Herschel Walker, college football's Heisman Trophy winner, is known more for his power and speed than as a cutback runner. But on Wednesday he executed a change-of-direction move that left many people gasping. He signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.
Only days before he had attempted to squelch rumors that he had done just that, calling a news conference to state he intended to remain at Georgia, where he has kept the Bulldogs at or near the top of the national rankings for three years. Walker, an athlete known for his high ideals as well as his glittering yardage figures, was convinced he knew the NCAA's eligibility rules ''front and back.'' He was also convinced that in talking to New Jersey owner J. Walter Duncan he had done nothing that would jeopardize his collegiate standing. A player is ineligible once he enters into any kind of pro agreement.
Even so, the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided to conduct an investigation to set the record straight rather than to allow a cloud of doubt to hang over the situation. Vince Dooley, Walker's coach, fully supported the idea.
Less than 24 hours after the investigation was announced, ''new information'' was presented to Dooley that the university said made it apparent Herschel had indeed engaged in actions which made him ineligible.
The Catch-22 may have been what a Boston Globe story alleged on Saturday, when it reported that Walker had signed with the Generals, then used a grace period to change his mind. NCAA rules, however, do not recognize any such reversal.
In turning pro before his senior season, Herschel has relinquished his chance to become history's first 7,000-yard career rusher (he has 5,259) and only the second two-time Heisman recipient.
What he gains, according to reports, is a $1.5 million signing bonus and $2.5 million in salary during each of the next six years. He also could become the the main building block for the new league, which begins its March-to-July season a week from Sunday.
USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons has said the league will have to sign some players of ''star value,'' because ''the public is obsessed with stars.'' History indicates that one transcendent star can help legitimize a whole league, as Red Grange did with the NFL in the 1920s and Joe Namath with the AFL in the late 1960s.
USFL teams have already signed a handful of top collegians, including Tom Ramsey, Kelvin Bryant, and Craig James, but the biggest catch in the draft, Stanford quarterback John Elway, has thus far avoided the league's overtures. Walker, therefore, became an obvious target for some team's attention, even before his graduation. Tabb tabbed Sullivan winner
Mary, Mary quite extraordinary. Miler Mary Decker Tabb had to outdistance one of America's greatest distance runners to be named the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. In winning the 1982 Sullivan Award, presented in Indianapolis earlier this week, Tabb won over fellow Eugene, Ore. resident Alberto Salazar, who set a world record in the marathon.
Some 2,000 voters, including sports officials and media representatives, found her credentials more compelling than those of Salazar or eight other finalists. Within the space of 41 days, she set three world and six American records at distances from a mile to 10,000 meters.It was an impressive display of stamina and raw athletic ability for the courageous 24-year-old, whose peak-and-valley career began a decade ago as a precocious teen-age prodigy.
Tabb is only the sixth female to win the Sullivan in the award's 52 years, and the first woman track and field performer so honored since Wilma Rudolph in 1961.
Her record mile of 4:18.08 makes Mary a serious 1,500-meter gold medal contender at the 1984 Olympics. No American woman has finished higher than eighth in this event since it was introduced at the '72 Games.
Skier Phil Mahre, who won his second World Cup title, was third in the Sullivan balloting. Other candidates for the award were swimmer Mary Meagher, boxer Tyrell Biggs, wrestler Greg Gibson, figure skater Scott Hamilton, diver Greg Louganis, synchronized swimmer Tracie Ruiz, and equestrian rider Melanie Smith. Touching other bases
* Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What memories they gave us, patrolling New York's centerfield precincts simultaneously in the 1950s, Willie Mays for the Giants, Mickey Mantle for the Yankees, and Duke Snider for the Dodgers. Rather sadly, Mays and Mantle have had to to sever their major league connections. In each case, major league baseball ordered the break in order to keep itself above gambling associations. First Mays, and now Mantle, have taken public relations jobs with Atlantic City casinos. They will still be allowed to play in oldtimers games. The irony of this situation, some feel, is that baseball has permitted two owners, the Pirates' John Galbreath and the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, to retain their interests in racetracks.
* One seeming injustice of NCAA probations is the way some coaches escape them. The coach moves on, leaving the school to serve time for what he may have done. This shouldn't happen, says Rice football coach Ray Alborn. ''If the coach gets a school on probation and gets a job at another school, then the probation should follow him,'' Alborn suggests.