RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : Even Walker Isn't Instant Answer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herschel was in purple and Minnesota Viking fans figured they wouldn't experience the blues again until visiting a Bourbon Street nightclub while in New Orleans for Super Bowl XXIV.

After all, he blasted up the middle for 47 yards after taking his first handoff as Viking, didn't he?

And he finished his first game in a Minnesota uniform with 148 yards rushing, the seventh-best running effort in Viking history , right?

In the five games before his arrival, five different backs led the team in rushing. They managed a combined 225 yards. Herschel Walker had that many shortly after halftime of his second game.

Surely, Walker would be the final spoke in the Viking wheel that would spend the season on a Super Bowl roll. Purple Gang pride was reaching new heights . . . until Monday night, when the Minnesota express slammed into a pothole in the New Jersey Meadowlands.

The oft-stagnant Minnesota offense was playing downright rotten against the NFC East-leading New York Giants, but some thought it was just time to turn the ball over to Super(Bowl)man.

Well, that's not exactly the way Bob Schnelker, the Minnesota offensive coordinator, perceived it.

Walker ran the ball three times in the second quarter. Until the Vikings' final scoring drive, he had carried the ball nine times. During that last-gasp, 80-yard, 15-play drive, Walker accounted for 50 yards. After the touchdown, however, there were just four minutes left to play and the Vikings still were hopelessly behind.

Walker, who is averaging 6.1 yards a carry with Minnesota, finished with 68 yards in 12 carries. Would another dozen runs have meant 136 yards . . . and, more important, a Viking victory?

"That was probably one of those situations where you walk off the field and say, 'He only got the ball that many times?' " Ram Coach John Robinson speculated.

Guess again.

Before the game, Viking Coach Jerry Burns told a national TV audience that "even if Herschel gets one yard, or two yards, or three yards, we know he's going to pop one sooner or later."

It became apparent as the evening wore on that Schnelker, who calls the plays, did not feel the same way.

Still, Burns said: "I have no complaints with how we used Herschel. The whole offense is not built around Herschel."

Maybe it ought to be. Minnesota has the top-rated defense in the National Football League. The offense is No. 22. And didn't the Vikings mortgage their future in a blockbuster, five-for-one-plus-draft-choices trade with Dallas that was intended to remedy that imbalance?

A great many people in the Twin Cities have been pondering that question this week.

Interestingly, Walker, who complained often about his role with the Cowboys, sits calmly in the eye of this hurricane, referring to himself in the third person and remaining the voice of reason.

"All my life has been like that, people questioning how Herschel's being used," he said. "I just take it as it comes. You know, the Vikings were considered one of the best teams in the NFL before Herschel's name was ever mentioned with the Minnesota Vikings.

"Whatever tasks I'm called upon to do, I'm gonna do it. Whether it's carry the ball 100 times or carry it 50 and catch it 50, I'm gonna do it and do it well."

When Walker talks, the Viking faithful listen. They would love to see him run the ball 50 or 100 times but most would settle for 25.

After all, General Manager Mike Lynn decided to fork over five players, various draft choices, the use of a house and a Mercedes-Benz, so the fans reasoned they would get a few chances to see Walker run with the football.

"Herschel's a very good football player and he should make us a better offensive team," Burns said. "But I don't think there's anyone in football today who can single-handedly turn a team around."

Burns may choose to disregard the expectations of the fans and media, but can he ignore those of the Vikings' general manager?

The day Walker arrived, it was Lynn who proclaimed: "This will be a poor trade if we don't make it to the Super Bowl while Herschel is a member of this team."

If you're wondering if Lynn made a mistake by putting such a burden on even Walker's impressive shoulders, forget it. All athletes insist that pressure is a self-inflicted malady. But Walker seems to believe it.

"I don't even think about it," he said. "Everyone has a right to their own opinion. Mr. Lynn put himself in a tough position when he gave up so much for one player, but it inspires me a great deal for someone to have that kind of confidence in you."

Walker doesn't sound as if he's on the verge of an anxiety attack. He says he feels very comfortable in the Viking backfield--"From the first game I played in, I knew the whole game plan," he said--and even more at home within the team and the community.

"I've been received very well by the people here in Minnesota and I'm sort of ashamed in a sense because the team has received me so well and the team was always doing well without Herschel. There's just been a lot of good things happening to me."

A month ago, when he had to face new trade rumors nearly every day, word was that Walker balked at the idea of heading north to join the Vikings. He claims that's just not true.

"There was no reluctance on my part, it was just more of shock to me, (the Cowboys) even talking about a trade," he said. "It was a tough time for me, to trade a player in the middle of the season, when you're trying to concentrate on the game in front of you and then have to talk about trades."

When the shock wore off, the thought of joining the Vikings became increasingly appealing, he said. And the Cowboys satisfied Walker's ego by explaining that he was merely worth too much for them to keep when they sorely needed to rebuild.

"They didn't have anything against me, from what I was told," Walker said. "I was the guy they could get a lot of players and a lot of draft picks for. They said they were looking out for my best interest in the deal also, but I went to Georgia, I'm a well-educated guy, and I know they were looking out for their interest more than they were looking out for Herschel's."

Herschel's interests were well-protected, in any case. Dallas owner Jerry Jones threw in $1.25 million to make up for money Walker would lose in endorsements in Texas and the Vikings provided the house and car.

"Everybody's talking about what Herschel received, but what I received are only the things I lost in dollars," he said. "I didn't ask for any more money on my contract."

And, anyway, Walker says money just isn't that important. Of course, he has made about $17 million playing professional football, and those sorts of numbers tend to make it easier to say that.

He is best known for winning the Heisman Trophy while gaining 5,259 yards in a three-year career at Georgia, racking up millions of dollars and 5,562 yards in a three-year tenure with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League and rushing for 3,288 yards during three-plus seasons with the Cowboys.

But he wrote poetry as a child, pulled a woman from a burning car, once danced ballet on the same stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, is a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do and spent a week in the basic training program at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., last summer.

There's no doubt that Walker's financial position would allow him to walk away from football and pursue his other interests on a whim. But you can breathe again, Viking fans. He says he has no plans of retiring.

"What is strange is that a lot of people say that Herschel's old, but I feel better now than I've felt in a long time," he said. "People think I'm getting old because they've heard about me since I was a little kid. But I just turned 27 and I think my life is just starting with football.

"As long as I'm happy, I'm gonna keep playing. Once it becomes a job, I don't want to do it no more."

All the Viking fans want is to see Herschel do the job Herschel doesn't even consider a job.

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