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What we know about Herschel Walker’s time in Trump’s failed football league

Author Jeff Pearlman on how Herschel Walker’s football career shaped his political one.

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New Jersey Generals running back Herschel Walker with team owner Donald Trump circa 1984.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Herschel Walker’s football career is inextricable from his political career: The only reason he has a shot at launching the latter endeavor — he’s the Republican nominee for senator in Georgia — is because he was so tremendously successful at the former, particularly in the early 1980s at the University of Georgia.

The verbal gaffes and personal scandals that now threaten to derail his Senate bid were predicted by plenty of people who had followed him in recent years, but it seemed Republicans calculated his celebrity would offset those potential perils. He has since been caught misrepresenting the facts in multiple instances ranging from his ties to law enforcement to his relationship with a woman who alleges Walker paid for her to abort their unborn child. He denies the allegation.

Still, the gamble might pay off: The race is one of the closest of the midterms. An ad by his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, even acknowledges how Georgians revere Walker, while making the case that he isn’t fit to serve in the Senate.

Walker was the best college football player in the country during his time at UGA. He won the Heisman Trophy and he led the Bulldogs to a national title — something they wouldn’t achieve again for 40 years, a famine that only increased his legend in the state. When he went pro, he made national headlines for jumping to the insurgent USFL. Then, he joined the Dallas Cowboys when they were still “America’s Team” and was a key component in what may have been the biggest trade in the history of professional football.

Jeff Pearlman is the author of several books including ones that have encompassed much of Walker’s professional career. He covered Walker’s time in the USFL and with the Dallas Cowboys. His latest book, a biography of Bo Jackson, will be released at the end of the month. Vox spoke to Pearlman last week about Walker’s football career, his background, and how his football career intersected with his future political benefactor, then-owner of Herschel’s USFL team, Donald Trump.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ben Jacobs

So just how big of a deal was Herschel Walker in college at the University of Georgia?

Jeff Pearlman

I mean, enormous. Football players today don’t become nearly as iconic as they were because coverage of sports is so widespread now, you see so much. Back then, you could only see certain games. You would see a decent amount of Herschel Walker because Georgia was always a national title contender, and even more to the point, they ran the I formation and he was at the top of the I. So he was running the ball 30 to 40 times a game, and he was really, really good. He also was a product of the state of Georgia playing for Georgia, from Wrightsville, which is a very small town.

[Walker] could do whatever the hell he wanted. The guy was the king of Georgia. I heard someone say this the other day, the two most famous living Georgians are Jimmy Carter and Herschel Walker. And that’s crazy! Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States and the other guy just played football. And he didn’t even have a great NFL career ... but he’s so iconic.

Ben Jacobs

His pro football career is where he initially encountered Donald Trump. How did the two interact and what did they have in common?

Jeff Pearlman

Well, it’s interesting because you can look at the lying of Donald Trump and trace it to the USFL. Everything Donald Trump does in the public sphere now, I can give you an example from the USFL that parallels it.

And you can look at Herschel Walker’s lying and trace it to the USFL too. Because he signed a contract with the USFL, was caught by Georgia officials and lied, and said he never signed a contract and then had to admit he did. [By signing the contract, he made himself ineligible to play college football. Eventually, a USFL official leaked the fact that he had signed to a reporter, which forced Walker’s hand.] But that’s his first official national lie, there it is. And he had to apologize for lying.

People always say that Trump signed Herschel Walker. Donald Trump did not sign Herschel Walker. Herschel Walker was in the USFL about a year before Donald Trump bought a USFL team. J. Walter Duncan was the owner of the New Jersey Generals when Walker signed. Donald Trump inherited Herschel Walker. That’s it.

You hear all this stuff, like how close they were, but it’s kind of bullshit. Donald Trump didn’t know anything about football. He was a good owner for the team because he paid money. But he was only paying money to make this team successful because he anticipated a merger with the NFL and he wanted to carry this team over to the NFL. So it wasn’t about love of this team or even love of Herschel Walker. Herschel Walker was his meal ticket.

I’ll give Trump credit, which I never do. Here’s something nobody knows: Herschel Walker still holds the all-time [pro football] single-season rushing record. People think it’s Eric Dickerson, people think it’s Adrian Peterson. It’s Herschel Walker. And that season [1985], the coach of the Generals was a guy named Walt Michaels, who had coached the Jets. Donald Trump was pissed because Michaels was only giving Herschel Walker the ball about 15 to 20 times a game. And Donald Trump ripped his coach in the media and said we need to get Herschel Walker more involved. And as much as I can’t stand Donald Trump, he actually was right. And that did give Herschel Walker an opportunity to break the single-season rushing record.

