So here was Herschel Walker riding along Route 169 outside Minneapolis. He was on his way to pick up a car in which to tool around this latest state to be in the palm of his hand. Walker was thinking. It was Saturday, 23 hours before he would touch the ball for the first time for his third professional team, and he was a little nervous.
"My father used to tell me I was only worth a quarter," he said with a nervous laugh. "That's still about what I'm worth, I think. I'm ashamed to be here, almost. Ashamed in a sense that the players here have earned their stripes and I haven't. I'm cheating. I'm sneaking in. But the situation's going to inspire me to work harder."
The largest Metrodome crowd ever to see the Minnesota Vikings play—62,075—saw that inspired work firsthand on Sunday. The first time Walker touched the ball—it also happened to be the first time he returned a kickoff in the NFL—he advanced it 51 yards (it was brought back 24 yards because of a penalty). The second time he touched the ball, he took a handoff from Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer, skated right, burst into a hole punched out by tackle Tim Irwin, sprinted straight up-field, broke tackles by Green Bay Packer defensive backs Dave Brown and Mark Murphy, had his right shoe stripped off by Murphy and sprint-hopped a few more lengths before getting caught by linebacker Tim Harris. The gain: 47 yards. "Not bad," said Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn, the man who made the deal possible. "Two plays, a hundred yards."
Grateful Minnesotans found out what Georgians, New Jerseyans and Texans already knew: With Walker, all is possible. After two hours and 20 minutes of practice with the Vikings, he produced the best rushing game by a Minnesota back since 1983, gaining 148 yards on 18 carries in a 26-14 win over Green Bay. He did it while playing only 33 of the Vikes' 68 offensive plays.
The NFL is often maligned for its bland corporateness, but here was some real excitement. It was one of those you-had-to-be-there things. The crowd in the south end zone gave Walker a standing ovation when he lined up for the kickoff after Green Bay had scored to go ahead 7-0. The whole place went nuts on the lost-shoe run. And for no apparent reason—or maybe just because Walker was there—the joint broke into spontaneous applause for him during a TV timeout in the third quarter. "Herschelmania!" screamed some guy in Section 108 right about then.
"I had to take time away from my defense today because I had to see Herschel run," said Minnesota defensive coordinator Floyd Peters afterward. "He popped through the middle a couple of times, and—whoooooosh!—I thought he'd be gone."
And whoooooosh! was the way he had arrived from the Dallas Cowboys three days before the game. Ah, the trade—the weird, weird trade. It was one that had to happen, but it nearly unraveled at the last minute. Actually, to call the Walker deal a trade doesn't do it justice. Consider:
•Dallas received Minnesota's first-round draft choice in 1992, linebackers David Howard and Jesse Solomon, running back Darrin Nelson, cornerback Issiac Holt and rookie defensive end Alex Stewart. All five Viking players are tied to conditional draft choices—Solomon and Howard to first-round picks in '90 and '91, the others to second-and third-round selections in the early '90s in a complicated formula that neither team has fully disclosed.
By Feb. 1, Dallas will have to make five decisions. If the Cowboys cut all five players, Dallas will get all five picks; if the Cowboys cut fewer they'll keep fewer picks.
•Dallas may try to keep the players and the picks by dealing with Lynn after the season. Here's where the trade gets weird. Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson said, "We get players now, and we get ones and twos [in the draft] for the next three years to help us win. We're going to make those picks."
Dallas could approach Lynn in January with this idea: Look, we could cut these guys and take our five picks, and you would end up with neither players nor picks. Instead, let us give you some thing—say, five middle-round choices—and you erase the condition of the trade that says we have to choose either the players or the draft choices. When told this scenario was suggested on Sunday, Lynn arched his eyebrows and said, "No comment."
But Lynn is, ahem, a hardline fellow. When this deal was close to completion on the night of Oct. 3, the guaranteed first-round draft pick in 1992 wasn't included. Johnson and Cowboy owner Jerry Jones told Lynn over the phone they liked the deal but needed something more. "I'll give you our Number One in '92," said Lynn, "but if I do, that's it. There's nothing else. That has to be the deal, and we have to do it now." Jones and Johnson said they would do it. Now if they come back asking for still more, Lynn may well play hardball, even at the expense of all those draft picks.
•According to Lynn, he has already stared down Jones once, over a final, almost fatal snag early last Thursday morning. Jones had negotiated an agreement with one of Walker's agents, Peter Johnson, under which Walker would receive $1.25 million from the Cowboys to accept the trade. That is another remarkable part of this story: Walker didn't have a no-trade clause in his contract, yet Dallas had to pay to get him to report to the Vikings. After finishing negotiations with Peter Johnson, Jones got Lynn on the telephone at 8 a.m. Lynn says he was dumbfounded when Jones asked him to help cover the $1.25 million. Then, says Lynn, Jones wanted to talk about the terms again. Lynn feared Jones might start calling other teams, so he told Jones he wouldn't let him off the phone until they had made an absolute agreement. Walker had already come to clean out his locker at 6:15 that morning. Jones agreed to pay the entire $1.25 million. He wired the money to Walker's agents in Cleveland the next day.
