The issue isn't so much whether Herschel Walker will or Herschel Walker won't, but why shouldn't he? And, if he does, what will happen as a result? The answers to that question range from a kind of Emancipation Proclamation (football players getting freedom) to a cry of "Fire!" in a crowded theater (football players causing anarchy), depending on which strident voice you listen to. In any case, the matter is a humdinger, just like the young man on whom it centers. Broken into two parts, it follows these lines:
Part I) Walker, Georgia's All-America tailback and 1981 Heisman runner-up, says he's of a mood to challenge the NFL's rule against signing players before their college class graduates—in Walker's case, the class of 1984, two football seasons from now. Walker feels this way because he thinks the rule is "unconstitutional" and "unfair" to exceptionally gifted athletes like himself who might desire to start their pro football careers ahead of schedule. Walker doesn't say he will do this, only that he wants to explore his "options." He is, as always, a model of noncommittal cool around which everybody else seems to be sweating, trying to figure out what he might do and how it will affect those directly involved—the NFL, the NCAA, the University of Georgia and, of course. Walker himself.
The mere fact that Walker is talking about the possibility of trying to turn pro early is reason enough to listen because he is uniquely qualified for the challenge. In the first place, all those rushing yards (3,741) and touchdowns scored (37) for Georgia the last two years are no lie. Though he won't be 20 until March 3, Walker is nonetheless a talent full-grown—not to mention a body full-grown, at a very muscular 6'2", 220 pounds. Dolphin Coach Don Shula laughed when asked last week if he thought Walker could play in the NFL now. He considered it a silly question. Shula has seen Walker on film and describes him as "awesome." Another NFL coach said, "He could play, he could start and he could star. And he probably would make more money coming in than anybody ever has."
Second, Walker is "different," to use the word of the Georgia assistant coach who recruited him out of rural Wrightsville, Ga. What Walker sets his mind to, that coach, Mike Cavan, says, Walker does. It's not knowing what his mind is set on that drives people nuts. "Herschel marches to a different drummer." says a friend at Georgia, "and the drummer is him." Not even those closest to him are ever really sure what he's thinking. Walker's mother used to steal into his bedroom in Wrightsville to study the poetry he wrote in an attempt to divine what was on his mind.
Georgia Coach Vince Dooley talks of the "tremendous mental discipline" Walker has, an attribute that would make challenging the NFL rule and playing pro football "before his time" something "Herschel could do if he finds it appealing enough," which Dooley doesn't think he will. Walker, Dooley says, "will give it every thought," keeping everybody off balance as long as possible, and then almost instinctively do the thing that will endear him to the most people.
As a high school senior, Walker didn't sign with Georgia until Easter Sunday, long after anybody Dooley had ever recruited, and thereby evoked a statewide sigh of relief. Last year when Montreal Alouettes owner Nelson Skalbania offered Walker a small fortune to quit college for the Canadian Football League, Walker played it to the last dying note before saying no, and when he did, he said it was because it "made no sense to grow up in one country and play football in another." He could have led the Memorial Day parade.
Dooley has discussed the pros and cons of the NFL eligibility rules with Walker and why Dooley feels those rules serve both sides. "I told Herschel I didn't disagree with his thinking," Dooley says. "In fact, I agree with him. But all rules are imperfect. They don't apply to some people. The NFL rule is a great rule for the vast majority. If it were changed, a very, very few underclassmen would make it [in the NFL], and if you consider the number who would throw away their educations to try, you'd realize it would be bad for most."
Dooley believes that when the roll is called down yonder for Georgia's first practice in the fall, Walker will be there, geared up to win the Heisman. (He doesn't have to participate in spring practice because he's running track.) Dooley thinks Walker would be "the last guy who would turn his back on what he has for the money. College life is too important to him. He's having too good a time. Until he tells me otherwise, I'm assuming he'll be here."
Meanwhile, Walker continues to say a lot about the matter without saying anything that would absolutely, positively pin him to the wall or, for that matter to the New England Patriots. The Patriots would be the likely beneficiaries if Walker decides to turn pro and gets the go-ahead from the NFL or the courts. New England has the No. 1 pick in April's draft, which it would almost certainly use to take Walker. If a ruling in Walker's favor comes later than that but before the start of the 1982 season, the Pats would also have the No. 1 pick in a supplemental draft. A New Englander's dream: the Patriots picking Texas Defensive Tackle Kenneth Sims in April and Walker in, say, July.
Last week Walker sat with his back to a picture window separating the offices of the Georgia Bulldog Club from a hallway in The Coliseum and between smiles and waves to passersby who tapped on the glass, gave his thoughts on the issues. He said that nobody knew what he was going to do, that "a lot of people are just guessing." But as a B student in criminology with a fascination for the law—he wants to be an FBI agent—he at least knew "what's fair and what isn't." He said the inequities of the NFL eligibility rules had been on his mind a long time. He said he averages only three hours of sleep a night anyway, and that gives him plenty of time to think. He said when he gets into something like this he "enjoys thinking about it." He said one of his thoughts was that "if you're riding along and come to a tree growing in the road, you can either sit there and wait till it rots, or you can move it."