Ben Jacobs

And then the league collapses because of Donald Trump. Trump bought into the league, which was playing the spring, with the intent of forcing his way into the NFL. This started a series of events that ended with the league’s collapse after an antitrust lawsuit where jurors thought Trump was dishonest on the witness stand. And Herschel Walker goes to the NFL, where his career was overshadowed by his infamous trade from the Dallas Cowboys to the Minnesota Vikings. To use an obscure analogy, he’s the Milt Pappas of the NFL.

Jeff Pearlman

The trade is one of the worst/best trades in NFL history. [It was] a disaster for the Vikings, but it wasn’t his fault. For the Cowboys, so much of their three Super Bowl wins is the result of the Herschel Walker trade. [The trade resulted in the Cowboys getting the draft picks that they used to select a number of key starters on their championship-winning teams in the 1990s including Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, Pro Bowl defensive back Darren Woodson, and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Russell Maryland. In contrast, the Vikings only played one postseason game with Walker, which they lost.]

Walker did go on to have a really good career. He’s not a Hall of Famer but he’s not that far away from being a Hall of Famer. They never use USFL stats for the Hall of Fame, but if you did, he’d be in. He was really fast and he was really strong. He wasn’t shifty at all. He was pretty good out of the backfield, catching passes. He was a ridiculously powerful straight-ahead runner, but again, he wasn’t elusive. He was the wrong guy for the Vikings system and was a disaster. But he was a good player.

Ben Jacobs

Describe him as an athlete.

Jeff Pearlman

I mean, he was enormous and fast. He was big. He was strong. He probably ran the 40 in about 4.25 to 4.3, which for his size is preposterous. He wound up being an Olympian in the bobsled. But I do write about in my book how he couldn’t dribble a basketball, which is not a great thing. He had what they call straight-ahead skills, which is he was fast and he was strong. And you weren’t going to bring him down on your own. It doesn’t mean he was going to juke you but he was a great athlete. But he wasn’t [former professional football and baseball star] Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson could do a million things. Herschel Walker was a very straight-ahead, speed-power guy.

Ben Jacobs

In terms of his personality, you said he was a weird guy. What do you mean?

Jeff Pearlman

Very weird. Like, would do these unusual diets. Then every night before bed, he’d do hundreds of situps and pullups. He talked a lot about going into law enforcement and going into the military. The guys who ran [with him on the track team and field team at] Georgia knew Bo Jackson [who competed for rival Auburn University] better than Herschel Walker. He just didn’t connect with them.

Ben Jacobs

He’s also talked about his mental health issues. How much did that factor in?

Jeff Pearlman

I think he was also shy. You can’t not take into account that he grew up dirt, dirt, dirt poor in Wrightsville, Georgia. I always say, if you really want to fuck someone up as a kid, take them out of a dirt-poor environment and throw them into college sports. If you really want to mess with somebody, take a poor Black kid in the South, where people stare at you funny if you use the wrong drinking fountain, even in that age [the 1970s] and all of a sudden throw them in the middle of a stadium, where 60,000 white people are cheering your name and wearing your jersey. That has to do a job on a person.

Ben Jacobs

Is there any logical thread between his football career and his political one?

Jeff Pearlman

His name recognition in Georgia is off the charts. So that’s invaluable in politics. No one would have ever predicted this guy would want to be a senator. He just wasn’t that smart. And he wasn’t that outspoken and he wasn’t engaging. I’d never be like, “Yeah, this guy is going to run for Senate, it’s the natural next step.”

Ben Jacobs

You mentioned him dealing with the media. What was he like with them and around the locker room in general?

Jeff Pearlman

He was okay. He wasn’t a jerk. I still don’t think that the guy’s a jerk. I feel bad for him. I disagree with all his politics, but I feel like he’s just being used and kind of manipulated. Because he was a nice guy, like people thought he was weird, but he wasn’t a dick. Nobody hated him. You can’t find a person who had really bad things to say about Herschel Walker. Or they’d say he was weird and he was sort of off, kind of guarded. He didn’t talk that much. Most of his teammates would be like, “I didn’t really get to know him,” or, “I didn’t know him that well,” or, “he was always with his girlfriend,” or, “he marched to the beat of his own drum.” It wasn’t like he was a media darling, but he wasn’t an asshole about it. He would talk to reporters, but he wouldn’t be a go-to guy because he wasn’t that insightful.

Ben Jacobs

What did teammates make of him?

Jeff Pearlman

All his teammates would tell you he was weird if they’re being honest. They didn’t hate him. He wasn’t an unlikable guy. Nobody would have predicted he would run for Senate. … He never came off as politically savvy.

Ben Jacobs

Finally, how do you reconcile the Herschel Walker in the locker room versus the one on the campaign trail today?

Jeff Pearlman

I honestly, truly, sincerely think he’s damaged and being taken advantage of. I don’t say that politically. Meaning, I’d argue that no matter his party or stances, he’s just being propped up and used as a mannequin.

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