•Walker, according to his Viking contract, gets two big perks: a house that must be comparable to his home in Dallas and "a new Mercedes Benz automobile of the player's choice." Lynn said he planned to talk with former Viking Ahmad Rashad, who lives in Mount Vernon, N.Y., about allowing Walker and his wife, Cindy, to live in Rashad's part-time home in Minnesota this fall.
•Despite reports to the contrary, rookie Steve Walsh, Dallas's backup quarterback, who is expected to be traded after the season, isn't part of the Walker deal. "I can 100 percent give you my word that Walsh was never mentioned in the deal and is no part of it," says Jimmy Johnson. But who knows what will happen after the season? Five years ago, Walsh—then a quarterback at a St. Paul high school who was headed to the University of Miami—was told by Lynn at a sports banquet that someday he would come home to play for the Vikings. Although no groundwork has been laid for such a transaction, it's possible that Walsh could be sent to Minnesota in January in return for the Cowboys' being allowed to keep the five players as well as the five draft picks.
Trading Walker was the smartest move Dallas could make. They had gone 1-16 with him over the last 13 months, and he hadn't had a 100-yard rushing game since Week 14 last year. "You always hate to lose a tremendous talent like Herschel," says Johnson, whose Cowboys fell to 0-6 on Sunday with a 31-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in their first game of the Post-Herschel Era. "What saddens me more is to lose football games. The applecart was already upset, and it was going to be difficult to rebuild without trading Herschel."
Minnesota had been getting killed by its inept running game. Since the start of 1988, the Vikings have ranked 25th in the NFL in yards per rush (3.65). Until Sunday they hadn't had so much as one 80-yard rushing game by a back since '87. "We had to do something," said Lynn on Saturday. "We had the Number One defense in the league, and we were keeping it on the field too long. Our guys were gasping. Look at the great teams of the '80s. They all had great backs. We needed one. As I told Herschel, 'We've got one missing spoke in the wheel, and you're it.' "
Walker got to Minneapolis at 5:30 p.m. last Thursday. Over the next day and a half, he would spend five hours talking to reporters, more than twice his practice time. Still, he learned 12 plays, most of them rushes taught to him by running-backs coach John Brunner. Walker was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Minnesota offensive system is numbered similarly to the one he had mastered under Tom Landry at Dallas, so the learning wasn't hard. Understanding Kramer's San Antonio drawl was another matter. Kramer worked with Walker on the snap counts during Friday's practice. "Herschel had a hard time understanding me," says Kramer, who concentrated on enunciating the counts more clearly. "He told me, 'The quarterbacks in Dallas talk slower.' "
The plan was to play Walker on 12 to 15 downs, giving him six or eight carries so he could get familiar with his blockers. He would have a big role beginning with the next game, against the Detroit Lions. By Saturday, Walker was pretty comfortable. "I can adjust to almost anything," he said. "My life has always been wild, always exciting. All I can do is make the best of this. That's the way I live. I lived that way at Georgia for three years, with New Jersey [of the USFL] for three years and with Dallas for three years."
And with Minnesota for how long? Walker says he doesn't want to extend his contract now. He'll be 28 next season, and he won't need the money. Next year will be his eighth pro season, and he will have earned, including incentive bonuses, something like $17 million directly from playing football.
He showed why on Sunday. Walker got hot, and he got the ball a lot more often than planned. "I'm not a complete idiot," said coach Jerry Burns. "When I saw what he was doing, I said, 'Keep him in there and keep feeding him the ball.' " With five minutes left in the first half, Walker already had the Vikings' best individual rushing total of the season, 68 yards.
Beyond that, he simply made Minnesota better. Early in the second quarter Walker lined up in the backfield with Alfred Anderson, a six-year veteran. With Green Bay looking toward Walker, Anderson ran up the middle for seven yards. On the next play, Kramer faked a handoff to Walker and then threw for 19 yards to wideout Hassan Jones. The Vikings scored a field goal on that series to cut the Packers' lead to 7-3. Minnesota got a touchdown on its next possession—Walker played three of the four downs in that series—and the Vikings never trailed again.
Minnesota's defense shut down Green Bay's No. 1-ranked offense in part because the Viking offense held the ball for a season-high 36 minutes and six seconds. "He's that main ingredient we've needed to take the heat off [wide receiver] Anthony Carter and [tight end] Steve Jordan, and to keep the defense off the field," says defensive tackle Keith Millard.
Lynn says the trade will only be a success if Walker leads the Vikings to a Super Bowl victory. Is that possible? With Walker, all is possible. Kramer found that out in the third quarter on Sunday. Walker was lined up as an I-formation tailback when the Packers suddenly shifted their defense, using two inside linebackers to fill the holes between guard and center. Kramer called an audible, changing from an inside run to a toss to Walker. Kramer looked back at Walker and almost froze. How will he know our audibles? thought Kramer. But because the terminology was familiar, Walker knew what to do. "I couldn't believe it," says Kramer. "He turned it into about eight yards."
Walker often had been shunted to the sidelines in Dallas's new passing attack, but...
...he was in the middle of things again with the Vikings, gaining 148 yards in his debut.
Walker put special-teams coach Tom Batta's advice to good use.
Lynn says the trade will be a failure unless Walker leads Minnesota to the Super Bowl.
Brunner, Kramer and his backup, Rich Gannon (16), welcomed their new ground game.