Herschel Walker is locked in a heated race for a U.S. Senate seat, but the football legend is also bound to an essential rule when catching up with former Dallas Cowboys teammate Jim Jeffcoat.
“We’ve made an agreement: Don’t talk about politics,” Jeffcoat told USA TODAY Sports. “We talk about our lives.”
Given the controversy and drama that has engulfed Walker’s campaign as he tries to unseat incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, it must be quite a challenge to separate life from politics.
Walker, 60, has campaigned as an anti-abortion advocate, yet in recent weeks two women have come forward to contend that years ago, he paid for abortions after he impregnated them, which he has repeatedly denied. Earlier in the campaign, Walker revealed that he fathered four children – by four different women – which strikingly contrasted his public admonishments about absentee fathers and his previous contention that he had three children.
Also, a litany of alleged domestic violence episodes – many involving his ex-wife, Cindy DeAngelis Grossman – have resurfaced during the campaign. In one of the TV ads running in Georgia, Grossman is shown describing an incident in which she contends Walker held a gun to her head and threatened to pull the trigger. Walker has said that he doesn’t recall the threats against Grossman, whom he divorced in 2002, because he suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Follow every game: Live NFL Scores
Politically speaking or not, there is so much to unpack with Walker.
“Everybody has skeletons in their closet if you look deep enough,” said Jeffcoat, a former defensive end who played 15 NFL seasons and is one of Walker’s closest ex-teammates. “He’s just human. We’ve all made some bad choices. I’m not going to condemn him.”
As the midterm elections loom, several former Cowboys reflected on Walker for USA TODAY Sports and offered a range of reactions – from extreme skepticism to enthusiastic support – about his candidacy.
A raw candidate
“He was almost like a political candidate when he came to the Cowboys,” said Everson Walls, an all-pro cornerback in the 1980s, referring to Walker’s high-profiled NFL entry in 1986. “They tried to brand him.”
As Walls realizes, the Cowboys at that time were deteriorating – on and off the field – despite continuing to attract an immense spotlight as “America’s Team.”
“With Herschel coming on board, there was this misnomer that he could be the savior of the Cowboys,” Walls said. “He was supposed to change the perception.”
And now, decades later, the GOP has pinned its hopes on the raw candidate in a pivotal race that could swing the balance of power in the Senate.
“I may not agree with his policies, but this is who Herschel has been since I’ve known him,” said Nate Newton, who joined the Cowboys in 1986 and blossomed into an all-pro guard.
“He’s always been strange … Am I lying?”
OPINION:Herschel Walker’s Senate run is a stain on American democracy
MORE:Second woman accuses Herschel Walker of paying for abortion
PASTOR SPEAKS OUT:Georgia pastor slams GOP nominee Herschel Walker in fiery sermon
Jeff Rohrer, meanwhile, is a registered Democrat living in California who was so moved by Walker’s candidacy that he donated to the campaign.
“He’s an ex-teammate,” said Rohrer, a former linebacker. “That, to me, goes deeper than politics.”
Walker has never held public office but returned to his native state and became the Republican nominee, encouraged and backed by his longtime friend, former President Donald Trump. According to polls, the race is a toss-up.
“Not even on our very best day would I have seen this coming – for any of us,” said Kevin Gogan, a former offensive lineman who began a 14-year NFL career as an eighth-round pick with the Cowboys in 1987.
‘I don’t know what the requirements are’
Walker led the University of Georgia to a national championship in 1980 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. He became the marquee player in the short-lived USFL and played nearly 3 ½ seasons with the Cowboys before being shipped to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989 in the largest trade in NFL history. It involved a combination of 18 players and draft picks, some of which were parlayed by Dallas to land key players for three Super Bowl championship teams in the 1990s, including Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and Russell Maryland.
“It was a business decision,” former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson reminisced of trading the team’s only Pro Bowl player during his first season at the helm. “He had value and probably was over-valued by our opponents.”
It was suggested that the Hall of Fame coach send Walker a thank-you card for his link to the title teams.
“I actually saw him a few months ago for the first time since the trade,” Johnson said. The two shared a stage as speakers at a trade show in Dallas in February. “He was very complimentary. He said if he ever started a football team, the first person he’d hire would be Jimmy Johnson. Evidently, there’s no hard feelings.”
Did you see a potential senator in your midst during Walker’s stint with the Cowboys?
