Memory Lane: The Herschel Walker Trade, 1989


The Dallas Cowboys were reeling at 0-4. Jimmy Johnson’s Miami ways and Jerry Jones’ wildcatting weren’t enough to turn around the rotgut of the late ’80s Dallas Cowboys. Heading into this decade of opportunity, Dallas was stuck in the Dark Ages. All of this despite a promising 3-1 start in pre-season. Aside from their 27-21 loss in Atlanta in Week 2, the Cowboys’ average margin of defeat was over three touchdowns. They were historically bad.

During an early morning jog with his coaching staff through the Valley Ranch complex in Irving, Johnson came up with a novel idea during the unofficial brainstorm: what if the Dallas Cowboys made a huge trade? A huge trade for a player? No, a huge trade of a player.

The only expendable players of value the Cowboys had were guys like Jim Jeffcoat and Michael Irvin. Jimmy Johnson was a man so bent on winning in Dallas that he divorced his wife and kids, so it shouldn’t have shocked anyone when he wanted to deal former Hurricane star Michael Irvin to the Los Angeles Raiders. The only reason that trade didn’t happen was Al Davis pointed out, in the fashion of a Talmudic scholar, that Troy Aikman wouldn’t have anyone to throw to.

Now, Johnson dabbled into the indispensible. What could they get if they dealt Herschel Walker?

The former Georgia runningback was a USFL star that the Cowboys picked up in 1986 after the league folded. In fact, Gil Brandt, in one of his last shrewd moves of the old regime, spent a fifth round pick on Walker’s rights in the 1985 draft in case the league folded, kind of like the WFL from 1974. In 1988, Herschel Walker rushed for over 1,500 yards in Tom Landry’s 3-13 unbeknownst swan song. He’s all they had.

Jimmy Johnson recognized just how disastrous his 1989 Dallas Cowboys were. With discretion being the better part of valor, he decided to go with the tide in 1989. Now, what could they get if they traded Herschel Walker?

The New York Giants were interested, but the Cowboys brass didn’t want to face him twice a season. The Atlanta Falcons showed interested, but grimaced at the prospect of the Georgia legend fleecing them in contract negotiations.

Ernie Accorsi, the Cleveland Browns’ general manager, offered Dallas two future first round and three second round picks. It was admittedly a good offer, but Jimmy Johnson wanted to see if they could use this offer as leverage against another team or even the Browns. Who would up the ante?

Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson were to call around the NFL finding another bidder. Jimmy Johnson called Mike Lynn, general manager for the Minnesota Vikings. He spelled out for Lynn Cleveland’s terms and what it would take to overtake their offer. Notice needed to arrive in Dallas by 6:30 PM or Minnesota had no deal and Dallas would take Cleveland’s offer.

After a forty-minute walkthrough at Valley Ranch, Johnson returned to his office with Lynn’s fax awaiting him. They were interested, and Johnson called Lynn back in Minnesota telling him the Vikings had to do better.

That is when the deal sweetened so much it nearly gave Johnson diabetes.

For one player, and also oft-forgotten third and tenth round picks in 1990 and a third round pick in 1991, the Vikings were offering their first, second, and sixth round picks for 1990. Along with that came veterans Darrin Nelson, Jesse Solomon, David Howard, Isaac Holt, and Alex Stewart.

The two clubs had a deal.

Sometimes, what a club executive spits in the team headquarter’s parking lot has more football knowledge than the local media, and this was again one of those times. The media reported the Cowboys traded Herschel Walker for just-another-guys and meager draft picks, and scoffed at Johnson’s proclamation that this was “The Great Train Robbery.” To the media and Diogenes fans, Mike Lynn had blown a furnace full of smoke up the front office’s pipe. But what else could one expect from the same bunch who “classlessly” fired Tom Landry?

The lost details were that each veteran had a conditional draft value. Jesse Solomon was worth a first round pick in 1990. Alex Stewart was worth a second round pick in 1990. David Howard was worth a first round pick in 1991. Darrin Nelson was worth a second round pick in 1991. Isaac Holt was worth a second and third round pick in 1992. If each of these players were not on the Cowboys’ roster come February 1st, 1990, the Dallas Cowboys would receive those draft picks as compensation. Added onto the deal was a $1.25 million “exit bonus” to smooth things over with Herschel Walker.

Johnson intended to never keep those guys, which is why he instructed his coaches to sideline them. He didn’t want his staff falling in love with any of those guys, though Isaac Holt did manage to stay on the team well into Dallas’ eventual Super Bowl years.

Oct 21, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones point to the fans prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As media snickering and fan mewling endured in Dallas, Herschel Walker made an immediate impact in Minnesota. In his first game as a Viking, he rushed for 148 yards. He helped carry the team into the playoffs as Dallas barely won a single game in 1989. Some deal.

After February 1st, 1990, only Isaac Holt was on the roster. Dallas cashed in on the conditional picks, and now Jimmy Johnson had a wealth of draft picks to win every draft he was in Dallas.

For one players, the Dallas Cowboys received draft picks that turned into seven contributors to the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys dynasty. The first came in 1990 with the drafting of the NFL’s future all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. 1991 saw the advent of defensive tackle Russell Maryland and cornerback Clayton Holmes. The 1992 draft produced cornerback Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson, staples of the franchise’s secondary throughout the 1990’s.

After the H-Bomb landed in Minnesota, the Vikings never qualified for the playoffs again under head coach Jerry Burns. Walker bounced around the league from Philadelphia for three seasons and to the Giants for one. His combined record against Dallas was 1-8, including playoffs. In an ironic twist, he ended up back in Dallas from 1996-97 and helped defeat the Minnesota Vikings 40-15 in the 1996 NFC Wildcard, gaining 62 yards on 8 carries in the process.

From Minnesota’s perspective, it’s understandable why they would despise the Dallas Cowboys. Randy Moss helped them get their revenge from 1998-04 and 2010, leading them to 5 victories and no losses, including playoffs. But maybe Gary Anderson doesn’t need to kick a field goal in the ’98 NFC Championship game if Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Kevin Smith, and Darren Woodson were in the Metrodome that day.

The only members of “The Great Train Robbery” still around on either side are Jerry and Stephen Jones, and on their minds will be how Dallas gets to 5-4 come Sunday. The players and even the front offices may not be around from that trade, but the legacy lives forever.