The former NFL superstar openly shares his struggles with mental problems – and the help he's received – with soldiers, including some who are struggling to adjust after duty in the Middle East.
Fort Lewis, Wash.
But now, as he stepped in front of a room packed with soldiers eager to hear his story, he was Herschel Walker, a man with mental health issues. And Walker's message was simple and to the point.
“Don't be afraid to ask for help,” he said. “I did.”
Mr. Walker, the 1982 Heisman winner while at the University of Georgia, said if he hadn't he would have killed someone. Probably his ex-wife. And probably a man who had failed to deliver a package on time.
“I got my gun and I got in my car,” Walker told an attentive audience.
Fortunately for Walker, and for the unsuspecting delivery man, the former NFL running back saw something on the bumper sticker of the delivery van. It read, “Honk if you love Jesus.” That jarred Walker out of his angered state.
“That's when I realized I needed help,” Walker said.
Following treatment and counseling, Walker was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
“When I came out years ago, I was hurting,” Walker said. “No one ever saw it. No one knew I had problems. But I did. I said I'm not ashamed of who I am. I love who I am.”
But Walker needed a scary wake-up moment before he admitted he needed help. It required courage.
“It was very tough asking for help,” Walker said. “It's very difficult. I was totally confused. You know I'm Herschel Walker. I've won a Heisman Trophy. I won an NFL rushing title. How could I have a problem? That was it more than anything. Just admitting I had a problem. Even sometimes today I won't admit it.”
Walker recently talked an hour with soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., telling snippets of his life story, from when he was a child to when he was a highly recruited All-American running back coming out of high school in George.
Walker, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and four other NFL teams from 1986 to when he retired in 1997, is comfortable in front of a crowd. Without using notes, he talked about the struggles he had as a kid in the classroom and on the playground.
“My teacher told me I was special,” Walker said, a broad smile breaking on his face.
But it wasn't the kind of special he wanted. He said he was transferred to special education because he couldn't read well. At recess, kids made fun of him because he was overweight. Eventually, Walker, motivated by the anger he felt toward his teacher and his classmates making fun of him, began working out and studying hard.
“This is going to freak you out,” Walker told the crowd. “I told my mom the reason I started working out was because I wanted to break the necks of the people picking on me. I wanted to hurt them. I said I didn't want any teacher to put me down any more.”
So, Walker got up early in the morning to exercise and to study. He'd do pushups until his arms couldn't hold him. He'd run by himself until his lungs ached, working hard to turn his fat into muscle.
“I had that anger in me,” Walker said.
It wasn't until Walker went to a counselor after his NFL career ended that he realized his emotional problems, that he had dual personalities that vary between a nice, likeable Walker to an angry, want-to-hurt-you Walker.
“If you remember, every kid wanted to beat me up,” Walker said. “I had teachers who said I was not good enough. So, I said I will become good enough. So I became this guy who became obsessed to become good enough. Now I sit down and tell people who I was. Now, I say, 'Do you know who I am?' ”
With a broad smile, Walker paused and panned the audience. He painted a picture of a desperate man, a man who didn't understand fear or pain. He talked of how he separated his shoulder in a game at the University of Georgia and insisting that the trainer pop it back into place while he was on the sidelines, and not in the locker room, as the trainer suggested.
Off the field, Walker took unreasonable risks.
“I was this guy who used to love playing Russian Roulette,” Walker said. “People would say, 'What do you want to do? Kill yourself?' I'd say no. It was a game for me. Playing Russian Roulette showed how tough I was. I used to say to my ex-wife that I was going to kill her. Later, she told me that I had said that, and I didn't remember it.”
In front of a room packed with soldiers, Walker didn't hide behind his trophies. He revealed his hurting side. He then shared a message of hope with the soldiers, some of whom are having trouble adjusting after assignments in the Middle East.
“I'm here today to [talk with] you if you're burdened, if you don't think you can make it,” Walker said. “You've got problem? Talk with a friend. Get help. God loves you. I love you.”
Wives of soldiers in the audience began wiping tears.
“We have the DNA of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Walker said. “You're somebody. We all have problems. I finally saw that.”
In the past year, Walker has given several similar talks to soldiers across the country. He tells them that people like him with dissociative identity disorder (DID) have emotions beyond their control. He tells them how he created alternate personalities to deal with some of his problems. Those alternate personalities are often the result of profound abuse or a traumatic event in a person's life.
Admitting he needed help wasn't easy.
“But it's easier today,” Walker said. “Years ago if you said you had a mental problem, it would be tough. Today there are so many leaders saying if you've got a problem go get help. Get treated.”
It's Walker's openness about his mental issues that the Army hopes will help hurting soldiers decide to make a call for help.
“One of the things we combat in the military is the stigma that if you're really strong, you don't have problems,” said Col. Dr. Dallas Homas, the commander of the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis.
And often if a soldier does admit to himself he has a problem, he doesn't tell anyone else.
“I think what Herschel brings is a testimony that it's okay to admit that you have a problem,” Colonel Homas said. “Her's a guy who is a super hero, who is brave enough to say, 'Hey, I've got a problem. I had a problem. I took it on, head on, and I'm better for it.' ”
In his book, “Breaking Free,” Walker writes about his mental health issues. He's said if he could help just one person, then going public with his problem would be worth it.
“[For] every individual out here who might be wrestling with an internal demon or a challenge, Herschel has shown them it's okay to go get help for it,” Homas said. “Not many of our sports heroes are as giving, as selfless, as Christian as he is. He's a model for everyone to emulate.”