Herschel Walker speaks about mental illness at New Horizons benefit

Ex-NFL running back talks about struggle with multiple personality disorder

benw@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 9, 2013 

Herschel Walker, a former NFL running back and winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy, was in Columbus on Tuesday to thank the New Horizons community service board for helping people like him with mental illness.

Walker, 51, was guest speaker for the 2013 annual New Horizons benefit at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. In 2008, he released a book, "Breaking Free," to highlight his struggles with dissociative identity disorder, which is also known as multiple personality disorder.

But Walker doesn't even describe the disorder as a mental illness.

"I call it a mental challenge, but we all have fallen short of the glory of God," he said. "I'm just letting people know it's OK struggling with anything because we all struggle. The thing is we just can't hide it."

The former football great said friends turned their backs on him after he revealed his struggles with mental illness, a subject many leaders and politicians will not talk about.

"They don't want to deal with it," Walker said during a reception with former athletes and University of Georgia football supporters. "I work with the military and I said those are the people dealing with it a lot better. For me, it was the best thing that ever happened."

Walker said people often thank him after they hear him talk about the disorder.

"You hear other people say thank you for expressing what you have," he said. "Now I can deal with it. It feels good."

Still looking trim and athletic enough to score another touchdown, Walker said he doesn't know what his legacy will be. But he wants to help people feeling ashamed about mental illness.

"I know where they have been and I know how it feels," Walker said. "It's not a good place and I'm not going to pat myself on the back. What I'm going to say is that it was my responsibility."

Sports is not even mentioned when Walker talks about three of the best things that happened in his life. His first is knowing the Lord, second is spending time in the hospital and the third is the birth of his son, Christian.

"People don't understand why I don't put sports in it," he said. "The reason I don't put sports in it is because I said if I had not gone to a hospital, I wouldn't be standing before you today. This is coming from a guy that has accomplished almost anything in the world."

As a person with dissociative identity disorder, Walker said people wanted him to run for public office. They also said he was supposed to be crazy. But Walker said he started Walker Food Service, 34 Promotions and 34 Commerce, a technology company, with all of his different personalities.

"With all those personalities, I started those companies, built them myself," he said. "My mom used to say give a man a job and give self-worth. I've had people help me in football, the coaches helped me. If I can help somebody by giving them a job, that is what I want to do."

During the dinner, Aflac chairman and CEO Dan Amos was presented the 2013 Impact Award. The award is presented to someone who has gone above and beyond in supporting New Horizons, said David Wallace, director of fund development and a former field goal kicker at Georgia in 1984.

Wallace said Walker has a big appeal and has a powerful message about mental illness.

"Herschel draws a crowd, but he also has a message about mental illness and the stigma of mental illness," Wallace said. "If someone with that kind of bravado can come out and say 'I've got a mental illness, and it's OK,' it makes it OK for a lot of other men out there. I don't have to put on that front. I can be real. They don't have to put on that front. There is no shame in it and that's powerful."

Walker admitted that he's still a huge Georgia football fan. After losing to Clemson, Georgia could go undefeated the rest of the season and end up playing Alabama in the SEC championship game and beat the Crimson Tide this year, Walker said.

"Georgia has a great opportunity," he said.

Walker also pointed out that Georgia has many great running backs who have gone to the NFL. The University of Southern California used to be known as the school for running backs, but Walker thinks Georgia can get that distinction as well.

"Since I played, I think Georgia can be known for that," he said. "Running backs are incredible. Last week, we saw some young guys doing the job."

Walker also pointed to quarterback Aaron Murray as a leader on the team.

"Murray is pulling that team together," he said. "You watch him drive down the field against LSU and score, then watch him in Tennessee and score. That shows a sign of a leader. Our hats have to be off to him as well."

Related stories:

Herschel Walker to speak at New Horizons benefit; Amos to receive award

Georgia Chamber of Commerce honors Aflac's Dan Amos

Judge Hatchett talks about creating change at Urban League dinner

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