An NFL football legend attacked the often unspoken topic of mental health last week in front of hundreds of Soldiers.
Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker who set a single-season pro football rushing record with 2,411 yards, told Soldiers he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) after his football career.
He told Soldiers that getting help for a condition that could have landed him in prison or a graveyard meant he first had to humble himself and get honest. His talk was not only emotional but humorous at times. He talked about how hard it is to accept a mental illness.
Walker was an All-American running back at the University of Georgia, where he set 10 NCAA records, led the Bulldogs to a national title and won the Heisman in his junior year. He gave up his senior year to go play for the USFL (United States Football League).
From the USFL, Walker signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1986, the same year that he led the entire NFL in rushing. He later played for Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants before returning to the Cowboys.
He ranks in the NFL's top 10 for most all-purpose yards of all time.
"It's important for me to thank our men and women in uniform for their service," Walker said.
"What they have done for us is given us our freedom. There's a price for freedom and many come home with mental issues. I want them to know it’s OK to talk about it and to admit they have a problem.
“I want them to know to reach out, ask for help”
Even though he retired from the NFL in 1997, Walker recently launched a successful career in mixed martial arts. At 50, his physique still resembles the build of his glory days in the NFL.
In conjunction with athletic pursuits, Walker is the anti-stigma spokesman for The Freedom Care Program, a specialized mental health and addiction treatment program for service members who are dealing with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to sexual trauma and eating disorders.
In 2008, Walker wrote "Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder," a memoir that included accounts of the bullying he endured as child growing up in Deep South poverty. Being shy and a bit chunky made him a prime target for bullying, he told Soldiers. Out of fear, he refused to even leave the classroom during recesses.
On the last day of school in the eighth grade, Walker was assaulted. After the attack, he said he cried the whole bus trip home while classmates laughed at his stuttering.
"I still remember that guy's name. I Google him today. Sometimes (I) go on Facebook, looking for him. I haven't found him yet," Walker said to audience laughter.
That summer, he swore off ever being bullied again and began a radical daily regimen of thousands of push-ups and sit-ups.
"From the eighth grade to the ninth grade, (I went) from being the worse athlete in my family and the worse athlete in my school to being one of the fastest kids in the state of Georgia," he said.
"All of a sudden, I was getting these football scholarships from all over the country."
Walker has delivered his message of faith and determination to service members at more than 50 U.S. military installations.
The closeness he feels with troops is somewhat psychological. He described football as the coping mechanism he used for years to deal with mental illness. But he said the thrilling rush he felt on the field, not unlike the adrenaline Soldiers undergo in combat, is unsustainable in regular life.
Walker told Soldiers that after his football career, he ignored his loved ones, who pleaded with him to seek help for his restless and troubling behaviors. One day, Walker even grabbed his gun in a rage to go confront and murder a deliveryman whom he said had wronged him.
Driving his car to meet the man, he said he was tormented within himself for being weak.
"People need to quit disrespecting you like this, Herschel. People aren't going to do you like this anymore," Walker recalled of the incident. "These voices going off in my head -- I thought I was losing my mind. All of a sudden, I started to pray; “God, I need your help. I need you to help me before I do something stupid.'"
When he arrived, he parked the car, placed his hand on the gun and walked to the man's truck.
As he approached, he said a religious bumper sticker on the back of the man's vehicle diffused his fury.
"That calmed me down," Walker said. "I went back home and admitted I have a problem.”
He was lead back to his Christian faith by which his mother had raised him. Then, doctors told him he had the symptoms of a multiple personality disorder. Walker said he did not want to believe it. To this day, he said, he doesn't remember certain games, experiences and whole periods of his life, including winning the Heisman Trophy.
But Walker checked into a state hospital and eventually came to terms with the nature of his problems.
"I started seeing the light," he told the Soldiers. "I'm here to tell you to see the light. Don't think that because you go to a hospital or because you say you have a problem that you are less of a person.
"I never knew how lost I was until I went to the hospital … and found other people struggling like
I was," he added. "If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you are struggling, if you are hurting, don't be ashamed. I'm not ashamed."
Herschel hopes his work with those who suffer from any kind mental issue will get the help that is out there and change how we look at those individuals along with bringing awareness to something that has always been swept under the carpet.