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Herschel Walker Nfl Comeback Well Into His 50S, Herschel Walker Says He Can Still Play In The Nfl

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Memories of the Cowboys’ 1990s glory days conjure up different images for every fan who thinks back on that time. Troy Aikman with a single celebratory finger aloft. Emmitt Smith bursting through a hole at the line of scrimmage. Michael Irvin doing his signature post-touchdown spike. Jimmy Johnson’s tousled hair as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy. Three Super Bowl rings in a four-year span.

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But there’s one player who, arguably, was most responsible for it all. He’s not immortalized in any memories of those championship teams. There are no freeze-frames of him wearing the silver and blue having just won a title. His name isn’t in the Ring of Honor. Oddly enough, the player who made it all possible indirectly kickstarted one of pro football’s greatest dynasties by cleaning out his locker in the early morning hours of the Thursday before Week 6 and hopping a flight out of Dallas.

October 12 marks 30 years to the day that the Cowboys traded star running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings, changing the trajectory of the franchise in the process. When it happened, Johnson boasted it was “The Great Train Robbery.” In the years that followed, he called it “fantasy football before there was fantasy football.” Even now, the Walker deal remains the largest trade in NFL history, the likes of which will almost assuredly never be seen again.

And it all started with a crazy idea concocted during a morning jog in the Metroplex suburbs.

‘My God, a freshman!’

In Johnson’s 1989 professional coaching debut season, the Cowboys were downright awful, starting 0-5 and being outscored 146-54 along the way. Aikman was just a rookie and Irvin was a fairly promising second-year wideout, but at the time, the most notable talent on the entire roster was running back Herschel Walker.

Notable is putting it mildly.

In today’s game, this next phrase gets tossed around casually, but Walker was truly a generational talent. At the University of Georgia in 1980, “the 18-year-old Walker looked like a man among middle schoolers,” NFL.com columnist Michael Silver wrote in a 2014 piece. He broke the NCAA freshman rushing record that season with 1,616 yards, was the first true freshman to be named a first-team All-American, led the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and a national championship, and finished third in the Heisman race. Many feel Walker deserved to win the Heisman that year, but in that era, the thought of awarding the country’s highest collegiate football honor to a freshman was so preposterous as to be unfathomable to voters.

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“My god, a freshman!”

39 years ago today,
HerschelWalker flattened the Tennessee defense for his first collegiate touchdown. pic.twitter.com/w5i8m9IyyH

— ESPN (
espn) September 6, 2019

Walker did win the Heisman as a junior. He remains the only player in NCAA history to finish in the top three in Heisman voting in all three of his collegiate seasons, and also ranked in the top ten in rushing yards each of those years. Walker left Georgia after his junior year with 5,259 rushing yards and 76 touchdowns, plus another 243 yards and 4 more scores as a receiver.

Walker signed with the USFL, the only league at the time that allowed college juniors to turn pro. As a member of the New Jersey Generals, Walker won the rushing title in his rookie season of 1983. In 1985, he set the professional rushing single-season mark with 2,411 yards (over 18 games) and won league MVP honors.

If USFL film clips were widely disemminated, Herschel Walker would be more properly revered than Bo Jackson https://t.co/zrg0Bz8vSv

— Chris Wesseling (
ChrisWesseling) April 24, 2014

The numbers are dizzying, but it doesn’t take much old game film to see that Walker was, to put it bluntly, a beast. Even his workout routines were legendary. But what made his superhuman physical appearance truly stupefying was the fact that Walker never lifted weights. He built his chiseled 6-foot-1, 225-pound physique completely on body weight exercises, the stories all read, to the tune of 1,500 pushups and 2,000 sit-ups a day. Every single day.

Oh, and he was a track star, too. A two-time All-American in college. With world-class speed and sprint times in the early ’80s that still rivaled Usain Bolt’s marks almost two generations later.

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He was such a freakishly gifted athlete that the Cowboys gambled on him from a league away, using a fifth-round draft pick in 1985 just to secure his rights in the event that the USFL went out of business. The bet paid off, and in 1986, the 24-year-old Walker signed with Dallas, took jersey No. 34, and joined fellow Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett in the backfield. The two-headed approach caused friction over playing time and carries, ultimately leading to Dorsett being traded to Denver after two seasons together.

