After winning the Heisman Trophy award in 1983, Herschel Walker came out of the University of Georgia as a junior to sign with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.This created a stir in pro and college football, because the NFL had a policy not to draft underclassman. But the USFL was looking to beat the NFL to punch by signing college’s best players as soon as they could. The USFL also held their draft in January, three months before the NFL.
This pro-active approach allowed the spring league to sign three consecutive Hesiman Trophy winners — Walker in ’83, Mike Rozier in ’84 and Doug Flutie in ’85.
Walker rushed for more than 5,500 yards and 54 touchdowns in his three years playing for the Generals.
“Herschel Walker was the rarest combination of strength and speed I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Dave Lapham, who blocked for Walker on the offensive line in the ’84 and ’85 seasons. “He had world-class speed on a 225-pound body. A genetic phenom — he was freak of nature.”
While Walker was making the weekly highlight reel in the USFL, the NFL was surveying the landscape of the spring league in preparation of the its demise in 1985. Several NFL GM’s like Mike Brown, Jim Schaaf and Gary Vainisi were”iffy” towards the talent they would find from the USFL refugees. Cowboys’ president Tex Schramm, like many of his NFL contemporaries, was lukewarm towards the USFL 20 years ago, but saw “gold” in Walker.
Schramm selected the former Heisman Trophy winner in the fifth- round of the 1985 draft (more than a year before the USFL folded). Unique player selection wasn’t something new to Schramm, who also drafted QB Roger Staubach in the tenth-round of the 1964 draft. Staubach didn’t play for the Cowboys until 1969, due to his military commitment. But Schramm sensed the Cowboys were slipping: Dallas missed the playoffs in 1984 and were shutout by the Rams 23-0 in the divisional playoffs in 1985. He felt he needed to pump new life into his aging team, and counter the Redskins and the surging New York Giants defense as the shine of the Dallas star had grown dim.
“The drafting of him was much less impactful than the day in training camp when he arrived in 1986,” says Brad Sham, who has been broadcasting games since 1978 .”The Cowboys had that reputation of bringing the next guy in, and being dispassionate about cutting loose a veteran like Dorsett. He didn’t want his role diminished by the younger Walker. It put Dorsett in a difficult position.”
Ironically, Dorsett was injured in the Cowboys season opener against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, Walker impressed the Giants by rushing for 64 yards on 10 carries, but the eye-catching play happened when Walker knocked Giants’ MLB Harry Carson on his back. Carson, an imposing figure, wasn’t accustom to such hits from running backs. Maurice Carthon, who was in the same backfield with Walker in New Jersey, was now a member of the rival New York Giants, remembers that play like it was yesterday.
“Harry came over to me and said, ‘How come you didn’t tell me he was like that.’ I said, ‘You all were taking him for granted. When he wants to bring it, he can,’” Carthon says with a snickering voice. “He’s the only person I ever saw do Harry like that.”