"I don't think my play is affecting my confidence," he says. "I'm not saying it. Everyone else is. What affects me is what my family and closest friends are saying. Those are the people I care about."
Well, Herschel, your family and closest friends have noticed a change in your running style. In the old days Walker used to punish defenders, hurting linebackers and defensive backs, plowing through them like a freight train. This season he has been observed running out of bounds to avoid would-be tacklers, and he appears to be protecting his left shoulder, which has bothered him occasionally since his days at Georgia. Instead of bursting out of the backfield, Walker has been hesitating, taking a stutter step before approaching the line of scrimmage. Before the season Walker lost 10 pounds because he thought it would help his quickness, and one confidant of his theorizes that the weight loss has meant less power on impact and less protection for his body.
Thus far Walker has appeared unfazed, almost oblivious to the harsh criticism. The Minneapolis-St. Paul media has been brutal, questioning his physical ability, suggesting he is worn down from carrying the ball more than 3,100 times in his college and pro career and wondering whether he still has the heart to play the game well. Writers have harped on the fact that after the Detroit loss Walker spent one off day in Lake Placid, N.Y., attempting to qualify for the 1992 U.S. Olympic bobsled team. When Walker came .01 of a second from setting a bobsled push record at the trials, Bob Sansevere, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, "Is it really a surprise that Herschel Walker would excel in a sport where the idea is to go downhill?" The local media also ripped him for cutting the palm of his right hand while in Lake Placid, making so much of it that Walker held up the hand to show the small gash during a taping for his Sunday morning TV show. "You would have thought I'd cut my hand off," he says. And when he came down with the flu a few days later, just before the Eagles game, the local media blamed that on his bobsledding expedition too.
"Guys can go hunting on their days off and shoot themselves," Walker says. "Guys can go swimming and drown or play basketball and tear up an ankle. What do people want me to do on my day off, sit home and watch The Young and the Restless?"
It wasn't long before the national media joined in. On NBC's NFL Live a few weeks ago, Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson commented that Walker lacked courage. "O.J. has never liked me," Walker says. "How do you measure toughness? Do you have to have your teeth knocked out?" Gary Myers, on HBO's Inside the NFL, reported that he had talked to "a close friend" of Walker's who claimed that Herschel had lost his desire to play and was only continuing his career because of the big bucks.
"That's absurd," Walker says. "I feel like I'm answering questions about things that somebody else makes up. The bottom line is this: I believe in God. He is everything to me. So are my parents. They are my role models. If I sat around and didn't try, then God and my parents would be disappointed."
Many Viking fans are also beginning to sour on Walker. The ratings for his Sunday morning TV show on WCCO are in a steady decline. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has received plenty of anti-Herschel letters. Wade Reitmeir of Annandale, Minn., wrote: "I don't blame Mike Lynn for making the trade. He probably thought he was getting a legitimate NFL running back, not Mr. Full-Bodied Shoulder Pads, who is afraid to hit a hole with his nose facing the goal line." A fan faxed a cartoon to the various local papers of Herschel in his Viking uniform, running while holding on to a walker. Surprisingly, the drawing didn't appear in the papers. A novelty shop across from the Metrodome is advertising 50% off on all Herschel merchandise. T-shirts with the Words HERSCHEL SUCKS have appeared around town. And, of course, there's the latest Herschel Walker joke:
What's the difference between a Butterfingers and Herschel Walker? A Butterfingers only costs 50 cents.
"If he doesn't run for 100 yards, then he's just——in everybody's book," says Viking Pro Bowl defensive tackle Keith Millard. "What kind of crap is that? I've heard guys say, in phone conversations, whispers and mumblings, 'He shows no remorse for his failures.' Well, why should he? He's human. Players make mistakes."
Publicly, none of Walker's teammates are blaming him for the Vikings' dismal start. However, since he went to the bobsled trials, his dedication to the team has been repeatedly questioned.