Johnson laughed at the question.
“Absolutely not,” Johnson said. “It’s something else. Tommy Tuberville was an assistant for me. Now Herschel is running. I don’t know what the requirements are. Some of the people we have in there …”
(Tuberville, the former Auburn coach, is the Alabama senator who drew a rebuke from the NAACP for spewing a racist narrative during a recent Trump rally, comparing descendants of enslaved people to criminals as he denounced the notion of reparations.)
Walker, meanwhile, has dropped a smorgasbord of nonsensical or otherwise questionable remarks while addressing one issue after another, fueling debate on whether he is fit for office.
He has promoted a “COVID mist” that he contends instantly kills the coronavirus. He has talked about “bad air” floating from China in the context of climate change. In addressing school shootings, he pushed the idea of “a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at social media.”
And he seemed clueless discussing the $430 billion climate and drug bill, contending that a significant amount of the money would be spent to plant trees. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Walker said, “Don’t we have enough trees around here?”
Despite such gaffes, Rohrer is unwavering in his support of his friend. “I trust him,” Rohrer said. “I think Herschel’s a man of his word.”
And the cases where truth has come into question with Walker?
“That’s politics,” Rohrer said. “Politics. The only thing tougher than football.”
Rohrer said he is exploring the possibility of running for Congress – “Maybe we’ll start a trend,” he said – but for the moment is hoping that if elected, Walker can stay on course with agenda items that involve the economy, crime and securing the border.
Rohrer also happens to be the first known NFL player, past or present, to marry a person of the same sex. If Walker becomes a senator, Rohrer is hopeful that he would be a champion for gay rights and the LGBTQ community.
“I hope he doesn’t go psycho and vote against my community,” Rohrer said.
‘So-called Christian values’
Newton has also maintained a friendship with Walker over the years. He remembers the call he received as Walker contemplated moving from Texas to mount his campaign.
“I didn’t get ugly. I didn’t say, ‘You’re rolling with Trump?’ ” Newton recalled. “I gave him respect and I listened to him.”
Newton said Walker sought his opinion about running for office, asking, “What do you think?”
The gist of Newton’s reply: “Be your own man.”
Jeffcoat said he last talked to Walker about a month ago. While they didn’t talk about specific political issues – “I have different political views; that’s why we don’t talk about politics,” Jeffcoat said – he sensed that his friend was not worn out by the rigors of the campaign.
“If you know Herschel, he is a Renaissance man,” Jeffcoat said. “He thrives on the challenge.” As for the controversy, Jeffcoat added, “Knowing Herschel, I think this inspires him to be better.”
Like Walls, Gogan was struck by an incident in 1991 (when Walker played for the Vikings) when Walker was rushed to the emergency room to treat carbon monoxide poisoning after his wife found him unconscious in his car with the engine running, parked in the garage of their Irving, Texas, home. Walker insisted to reporters at the time that it was not a suicide attempt; he maintained that he fell asleep while listening to a favorite song.
Said Walls, “That’s when some flags went up.”
Walls never warmed to Walker, in part because he thought the Cowboys – under the leadership of coach Tom Landry and team president Tex Schramm, until sold in 1989 to Jerry Jones – propped him up as hope when the franchise was crumbling.
“There was always a narrative with him,” Walls said. “He was a guy with an American story … always touted or propped up.”
As the 1980s progressed, the Cowboys’ talent pool became depleted, the Flex defense became ineffective and drug scandals persisted. Enter Walker.
“The Cowboys organization was grabbing at straws,” Walls said. “That was an organization that was desperate. They knew damn well the talent was gone, but they were trying to get people in the seats.”
The dynamics were complicated as Walker ultimately forced out future Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett as the star running back. The Cowboys teamed the pair in the backfield for one season, but after Walker went to Landry and demanded a larger role than his co-star, Dorsett was eventually traded to Denver.
“I thought then and think to this day that it was extremely foolish,” Walls said. “Get rid of feisty Tony Dorsett, replacing him with Herschel and his so-called Christian values. Foolish.”
No, Walls wouldn’t be in the corner of support for Walker’s political vision.
Newton, though, is still willing to hear Walker out – even if not offering an endorsement.
“It he calls me today, I’ll still answer the phone,” Newton said. “But Georgia, hold on baby. That’s all I can say.”
Story Credit: usatoday.com