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The Herschel Walker trade was the largest player trade in the history of the National Football League. It involved 18 players and draft picks. The trade was made on October 12, 1989, between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings.
In his book, Greatest Team Ever: The Dallas Cowboys Dynasty of the 1990s, author Norm Hitzges chronicled the Herschel Walker trade. Four games into the 1989 season, Jimmy Johnson, then head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, came up with the idea to trade Walker while on a morning jog with his staff. Johnson felt the Cowboys were so terrible that only a blockbuster trade could help them. He briefly considered trading wide receiver Michael Irvin to the Los Angeles Raiders, but Raiders owner Al Davis essentially talked Johnson out of the trade by saying, "You sure you want to do that? Who is going to catch passes for you?" Johnson felt that Walker was the only remaining bargaining chip they had.
A number of teams contacted the Cowboys when they announced that they would trade Walker. The New York Giants expressed interest, but the trade would have been unfavorable for Dallas since both teams were in the NFC East division. The Atlanta Falcons entered into negotiations, but eventually pulled out over fear of Walker's future contract demands. The most serious offer came from the Cleveland Browns.
Johnson stated, "[The Browns] offered us a player, a couple of future number one draft picks and three number two draft picks." The Cowboys felt this was a favorable offer, but they also felt that if another team were to enter the discussion, then they could generate a bidding war and thereby get even more compensation. Jimmy Johnson and team owner Jerry Jones decided to contact other clubs to generate buzz and create leverage. Johnson contacted Minnesota Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn. Johnson told Lynn that he was going to trade Walker to Cleveland that afternoon, and that if Minnesota would like to trade for Walker, then it would cost them "players, draft picks, conditional picks, and provisions", giving Lynn a deadline of 6:30 p.m. Lynn, feeling Walker was the missing piece to a Super Bowl run, faxed Johnson that he was interested, and soon after negotiations ensued. In order to get Walker to agree to a trade, the Cowboys paid him a $1.25 million "exit bonus".
Dallas ended up with a total of six of Minnesota's picks over the succeeding years, two 1st round and one 2nd round picks were used to draft Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, winning multiple Super Bowls and being voted on to go to the Pro Bowl numerous times also. Jimmy Johnson used the other draft picks to make trades with other teams around the NFL. One of the trades led to obtaining the first overall draft pick in 1991, which was used to draft Russell Maryland. In other words, the trade of Walker to the Vikings contributed largely to the Cowboys' success in the early 1990s. For this reason, ESPN.com lists it as the 8th most lopsided trade in sports history. Seventeen years later, the trade was still an easy target for satire: one ESPN columnist, assessing the impact of free agency on the NFL, noted that it had almost entirely replaced significant trades and by doing so "took away one of the greatest shortcuts to becoming a Super Bowl champion: fleecing the Vikings."