It’s been 20 years since Herschel Walker played in the NFL, and 35 years since he sent fans jumping up and down in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. Even after all that time, Walker proved on Tuesday he can still captivate an audience.
The former Heisman Trophy winner spoke about his life and his struggles with dissociative identity disorder at Fort Benning in a presentation titled, “There is No Shame in Asking for Help.” Walker sported a purple T-shirt with the words “Be Strong” emblazoned across his chest as he detailed his experiences to the crowd.
While the 55-year-old Walker was the center of attention as he was for most of his playing days, he relished the chance to tell his story to the military men and women in attendance.
“To be in Georgia is real special to me, and to come to Fort Benning is a real honor,” