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It was Feb. 26, 1983 and a press conference was about to begin in the cafeteria at Central Florida University in Orlando. Herschel Walker, the 20-year-old Heisman Trophy winner from Georgia, entered the room wearing a velour sweat suit and running shoes and confirmed that he had given up his final year of college football eligibility to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the new United States Football League. He had publicly denied reports of such a signing for almost a week.
"I had a deadened feeling that day," Walker said last week. "I didn't know what I had done. I really didn't know what to do, what to say. The USFL hadn't even played its first game. It was tough, very tough. I felt as if I had let down the entire Georgia team."
More than three years later, on Aug. 7, 1986 Walker was at another press conference, at a luxury town house that serves as his agent's office in New York City. Walker, now 24, wore a navy blue suit with a red silk tie and blue Italian leather shoes. In his three USFL seasons he had given the league much of whatever credibility it had earned, rushing for 5,562 yards and 54 touchdowns. Now, leaning into a battery of microphones, Walker announced that he wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys, who have his NFL rights.
"This time around, I knew exactly what I was doing," Walker said the next day at his home in Verona, N.J. "I was confident and relaxed. There really was no decision; I love football."
Walker's words came 10 days after a jury in New York had awarded the USFL one measly buck, not the $1.69 billion in antitrust damages it had sought from the NFL. Those words also came four days after the owners of the USFL's eight remaining teams had voted to suspend play for the 1986 fall season while they pursued legal actions in the hope of winning substantial damages. The USFL said it hoped to play in the fall of 1987. Walker and fellow marquee players Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie and Kelvin Bryant—as well as at least some of the 43 others whose rights were already owned by NFL teams—had new employers waiting for them, provided the players could unravel the legal tangles in their USFL contracts and sign NFL pacts soon enough to get into training camp and onto the field for the league's openers on Sept. 7.
For the 500 or so other USFL players, the future was cloudy indeed. Under an agreement reached last week by the USFL Players Association and management, all those players were free to pursue NFL (or Canadian Football League) careers or, for that matter, any other career. But with NFL teams in the final weeks of preseason and the CFL already seven games into its regular season, cracking those rosters won't be easy. Injuries in the other leagues will mean jobs for some USFL men, and for a few there will still be a USFL. The league, through re-signings, plans to maintain nucleus rosters of no fewer than 10 players in each of the eight franchise cities. Those players will receive salaries of at least $1,500 per month.
But the harsh reality was that a large majority of the USFL players were fresh out of football work and likely to remain so; the dream was all but dead. What impact, then, would the lucky few have on the NFL? Certainly the Cowboys, with Walker's battering-ram physique and world-class speed added to Tony Dorsett's superstar skills, figure to be much stronger. The rights to Bryant, who led the Baltimore Stars to the '85 USFL championship, belong to Washington, where he and George Rogers would be another formidable backfield duo. Rights to the Generals Kelly (SI, July 21) are held by Buffalo; he'd give the lackluster Bills a big lift if he agreed to play for them—but don't stake the mortgage that he will. Stars offensive tackle Irv Eatman could give the Kansas City Chiefs an impact player on either the left or right side. Free agent defensive tackle Kit Lathrop, late of the Arizona Outlaws, is being pursued by several NFL teams. The addition of Stars linebacker Mike Johnson could make Tom Cousineau trade bait in Cleveland, and former NFL quarterbacks such as Tampa Bay's Doug Williams (Arizona Outlaws), Pittsburgh's Cliff Stoudt (Birmingham Stallions) and San Diego's Ed Luther (Jacksonville Bulls) are likely to be offered in trade by their old teams.
By and large, however, NFL team officials weren't exactly turning handsprings. "We're not looking for much help from over there," said Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals' assistant general manager. "There are a half-dozen USFL players who will be stars. And a dozen or maybe a score who will be backup players. That's about what the impact will be. Not much."
Bill Tobin, the Chicago Bears' personnel director, said loftily, "We might get somebody who could be our 44th or 45th player. There aren't many players who are going to help the world champions." There may be some coaches who can help, though. Tobin's brother Vince, until six months ago the defensive coordinator of the Stars, now holds that position with the Bears. And general manager Jerry Vainisi, after first asserting he had no opening for any USFL player, said Chicago was "very interested" in Stars linebacker Sam Mills, who has been called "the Mike Singletary of the USFL." No NFL team has Mills's rights. Vainisi allowed as how he'd like to look over some USFL wide receivers, too.
Jim Schaaf, the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, suggested that a higher percentage of USFL players will catch on than might have been expected. "I see them as a source of talent that is readily available in the event of injuries," Schaaf said. "I see a lot of teams working them out and keeping them on a ready list." Indeed, NFL owners were to meet this week to discuss, among other things, the possibility of allowing roster exemptions for incoming USFL players.