April 7, 2010

1985: Herschel Walker Runs for USFL-Record 233 Yards vs. Houston

Since signing with the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals as an underclassman in 1983 after a legendary college football career at Georgia, RB Herschel Walker had gained a lot of yards and received his share of plaudits, but had taken criticism along the way as well. The problem was one of immense expectations for a player who had been a dominating force at both the high school and college levels.

While Walker had led the league with 1812 yards in ’83, the Generals had compiled a weak 6-12 record. And while the club went 14-4 and made it to the postseason in 1984, Walker ranked “only” third among the USFL’s rushers with 1339 yards. Moreover, he was criticized for running tentatively and being too quick to head out of bounds rather than challenging defending players for extra yards; in reality, a sore shoulder was hampering him and thus altering his style.

In 1985, the Generals added another Heisman Trophy winner, QB Doug Flutie, who took some of the media attention off of Walker. During the preceding offseason, the star running back had surgery to correct the shoulder problems. He started off slowly, gaining just six yards in the season opening game and averaging 83.3 yards over the first six contests.

But on April 7, 1985 against the Houston Gamblers at Giants Stadium, Walker broke loose for 233 yards, breaking the existing league single-game record of 208. Included were two touchdown runs, one an 88-yard sprint that also was a league high and another with a one-yard plunge on fourth down. Flutie contributed a seven-yard touchdown run as the Generals set a team rushing record of 343 yards and defeated the Gamblers, 31-25.

Houston, having won its first five games, dropped to 5-2 on the way to a 10-8 final record and third place in the Western Conference; the Gamblers lost to Birmingham in the quarterfinal playoff round. New Jersey improved to 4-3 and went on to finish in second place in the Eastern Conference at 11-7, also losing in the quarterfinal round to the eventual champions, the Baltimore Stars.

The record-setting performance spurred Herschel Walker to a record-setting season. Over the course of the 18 games, he accumulated 2411 yards on 438 carries for a 5.5-yard average with 21 touchdowns. He also led the club in pass receiving with 37 catches for 467 yards and a TD. His 22 total touchdowns made him the USFL’s scoring leader with 132 points and he was named MVP by both the league and The Sporting News.

At 6’1” and 222 pounds, Walker ran with both power and speed. While he was criticized for being strictly a straight-ahead runner without great instincts, he still gained 5562 rushing yards in three USFL seasons, and went on to add another 8225 yards in twelve years in the NFL (and that doesn’t count another 11,496 yards when adding pass receptions and kickoff returns). As Generals president Jason Seltzer once said, “No matter what Herschel does, it’s never enough.” But in the game against Houston, and over the course of his career, he did plenty.