Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn't believe his good fortune. Last month his Cowboys were losing depth as fast as lace, 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 ever made."
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."
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."