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Finally the feature back in Dallas, Walker rushed for 1,514 yards in 1988, second in the league behind Eric Dickerson. All of this backstory is to say that, despite the Cowboys’ cold start in 1989 under a new owner, a new coach, and a rookie quarterback, Walker was unquestionably the centerpiece of a poor offense (he took snaps at every offensive position except lineman and quarterback), and he was viewed as one of the top players league-wide.

So it understandably struck Johnson’s coaching staff as an insane notion when he broached the subject of trading him away.

‘We’ve got to jump-start it somehow’

It happened on a morning jog- a ritual that Johnson often practiced- taking a group of staffers for a run through the neighborhood surrounding Valley Ranch, the old team headquarters in Irving. The regular run often turned into a “mobile staff meeting,” as explained by Steve Wulf in an ESPN article, and on this Tuesday after a Week 5 31-13 loss to Green Bay, the group included O-line coach Tony Wise, offensive coordinator David Shula, defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, trainer Kevin O’Neill, and Johnson’s administrative assistant Bruce Mays.

“Six blocks from the finish,” Johnson recalled, “I told them the only way to fix this thing was to trade our best player. I told them we had to trade Herschel Walker.”

Johnson’s coaches were incredulous, to say the least. “I’ll tell you how much he meant to the franchise,” O’Neill told Wulf. “The security code at the facility was 3412: 34 for Herschel, 12 for Roger Staubach.”

“We were already 0-5 with him, the worst team in the league,” Johnson admitted. “I said, ‘We’ve got to jump-start it somehow… You know, the only Pro Bowl player we’ve got is Herschel Walker.’ And my offensive coaches said, ‘We can’t trade Herschel Walker; we won’t score a point.’ And I said, ‘I can care less about scoring a point. We’ve got to get better two or three years from now.””

For Johnson, the wheels were already in motion. He didn’t put much stock in Walker’s sledgehammer running style, preferring a shiftier runner out of the backfield. So to the Dallas coach, the two-time Pro Bowler was very expendable. To every other coach in the league, he was very valuable.

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Johnson arranged a potential deal with Cleveland in short order. “They offered us a player,” the coach recalled to author Norm Hitzges in his book The Greatest Team Ever, “a couple of future number ones and three number twos. Good offer.”

But not good enough. Johnson wanted more. So he drummed up another franchise to work with, if only to use as leverage with Cleveland’s front office. “Really, we were just looking to get the Browns to sweeten the pot,” he claims.

Enter the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings felt they were a playoff-caliber team that season, but after starting 3-2, they needed a spark. They thought it had fallen in their laps when Johnson called about acquiring Walker. Johnson put a tight time cap on the offer, not really believing Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn would bite.

Hitzges takes the story from there:

“Johnson told Lynn, ‘Hey, I’m about to deal Herschel Walker this afternoon . If you’re interested, here’s what it’s going to take.’ He laid out a complicated request that consisted of players, draft picks, conditional picks, and provisions. ‘You need to get back to me by 6:30 or the deal will already be done,’ Johnson told Lynn.”

By the time that day’s practice ended, Johnson had a fax from the Twin Cities waiting for him.

But the haggling that ensued wasn’t just between the two front offices. Walker himself had to approve the deal. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones got involved, and by the time it was over, Walker agreed to a package that included an exit bonus paid by Jones, plus the Vikings chipping in a free house in Minneapolis comparable to his Dallas residence and a Mercedes-Benz of his choosing. By 6:15 Thursday morning, Walker was cleaning out his locker at Valley Ranch, and Johnson’s assistant was changing the building’s security code.

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‘A huge handful of Minnesota smoke’

When the particulars of the most complicated trade in NFL history were announced, it looked like Jones and Johnson had been thoroughly fleeced. In exchange for perhaps the most dominant player in the league plus two third-round draft picks and a 10th-rounder, the Cowboys would receive from Minnesota: linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard, defensive end Alex Stewart, running back Darrin Nelson, cornerback Isiaac Holt, and a first-, second-, and sixth-round pick the following year.

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