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

Herschel Walker’s football career is inseparable from his political career: The only reason he has a chance to launch the latter endeavor — he’s the Republican candidate for senator in Georgia — is because he was so wildly successful at the former, especially early on of the 1980s at University of Georgia.

The verbal spats 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 Republicans seemed to calculate that his celebrity would outweigh those potential hazards. He has since been caught misrepresenting the facts in several cases ranging from his ties to law enforcement to his relationship with a woman who claims Walker paid her to abort their unborn child. He denies the claim.

Still, the gamble may pay off: The race is one of the closest of the middle roads. An ad from his opponent, Senator Raphael Warnockeven acknowledging how Georgians revere Walker while arguing that he is unfit 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 added to his legend in the state. When he turned pro, he made national headlines for jumping to the rebel USFL. He then 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 pro football history.

Jeff Pearlman is the author of several books, including those that have covered 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 published at the end of the month. Vox spoke with 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 shortened and edited for clarity.

Ben Jacobs

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

Jeff Pearlman

I mean huge. 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 watch certain games. You would see a decent amount of Herschel Walker because Georgia was always a national title contender, and more specifically, they ran the I formation and he was on top of the I. So he ran the ball 30 to 40 times a game and he was really, really good. He was also 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 it’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 professional 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 Donald Trump’s lie and trace it to the USFL. Anything Donald Trump does in the public sphere now, I can give you an example from the USFL that matches it.

And you can look at Herschel Walker’s lie and trace it to the USFL as well. Because he signed a contract with the USFL, got 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 is his first official national lie. And he had to apologize for lying.

People always say 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 is it.

You hear all this stuff like how close they were, but it’s bullshit. Donald Trump knew nothing about football. He was a good owner for the team because he paid money. But he only paid money to make this team successful because he expected a merger with the NFL and he wanted to transfer this team to the NFL. So it wasn’t about love for this team or even love for Herschel Walker. Herschel Walker was his meal ticket.

I will give Trump credit, which I never do. Here’s something no one knows: Herschel Walker still holds the all-time record [pro football] single season rushing record. People think it’s Eric Dickerson, people think it’s Adrian Peterson. This is 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 mad because Michaels only gave 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 was actually right. And it gave 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 played in the spring, with the intention of forcing his way into the NFL. This set off a chain of events that ended with the league’s collapse after an antitrust case in which jurors found Trump 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 went on to have a very good career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he’s not too far off 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 vague at all. He was pretty good out of the backfield catching passes. He was a ridiculously powerful straight runner, but then again he wasn’t evasive. 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 huge and fast. He was great. He was strong. He probably ran the 40 in about 4.25 to 4.3, which for his size is absurd. He ended up becoming an Olympian in the bobsleigh. But I write about in my book how he couldn’t dribble a basketball, which isn’t a big deal. He had what they call straight-ahead ability, which is to say he was fast and he was strong. And you weren’t going to take him down on your own. That doesn’t mean he would argue with 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 straightforward, fast-power guy.

Ben Jacobs

As for his personality, you said he was a strange guy. What do you mean?

Jeff Pearlman

Very strange. Would love to do these unusual diets. So every night before bed, he did 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 couldn’t connect with them.

Ben Jacobs

He has also spoken about his mental problems. How much did it matter?

Jeff Pearlman

I think he was shy too. You can’t help but consider that he grew up dirt, dirt, dirt poor in Wrightsville, Georgia. I always say if you really want to screw 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 someone, take a poor black kid in the south, where people stare at you funny if you use the wrong drinking fountain, even at that age [the 1970s] and suddenly throw them in the middle of a stadium where 60,000 white people are cheering your name and wearing your shirt. It should 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 it is invaluable in politics. No one would have ever predicted that this guy would want to be a senator. He just wasn’t that smart. And he wasn’t that open and he didn’t engage. I would never think, “Yeah, this guy’s going to run for Senate, that’s the natural next step.”

Ben Jacobs

You mentioned that he deals with the media. How was he with them and in the dressing room in general?

Jeff Pearlman

He was okay. He wasn’t a fool. I still don’t think the guy is a jerk. I feel sorry for him. I disagree with all of 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 one person who had really bad things to say about Herschel Walker. Or they would say he was weird and he was kind of off, kind of guarded. He didn’t talk much. Most of his teammates would say, “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 wanted to talk to reporters, but he didn’t want to be a go-to guy because he wasn’t that insightful.

Ben Jacobs

What did his teammates think of him?

Jeff Pearlman

All of his teammates would tell you he was weird if they’re honest. They didn’t hate him. He wasn’t an unpleasant guy. No one would have predicted that he would run for the Senate. … He never came across as politically savvy.

Ben Jacobs

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

Jeff Pearlman

I honestly, really, sincerely believe he is damaged and being taken advantage of. I’m not saying that politically. This means that I would argue that regardless of his party or views, he is just being propped up and used as a mannequin.

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