On familiar turf, Walker hopes to satisfy hunger for Super Bowl

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As Tom De Angelis will be doing the cooking tonight, he must first take inventory of the kitchen. He's got hot sausage, for which he ventured all the way back to the old neighborhood, 11th Avenue in Bensonhurst. He's got the fried eggplant. And the pasta fagiole.

Everything's set. De Angelis is ready for a family feast tonight here in Saddle River. There'll only be one problem, though, and that will be getting his son-in-law to eat.

"Lemme tell you about him," says Tom De Angelis, a retired New York City detective. "Since he joined our family, he is everything anyone could want in a son-in-law. Lemme tell you, this guy couldn't lie if he wanted to. He's neat, he's nice. He's an absolute gentleman. I can't even curse around him. But there's only one thing: One meal a day he eats. One meal!"

De Angelis throws up his hands.

"I remember before games I used to have to force him," says De Angelis. "I'm making him sausage and peppers, peppers and eggs, begging him to eat."

Herschel Walker shrugs with a shy smile. "You can tell he's my father-in-law," he says.

Just as you can tell that, in a funny kind of way, Herschel Walker feels like he's home.

All these years later, Herschel Walker has held onto his place in Verona, N.J. The realtors kept telling him to sell, that there was a pricey market for a high-rise condo with a view of Manhattan. Besides, he was never really planning to live there again. He never expected he'd end up with the New York Giants.

"I always thought it was a real nice place, you know, overlooking the skyline," he says. "It cost a lot of money. And the price kept going up. But I never wanted to get rid of it. You see, I never had any money growing up, and this was the first place I bought. That means something."

It seems like ages ago that Herschel Walker arrived in New Jersey. He was the Heisman Trophy winner, a world-class sprinter, and a husband to Cindy De Angelis, with whom he ran track at Georgia. But more than all that, Walker came as the centerpiece in a noble but doomed experiment known as the United States Football League.

"I loved playing in the USFL," he says. "We scared the NFL to death. We had some good football players there: Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White."

But most of all, there was Herschel.

He came from Wrightsville, Ga., the fifth of seven children born to Willis and Christine Walker, who met picking cotton on a

tenant farm. "I always tell people, 'If you've got one year to live, move to Wrightsville,' " says Walker. "Because one year there is like 50 anyplace else. Time doesn't move in Wrightsville. Nothing happens, nothing ever changes. Small little town, farm town, people get up early. There's not even a movie theater. They got a Burger King now, but there used to be just a Dairy Queen."

So you can only imagine what Walker felt back in 1983, a sudden millionaire staring at the skyline of Manhattan.

Already, he was among the century's most gifted athletes, the synthesis of speed and power. It was supposed that Walker would be the best running back the game had ever seen, a football fable.

In three seasons with the upstart league, Walker gained more than 7,000 yards. In 1985, he ran for 2,411, more than anyone in professional football. But the number wouldn't go in any record books. All the Herschel Walkers and Steve Youngs and Reggie Whites and Jim Kellys really weren't a match for the lawyers. The USFL died in court, and soon Herschel Walker was off to Dallas. The way it was scripted, he would become an American hero for America's Team, part of a dream backfield with Tony Dorsett.

That first year in Dallas, he led all NFC backs in yards-per-carry and receptions. In 1988, he ran for 1,514 yards and caught 53 passes. Sure, there were guys who cut the corner better, and guys with better dance moves. Herschel, as the football people like to say, ran mostly north and south. Still, he was a great back with great endurance. He just wasn't the best ever. And in some quarters, that's been his sin, his absurd failure: he wasn't the best ever.

"I never read anything about myself," he says, "so I don't know what the expectations were. But mine were probably higher."

In 1989, Jimmy Johnson traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and eight draft choices, some of whom turned out to be Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland and Issiac Holt. At the time, Vikings general manager Mike Lynn promised Minnesota would win the Super Bowl.

"I wished someone would've asked me," says Walker. "I never said anything about winning the Super Bowl."

As it turned out, Walker never got more than 200 carries in any of his seasons at Minnesota. Forget the Super Bowl. The Vikings couldn't even win a playoff game. The worst deal in NFL history became simply the "Herschel Walker deal."

And on May 29, 1992, one of the game's great talents was given his unconditional release.

The Eagles picked him up, and he had a 1,000-yard season that first year in Philadelphia. "I learned to love this game again," he says. "People don't realize what it is, watching on TV or from the stands. What I see on the field is something totally different: colors, feelings, sounds, blinking lights. I can't even explain it, but that's what this game is. And I reckon that's why I'm still playing. I learned to just go out and play football. I learned that you do it for yourself.

"It's a tough, tough place, Philly," says Walker. "But for some reason, the fans absolutely loved me."

Why wouldn't they?

He couldn't shake like Barry Sanders and he couldn't bake like Emmitt Smith, but he never missed a Sunday and he never broke down. All Walker did was average better than 4.2 yards a carry and 54 catches for three seasons. And all these years later, that makes for his welcome return at the Meadowlands.

He's 33 now, long past the life expectancy for professional running backs. "Age is something the NFL invented so they don't have to pay you," he says. "Age is in the mind. If your mind tells you you're achy and sore, you'll be achy and sore. Guys break down physically because they let their minds break down first. But I'm not going to break down until I decide to. I'm 33, but I have the body of a 23-year-old. I don't think there's a running back faster or stronger than I am."

Therein lies what's most fascinating about Walker. For all his good manners and God-fearing humility, there remains a subdued, but spectacular, arrogance. He believes there is no athletic task beyond him.

"I train myself to do just about anything," he says.

He has been, by various turns, running back, world-class sprinter, Olympic bobsledder, martial arts expert, even a dancer with the Fort Worth Ballet. All that, and he has yet to visit the weight room. In a sense, his gifts approach genius.

Walker's typical daily off-season workout includes a four-mile run, a series of interval sprints, tae kwon do, another three- or four-mile run, followed by astronomical repetitions of isometric exercises: between 750 and 1,500 pushups, 500 dips and as many as 3,000 situps.

All on one meal a day.

And he never got hurt. Never got cut. Never so much as a 'scope.

"I don't think I've ever taken a hard hit," he says matter-of-factly. "And if there's anything I'm proudest of it's that I'm still playing this game. I'm still here. I've been playing a long time, and I'm back where I started. The people were always good to me here. People always took care of me here. In as lot of ways, I consider this home."

All these years later, Herschel Walker will find himself on familiar turf. "Same stadium," he says. "But the guys get bigger and stronger."

He'll be in with a rookie named Tyrone Wheatley and a vet named Rodney Hampton.

"I remember talking to Rodney when he was in high school," says Walker. "I was still with the Cowboys. I called him up and said the people at Georgia want me to talk to you, tell you how great it was. Well it was great for me, but you have to make up your own mind."

Walker has been pretty good at living with himself. His regrets are few. He harbors a deep resentment toward the Vikings. And also, an unfulfilled ambition.

"I never won that big game," he says. "You'll always remember that last game. But if you didn't win the Super Bowl, the last game means you lost somehow."

As long as he's playing, he has that chance. Maybe not a good one, but a chance nonetheless. He'll be able look out from his condo, a country kid still in some way awed by the skyline. It won't be long now. Soon, Tom De Angelis will throw the sausage on the grill and start badgering his son-in-law to eat. But Herschel Walker won't put up a fight; he'll feast tonight. After all, it's home cooking.

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