'm not sure what I'll do," he says. "TV maybe. Maybe business opportunities."
One thinks of the financial holdings of multimillionaire Walter Payton, another great runner with years of big paychecks behind him. The deals he gets involved in, Payton says, are all low-risk. "I'm not one to sink a lot of money into one get-rich-quick deal," says Payton. "Because life isn't made that way." And Dorsett, who has sunk so much into such deals, says, "The risk, you gotta do that. I'll always be taking risks."
He ponders his own limitations and the Cowboys' straight-arrow role he has missed. As sportswriter Frank Luksa puts it, "For sure it should have been Tony Dorsett. And for sure, it isn't."
"Because of my physical stature it's not obvious, but my style is aggressive," Dorsett says. "I'm moody and not very passive. On the field I'm elusive, but I'm always going. And you know what? -- I couldn't be what I am on the field if I weren't the way I am off it."
Dorsett picks up a book entitled Chow Chows, and leafs through it. The little dogs in the pictures are fluffy and cute -- certainly not guard animals -- and Dorsett says he has to have a black one. Then he points out a passage that states that until recently in China, the chow was "used as an edible dog."
"I couldn't believe that," he says, looking saddened. It seems clear that Tony's dog, unlike Herschel's, will be primarily a friend, a kind of kindred spirit. Dorsett definitely knows what it's like to have the world take some rather large bites out of you.
Herschel Walker hasn't eaten in more than 24 hours, but he's not particularly hungry. He seldom eats more than one meal, usually a small one, per day. "I used to eat a lot of junk food," he says, trying to explain this habit, "but now, really, I don't eat much at all."
Herschel will eat a fair-sized Chinese meal late tonight, but tomorrow night he will go out with Pat Summerall for dinner, and later Summerall will note, "I didn't see him eat at all."
That is not the only unusual thing about this incredible physical specimen. Herschel hardly ever sleeps. Four to 4 1/2 hours a night, he says, is plenty, and sometimes, as after the St. Louis game, he doesn't sleep at all. "I got home late that night, started watching television, and before I knew it, the sun came up," he says. "So I just went to practice."
His sleep requirements tie in well with his favorite pastime, which is fortunate, because Cindy Walker, who has normal sleeping habits, is unable to keep him company in the wee hours. Sometimes the wakefulness can be a curse. When Herschel hurriedly joined the Cowboys at their preseason training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., this summer, he had no time to bring a TV set with him. Late at night when everyone else was asleep, he would lie on his bed in his bare room, writing a little poetry. Other times he would study his playbook. Or stare at the walls. It was, for a sleepless video addict, very much like hell.
Walker has less than 1 1/2% body fat on a body that has never lifted weights. It seems that whatever food goes into his mouth gets turned into fiber and sinew. Most marathoners have more body fat than he does. He is, in fact, dangerously muscular, with very little cushioning for the blows of his sport and in constant jeopardy of having a muscle snap from its own force. That is why he stretches rigorously and wears massive, customized shoulder pads.
"Probably his endocrine level is very high," suggests conditioning coach Ward, by way of explaining Walker's unique metabolic rate. "It's possible that for him doing a push-up is like lifting 400 pounds."
And push-ups and sit-ups are the only bodybuilding exercises he does. "I do them during commercials," Walker says. "Or like when The Love Connection comes on, I'll do 500 situps before they're finished with the first date." Of course, believing those exercises alone could build his body is like saying a window washer could build the World Trade Center. Walker says that Cindy told him that someone -- he thinks it was a doctor -- said that his testosterone level is unusually high. But he's not sure about that. "I've had so many tests done on me," he sighs. "I just let the Lord take care of my body."
Walker does not seem as though he would be tough, but he is. Until he had surgery in 1984, he played with a left shoulder that frequently popped out of its socket. Trainers would jam it back in place, and he would return to the game. He had his wisdom teeth pulled without a painkiller, because he didn't see the need for it. And all he does with the Cowboys is study plays, work hard and never complain about a thing.
"We all like Herschel a lot," says Walls, speaking for his teammates. "We like to hear him tell his funny stories about being down in Georgia. There was this one that somebody else was telling about Herschel, about how he was out jogging one day down there -- a true story, in fact -- and how he came upon this lady who had been in an automobile accident and he ripped the door open and saved her. Herschel says that isn't correct, that . . . when he saw the wreck, he picked up the whole car and cracked it like an egg. Then he flew off into the sunset. Seriously, though, we all know how much he helps our team image."
So does management. "He has so many of the characteristics Staubach had," says Brandt. "I don't see how you can build around a better person. Why, just the other day our equipment man came to me and said how unique Herschel was. He packs his own bag, he takes care of everything. Even his locker is like a little old lady keeping her auto -- perfect order."
Dorsett plays in the Redskins game on Oct. 12, even though his knee hasn't healed and his ankle is swollen. He is a tough guy, too, made even tougher by the young athlete breathing down his neck.
He gains only 22 yards on 18 carries, but the Cowboys win, and a great load has been lifted from his soul. Though hobbled, he can still run.
"You don't know what a burden this is off me," he sighs afterward. "I thought (my career) was over."
Walker played tailback when Dorsett came out for breathers, but for most of the game he blocked and faked and ran pass patterns from other positions. He made some great catches, after which he introduced himself to the Washington defense.
"Damn, he creamed me," said cornerback Barry Wilburn, who had tried to tackle Walker on one long gainer but couldn't even knock him down. "My neck knows it. He's murder."
The Dallas fans cheered when Herschel scored each of his two touchdowns, sounding like people who couldn't believe their good fortune. Just a few weeks before, they had booed Dorsett during the pregame introductions, making about the 10th time they had booed this little squirt during a career that will take him straight to Canton and the Hall of Fame.
"After all this time I guess I am somewhat of a Texan," says Dorsett, sensing the irony in his assessment. "I feel a part of Dallas now. I've seen it grow. Despite all that has happened between me and management and the fans, Dallas is my home. Time will go by and they'll forget."
"Herschel Walker is one of the finest individuals I've ever seen," Schramm had said before the game. "He is an amazingly well-behaved young man. | I would bet that he will cause us no problems. He will represent what all of us like to think of as 'Cowboy character.' "
That Herschel is all that good stuff, and perceptive, too, became evident during an interlude on the sideline during the game. Receiver Tony Hill approached Herschel and asked him why he hadn't followed a block that Hill had been preparing to throw for him. Herschel had caught a pass and was racing upfield when he veered to the left, ignoring Hill.
"I went the other way," Herschel explained, confounding the critics, "because Tony was there and I knew he would make the block for me."
And Dorsett did, good Cowboy that he is, clearing the way for the future.
Issue date: November 17, 1986