Football fans received stunning news on February 23, 1983 as the new United States Football League (USFL), slated to begin play in just a few weeks, announced the signing of Heisman Trophy-winning RB Herschel Walker to a contract with the New Jersey Generals. There had been something of a false start earlier in the month when Walker, whose agent had been in contact with the league for some two months, signed but then took advantage of a 24-hour escape clause to back away. However, this time it was a done deal and the 6’1”, 220-pound phenom, just short of his 21st birthday, was officially a professional.
The news was both surprising and controversial. Walker, who had been a Heisman candidate since his freshman year at Georgia in 1980 (he finished third in the voting), had won the award as a junior in ’82. It was widely anticipated that he would duplicate Archie Griffin’s feat of twice attaining the Heisman trophy, especially since at the time it wasn’t possible for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft.
The USFL had initially stated that it would follow the NFL’s no-underclassmen rule. It had also been the new league’s policy to take a go-slow approach to challenging the older league. They would be playing in the spring, rather than going directly head-to-head with the NFL in the fall, and payrolls were to be held to $1.6 million per club.
The payroll structure began to unravel even before the Walker signing as several major players coming out of college such as North Carolina’s RB Kelvin Bryant, Grambling WR Trumaine Johnson, and Michigan WR Anthony Carter had inked contracts that stretched their respective team payrolls beyond the limit (the owners used personal services contracts to circumvent the cap). Walker’s deal, which was a personal services contract with Generals owner J. Walter Duncan, came to $3.9 million for three years and included incentives that took the figure over $4.2 million.
Both the NFL and NCAA cried foul at the signing of the underclassman Walker, and several colleges banned the new league’s scouts from their campuses. USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons insisted that no other underclassmen would be signed and that Walker presented a “special case”. The truth was that, in having his agent approach the new league, Walker had already compromised his college eligibility for 1983, and had he pressed a court case, he might well have forced his way into the USFL through judicial decision (a threat of a lawsuit challenging the draft was something the NFL feared and ultimately led to its ending the ban on underclassmen).
There may have been plenty of controversy, but Herschel Walker was the biggest name in college football and a huge prize for the new league. Signing with the team that would play in the New York metropolitan area only enhanced the effect. It also assured that he would receive intense scrutiny, and when he started slowly (he gained just 65 yards on 16 carries in his first game, a nationally televised 20-15 loss to the Los Angeles Express) the criticism was quick to come. However, maintaining his composure throughout, Walker ended up leading the league in rushing with 1,812 yards over the course of the 18-game season, although the Generals were a disappointing 6-12.
Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 23, 2010.