Former NFL star Herschel Walker shares his struggle with mental illness
May 6, 2013
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Herschel Walker, Heisman trophy winner, professional athlete, businessman, and author, paced the stage of the Post Theater last week and spoke of the time he almost killed a man.
It was not an accident, and it was not a matter of self defense. He picked up a handgun and made a 25-mile drive to a nearby city to settle a long-standing problem he had had with a delivery driver. He did not tell the audience what was in the package he had been waiting on for six weeks. At the time, though, he thought it was worth killing a man over.
"I grabbed my gun, put it in my holster and said, 'I'm fixin' to kill him,'" Walker told his audience last week. He tried to talk himself out of following through with his plan, but found himself on the losing side of an inner conflict. "'People need to quit disrespecting you like this, Herschel,'" he said he thought to himself. "'People aren't going to do you like this anymore.' 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 behind the man's truck and found the sign he was looking for.
"When I got out of the car ... I saw a sign on the back of his truck that said, 'Honk if you love Jesus.' And that calmed me down," Walker said. Walker said he thought the incident was an isolated event, but his wife told him otherwise.
"She said, 'Herschel, I've been telling you, but you haven't heard me yet,'" he said.
She told him he had threatened her life on several occasions events he could not remember.
When confronted with the full weight of his behavior, he opted to seek medical treatment, which led to identifying his dangerous behavior as a symptom of mental illness.
"I went to a hospital, which is probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
In 2000, Walker was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, or DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. It was a problem that had been simmering below the surface for most of his life, but boiled over after his professional football career ended in 1997. Violent outbursts became more common, he told the audience last week.
Looking back, Walker said the diagnosis put some of his more outrageous behavior into perspective. In 1981, Walker was part of the University of Georgia Team that defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, a game he finished with a dislocated shoulder. He said he had created this character of himself that seemed immune to pain, which led to even more risky behavior off field. One of his favorite stunts was playing Russian Roulette. On several occasions he put a loaded revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.
"People would say, 'What do you want to do? Kill yourself?'' he said. "It was a game for me. Playing Russian Roulette showed them how tough I was."
Today, Walker is the national spokesman for Freedom Care, a military treatment program specializing in combat PTSD, addiction, general psychiatric diagnoses, military sexual trauma and eating disorders. Last week's visit to Fort Jackson was the 66th Army installation he has visited to bring awareness to mental health issues. His message to service members and their families is simple: "There is no shame in getting help." "It was great," said Staff Sgt. Demirce Mays, MEDDAC, who was among the dozens of Soldiers and civilian employees to stand in line to meet Walker after last week's presentation. "I'm a (University of) Georgia fan, but there was so much I didn't know. When the whole story was out there, it was great."
"It was a good experience," said Pfc. Cynthia Brown, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Garrison. "He was a football player, so you probably think he had the good life, the glam and the fame and all of that. But it was good to hear his story and about his struggles to get where he is today."