Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
Sharply dressed in an olive green suit, Herschel Walker walked through the lobby and restaurant of a swanky, downtown Manhattan hotel looking every bit the superior athlete he always has been.
Walker, 48, settled in at a picnic table on the outdoor patio and ordered orange juice. A little something for the stomach for the man who says he's eaten one meal a day for the last 30 years.
That's just one of the confounding - and impressive - things in the world of Herschel Walker.
How does a football player leap from just inside the 4-yard line over more than 3,000 pounds of man and land in the end zone untouched? How does a football player become an Olympic bobsledder on a whim, then 18 years later, a mixed martial artist?
"Because I didn't know you're not supposed to,'' Walker said. "No one ever told me that I couldn't do it.''
Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner from Georgia, returns to the cage for his second professional MMA fight Jan. 29 at Strikeforce in San Jose, Calif. He will fight Scott Carson on the televised portion of the card featuring Nick Diaz's welterweight title defense against Evangelista Souza on Showtime. The fight originally was scheduled for Dec. 4, but a cut under his eye forced Walker to postpone it.
This is no gimmick fight, no moneygrab like when an actor agrees to star in a bad movie for a good paycheck. Walker is a fighter, albeit a "young'' one.
Walker, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, debuted last January and beat Greg Nagy by third-round TKO. He dominated Nagy for most of the fight, but that's not saying too much. But Walker showed promise, more than anyone outside of his camp at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose thought he would.
"When he first was scheduled to come down here, I was thinking it was a joke," AKA trainer Javier Mendez said. "What's a 47-year-old doing coming down here to train MMA? I didn't care what his background was, I wasn't all that enthused. The first time I saw him training, I said 'Oh --, it's not a joke.' "
Walker has the luxury of relaxation when he's inside the cage. He's not fighting for a title shot. He doesn't need the money. For him, it's just competition. Plus, take a look at his training partners at AKA: former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier, Mike Kyle, and some guy named Cain Velasquez, who just happens to be the UFC heavyweight champion. When you're up against that crew every day in the gym, the cage is an end-zone celebration.
From his childhood days in Wrightsville, Ga., Walker has proved people wrong. He was the fat kid in school. He had a speech impediment. Teachers thought "I was retarded,'' he said. Tumultuous times for a young child.
No question that experience helped shape Walker's future. He learned to excel on the football field. But that wasn't enough. Walker wanted to become a great athlete.
Which helps explain his latest endeavor. MMA is simply his next challenge, the way choosing the USFL over the NFL was in 1983, the way dancing with the Fort Worth ballet was in 1988, the way Olympic bobsledding - bobsledding! - was in 1992, the way starting his food service business was after retiring in 1997, the way revealing he suffers from dissociative identity disorder was in 2008, the way competing on "Celebrity Apprentice'' was in 2009.
"This is one of the toughest sports I've ever done in my life,'' Walker said. "In football, I can make a mistake, and the quarterback or offensive lineman or the receiver can cover me and we can still win the game. Here, in the MMA world, I make a mistake, you may see me knocked out or submitted.''
At a point in his life where most men decide to play from either the blue or white tees, Walker must choose between arm bars and triangles, between jabs and leg kicks.
"I'm never going to be a heavyweight champion, I know that,'' said Walker, a black belt in tae kwon do. "My years have come and gone. But I can continue to be the best that I can be, and maybe bring some light to other fighters.''