Even though it has been 17 years since his last pro football game, Herschel Walker says he can still play – just not as an every-down running back.
Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 and played 15 seasons in the USFL and NFL, was in Charlotte on Thursday to speak at a luncheon hosted by the Charlotte Touchdown Club.
Before the luncheon – and while he signed dozens of replica helmets, jerseys and posters to be auctioned – Walker spoke to the Observer on the state of the Carolina Panthers, the role of running backs in the NFL, how college football has changed, and other topics.
Q: What do you see as the future of the Carolina Panthers in the post-Steve Smith era?
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A: They’ve got a young quarterback (Cam Newton) that’s still real young, and I’ve always said you can build a team around a young quarterback. What they have to do now is put the right people around him. I don’t care how good athletes are, in football you’ve got to have players. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have players, you’re not going to get anywhere.
Q: Looking at how the passing game has become dominant in the NFL, has the running game become secondary?
A: The passing game is glamorous and can move the game along fast, but when you want to establish dominance at the line of scrimmage, you’ve got to be able to run the ball. At the same time, for years I’ve been telling running backs coming into the league that they better be well-rounded, meaning they’ve got to be able to catch the ball.
The problem you have today is you have guys who just want to play as running back, but today’s running back has to be able to run, catch and block. He’s not just a guy who can run the ball, then when it’s third down they go off the field. I try to tell all running backs today to become more versatile, rather than just “be a good running back.”
Q: You were a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1980, your freshman year at Georgia, finishing third in voting to South Carolina’s George Rogers. Does that still sting, especially with freshmen winning the awards the past two years?
A: Not at all. You know what’s so funny about it? Everybody keeps saying “Johnny Football” (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel) got it as a freshman. But he was a redshirt freshman, so he didn’t get it as a (true) freshman. The other kid (Florida State’s Jameis Winston, last year’s winner) as well was a redshirt freshman.
I never really think about it, to be honest with you. What will really shock you is that I really didn’t know what the Heisman Trophy was until I was nominated. I was just fortunate that I won it, and for that I’m grateful. My junior year (when he won the award), I’m not even sure I deserved it. John Elway had a great year, and so did Eric Dickerson. But I was very fortunate out of that class to win it.
Q: What do you think of the state of college football, with the emergence of “super-conferences” and the new College Football Playoff?
A: It’s sad, because the old college tradition people used to have is changing now. The playoff is something I agree on, they should have a playoff, but the NCAA has made a huge mistake when they said it was going to be a four-team playoff. The reason why is you have all those conference championship games, so if you’re going to do a four-team playoff, then you should get rid of those games.
Take the SEC for example – when you start off the season with eight teams (ranked) in the top 12, and the season ends with eight teams still ranked in the top 12, how can you have a four-team playoff system? I don’t think that’s right. I know it’s about the money, but if they wanted a good playoff system, they need at least eight to 10 teams in the playoff.
Q: A few months ago, a story in USA Today quoted you as saying you thought you could still play in the NFL. Well, can you?
A: I didn’t say “I thought I could still play.” I said “I know I can still play.” I’m not saying that in a cocky way. The question was asked about the game today, and I said I had no doubt because of what I’m doing now – I’m doing the fighting thing (he’s 2-0 in mixed martial arts bouts) and I’m training some athletes during the offseason – that I know I can play.
The reason I said that is because today’s running backs don’t play the whole game; they play here and there. I know as a third-down back, I can go in and do things. As a kick returner, I can do things. My speed is still better than a ton of the running backs in the league today. There’s not a doubt that I could play if I wanted to.