Then and now: How Herschel helped turn football players into bobsledders

Herschel Walker was at the peak of his career with the Minnesota Vikings when he tried out for and made the U.S. National bobsledding team. In the process, Walker opened the doors for future football players to join the sport that continues today. USA TODAY Sports, AP Photo

Remember Sam McGuffie? If you've ever fallen down an Internet rabbit hole of high school football highlights, you probably know the name.

McGuffie ran for more than 1,500 yards during a college career split between Michigan and Rice. He landed on a few NFL practice squads and stuck with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL for a full season. But the former running back is best remembered for hurdling and flipping his way through Texas high school defenses and millions of YouTube hits.

His newest adventure has McGuffie leaping again, this time into a bobsled. The 26-year-old is one of six rookies to make the U.S. national team, which begins its World Cup season at the end of the month. Two of his first-year teammates also played college football -- former Oklahoma State wide receiver Nathan Gilsleider and former (Div. II) Virginia-Wise running back Hakeem Abdul-Saboor. They are the latest converts to a relatively obscure sport that more and more often is cherry-picking its top athletes from the world of football.

"I want to compete at a high level, but I wanted to see what else was out there," McGuffie said. "I didn't know what direction I was going to take, but I knew I was going to do something."

So how did a kid from Cypress, Texas, end up turning to the ice for his competitive fix? That path starts with another highlight-inducing running back and a made-for-TV obstacle course.

Herschel Walker was nearing the peak of his NFL career when he met Olympic gold-medal hurdler Edwin Moses while shooting the network television show "Superstars." Moses told Walker and fellow NFL player Willie Gault they had a perfect build for bobsledding. Walker had heard of the sport only in passing, but he agreed to travel to Lake Placid with Moses and Gault to try out for the national team.

"Basically, if it's a competition, I want to do it," Walker said.

Walker made the team before returning to Minnesota for the Vikings' preseason he camp. He ran for 825 yards, and when the NFL season finished, he rejoined the bobsled squad. A month of training later, he and driver Brian Shimer finished seventh at the '92 Olympics, three-tenths of a second away from the medal stand.

Two decades later, the recruiting process is a little more fine-tuned, and football players remain a central part of finding the "push men" to power sleds down the track. Walker was the most high-profile football player in the first wave of converts, and he opened the door for future football players to join the sport.

Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. bobsled and skeleton federation, said roughly half the guys in bobsledding have a football background, and he's always looking for more. Steele and company have a network of strength coaches in college programs who help identify potential bobsledders. Word about the sport also spreads at offseason training facilities among players who are battling to hang on in football.

Running backs, it turns out, are especially suited to be push men. Steele looks for athletes who weigh between 200 and 210 pounds with strong lower bodies. A bit of heft is helpful in a sport that relies heavily on gravity. A running back's bottom-heavy frame helps keep the sled's center of gravity low and, of course, provides power for the running start.

"We go after athletes that have been doing the training that it takes to be an Olympic bobsledder, they just don't realize they're doing it," Steele said. "If there's some interest, they're 90 percent there. We've just got to get them the other 10 percent, which is the skill that it takes."

The final 10 percent of training -- how to run on ice, when and how to jump into the sled, etc. -- happens quickly. McGuffie, Gilsleider and Abdul-Saboor had less than two weeks of practice on an actual ice track before team trials began in October.

While football training gave them enough of a physical head start to make the team, the new bobsledders agreed that the mental fortitude they developed in football was more useful. They leave the track sore and bruised every day. Legs bang into the sides of the sled while whipping around turns at 90 mph. Heads bob (hence the name) from side to side, and it takes every ounce of core strength to keep the G-forces from pulling them.

Gilsleider, who gave the arena leagues a try after graduating from Oklahoma State, said one veteran prepared him for his first ride by saying it was like jumping in a tin trash can and being kicked down a hill. McGuffie compared the pull of the G-forces to being folded up like an accordion.

"They're both violent," he said, comparing football to bobsledding. "You look at it and think it's just jumping in a sled and you're on your merry way. It's nothing like that. It's like a car crash for a minute straight."

This crop of rookies will get two years of fine-tuning their form before taking a stab at the 2018 Olympic team. In a sport where tenths, if not hundredths, of a second separate gold medalists from those who miss the podium, every technique and bit of movement matters.

Now that Walker, who became an MMA fighter after his football days ended, has that Olympic flame rekindled, the rookies might have some extra competition.

"I think I could be a good push man today," the 53-year-old said. "I still have my speed. I know the technique now. That's the key to everything."