The National Football League rejected all overtures made on Herschel Walker's behalf for him to play in the league this year, Commissioner Pete Rozelle said yesterday.
Rozelle said that Walker's attorney, Jack Manton, spoke with Don Weiss, executive director of the NFL, Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. "He asked if we would sign him and if he could pick the city," Rozelle said. "He said he would have to know by 11 a.m. (Wednesday)."
Rozelle said the NFL rejected that request and Manton's suggestion that Walker, a University of Georgia running back, be selected in a supplemental draft. "We did not consider it," Rozelle said.
"When we told him no, he said, 'Okay, we'll see you in three years.' "
In Atlanta, Vince Dooley, who was Walker's coach for three years at Georgia, said he thought Walker "got too close to the fire and got burned . . . It's a sad day for college football and a sad day for pro football."
Dooley said he had believed Walker on Friday when he denied signing because "Herschel's never lied to me."
Asked if he could still make that statement, Dooley replied, "I can't say that, no, because he did. I know my children have lied to me too, with strong reason."
Sources say Walker's contract with the New Jersey Generals is for three years and is in the $5 million range.
Rozelle said the telephone calls from Manton were the NFL's first contact with him since last March. "Jack came to see us and he said at that time that there was a possibility that Herschel would file an antitrust suit," Rozelle said. "We told him, 'We'll be prepared to defend that.' "
The strongest reaction to Walker's decision to forgo his senior year has centered on the status of the eligibility rule that precludes NFL teams from signing undergraduates. Rozelle said he would have great reluctance to change the rule.
"We're not planning to do it for this upcoming draft (April 26-27) . . . Right now, we're going to follow the pattern we've followed for 50 years. This, of course, could open the gate. We don't know what they (the USFL) intend to do."
Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, said, "I'm only one of 28 votes but I can't conceive the NFL will revise its long-standing tradition."
Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, said, "My preference is that the NFL will stay with the rule. But we are in a competitive situation. How long you can do that, I don't know."
Reaction to the signing varied from gleeful to funereal. Berl Bernhard, owner of the Washington Federals, said, "It puts the ultimate cap of credibility on the league."
In Georgia, state senators wore red and black armbands in memory of the running back's college career. College officials were equally unhappy at the prospect of losing their players faster than they already do.
Bobby Ross, coach at the University of Maryland, said, "My initial reaction is that no member of the USFL is going to be allowed on this campus. Unless I'm told otherwise by (Athletic Director) Dick Dull, I'm going to refuse to talk to the people from the USFL. I don't want their scouts visiting."
Dull said: "I would back Bobby 100 percent."
Don James, coach at the University of Washington, said he was inclined not to allow USFL representatives on campus. "I'm extremely disturbed," he said. "We in the American Football Coaches Association have to take some kind of action."
Landry said, "The ramifications for college football can be devastating."
Richard Bennett, a lawyer for many NFL players, said Walker gives the USFL incalculable credibililty. "He had an obligation to do what is best for him," Bennett said. "It is unfair to appoint him the protector of all other college players."
Officials of ABC and ESPN, which will televise USFL games, had no comment. Mike Weisman, executive producer at NBC Sports, said, "After the first couple of times you see Herschel run 300 yards in a game, the public will recognize that he's doing it against an inferior product."
An ABC spokesman said no decision had been made about which game will be televised March 6. Rozelle said, "ABC called to tell us they had nothing to do with it. I think they're concerned about how we feel."
NFL club officials interviewed generally said they were shocked and upset. They said the league would not be threatened by the loss of a player of Walker's caliber.
"I think everybody's been taken," Modell said. "The media has been taken. They said they were not going to sign undergraduates and observe the NFL rules. I've seen it coming with the other signings . . . But for a league to be successful, you've got to have competitive balance. Picking off superstars won't do it."
George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said he is upset about the impact on college players who might leave school early. "I hate to see the dilution of the product. The fans get cheated by this sort of thing, thinking they are getting good football when it's not."
Both Young and Landry rejected the notion that Walker would do for the USFL what Joe Namath did for the American Football League in the 1960s. "The AFL . . . would have made it with or without Namath," Landry said.
Rozelle conceded only that he was disappointed with Walker's decision. Others, he admitted, are angry. But, he added, "You can be angry and at the same time realize, not in a pollyannish way, it's only one football player."
Even Herschel Walker?
"Yeah," he said. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Herschel Walker of Georgia, hurdling over teammates for a touchdown during game against Georgia Tech, has signed with the New Jersey Generals of the new U.S. Football League, reportedly getting $5 million for three years. UPI