By Ben Sherman, Fort SillOctober 18, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Most people know Herschel Walker as many things -- former All-American football star and Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia; NFL star with the Dallas Cowboys and other teams; and currently a mixed martial arts combatant.
So when Walker speaks, people listen. But when he spoke to Fort Sill Soldiers and officers as part of the Gen. Tommy Franks lecture series last week, his message was not about sports, but about mental illness and suicide.
"People don't know this about me, but I was a bad dude. I would take a revolver and play Russian roulette, I'd put a bullet in it, give the cylinder a spin and put it to my head. I wasn't doing it because I wanted to kill myself. I was just trying to beat death. It was competition for me. That's what my entire life has been, competing to win," Walker said.
Walker spoke about how he was weak when he was young, and he was often bullied. So to protect himself he became tough and would take on anyone who came after him. He believed the only way to come out on top was to be stronger, faster and smarter than everyone else. With all that hard work he became valedictorian of his high school senior class, and received a scholarship to play football at Georgia. But ironically, he never wanted to play college football.
"I didn't want to go to Georgia, or anywhere else to play football. I wanted to be in the military. I actually wanted to be a Marine," Walker said with a chuckle. "So, when the letter came from Georgia, I made a deal with God. I said, 'Lord, I'm gonna flip a coin and if it comes out heads, I'll go into the military. It came up tails.' So then I said 'Best two out of three, God? And, it still came up tails. So I went to Georgia.' "
At Georgia, Walker began to realize he didn't feel pain when he played football or was injured. He would challenge others to competitions just to prove he was the best. That kind of behavior continued into his professional football career and into his life.
"I always thought I was a pretty smart dude, a pretty cool dude. But people around me started looking at me funny and asking me if I was all right. I told them of course I was all right, I was Herschel Walker. But when my ex-wife started telling me about some of the things I was doing, I realized that maybe I did have a problem," he said.
Walker sought help from several different sources, but eventually a mental health professional diagnosed him with DID -- disassociative identity disorder.
"At first I thought they were saying I was like Sybil, a crazy person who didn't know who he was. But they told me that I had just developed multiple personalities, each of which would deal with different aspects of my life," he said. "Unfortunately one of those personalities was a bad dude who wanted to get me killed."
Walker began to realize the disorder he had was why he would do things that were dangerous, such as playing Russian roulette.
"It was about competition, and life and death was the way I played. I didn't know how lost I was until someone showed me what my problems were," Walker said.
He said he never used drugs or alcohol, or really felt like he was depressed, but he knew he had some serious problems. Now Walker feels better and can control the issues in his life. He has found the best way to cope with his problems is to be honest and admit that he has issues. He believes it is important for him to give back to others, especially military personnel.
"What I play is a game for entertainment, but what these Soldiers do is real life. I'm here to encourage our men and women at Fort Sill to realize that, there's no shame in asking for help, no matter what you are going through. Call the folks at ASAP (Army Substance Abuse Program) or behavioral health when you are having issues and need someone to talk to," Walker said.
"We put so much stigma on mental health that people become ashamed and embarrassed to be who they are. If you hold it inside or struggle with something you can't handle, you don't know how it may be hurting you or others. Look at me. I've been through a lot of challenges in my life. I'm not ashamed to admit when I'm weak or when I'm having a problem, because I'm still surviving. There is no shame in asking for help."