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 2� 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 2�-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.