Herschel Walker faced formidable opponents on the football gridiron during his stellar college and professional career, but the opponent he faced off the field presented his greatest challenges, he told an audience at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) on Sept. 26.
The Heisman trophy winner and former National Football League running back spoke to the WRNMMC community the day before a Safety Stand Down Day held throughout the Army and Walter Reed Bethesda, focusing on suicide prevention.
Walker, who played professional football for 14 years, discussed the challenges he faced with issues often associated with suicide, bullying and mental disorders.
“Sometimes we get in situations where there’s so much negativity, but I’m here to tell you there is a positive,” Walker said.
Growing up in Wrightsville, Ga., Walker said he was overweight and stuttered, which made him a target for bullying. His teachers separated him from the other children and told him he was “special,” which further alienated him, he explained.
“So I didn’t feel good about myself,” Walker said. “I didn’t like myself; I was scared of everybody and I walked with my head down. I used to get beat up a lot.”
Walker said he eventually got to the point where he said, “Enough is enough.” He worked hard doing 5,000 push-ups, 5,000 sit-ups every day, and chin-ups on tree limbs. “I started to go to the library to get books to read and my speech got better. I started to walk up straight. Instead of getting in the corner where the teachers had put me, I would sit up front, raising my hand to answer questions.” He graduated high school as valedictorian of his class.
His workouts also produced results, Walker said. He received numerous football scholarship offers before deciding to go to the University of Georgia where he was a three-time All-American and won the 1982 Heisman Trophy.
After his third year at Georgia and winning the Heisman, Walker went on to the USFL and the NFL where in 187 games, he rushed for more than 8,200 yards, accumulated over 4,850 receiving yards, and scored 82 touchdowns. But it was after his career ended that Walker found he had been living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), also known as multiple personalities.
Walker described how he developed a serious anger problem. His marriage to his college sweetheart ended, and he found himself contemplating murder over the late delivery of a car.
Walker sought help, and was diagnosed with DID.
Through counseling, Walker said he learned he’d created another personality to help him get through difficult periods in his life, but that personality was angry and, at times, violent.
Walker said if he didn’t seek help, he may have ended up in jail or possibly dead. He admitted he once held a gun to his own head.
“We all get knocked down,” Walker said. “I’m here to tell you, you can get up. I admitted that I had a problem, and I’m safer. I didn’t realize how far lost I was until I started getting help.”
“I think Mr. Walker’s presentation was great,” said Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Edison, equal opportunity advisor for the Walter Transition Brigade at Walter Reed Bethesda. “Through humor and humility, Mr. Walker shared the many obstacles he overcame to reach his success. His faith in God and humble method of achieving his goals was highly enlightening. We are currently celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the fact that Mr. Walker disclosed having disabilities (speech impediment and DID) during his struggle to be successful was coincidental, but extremely time appropriate.”
“We must work together to create a culture and an environment where people feel comfortable getting the behavioral health assistance that they need,” stated U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, in a letter he issued to the force Sept. 27.
“Our Warrior Ethos states ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade,’” Odierno continued. “I need everyone to take that to heart. Every individual contemplating suicide has a friend, family member, or leader in the position to help. I need you all to get involved. Intervening requires personal courage and leadership. It isn't easy, but there is no room for bystanders.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK); press 1 for the Veteran’s Crisis Line.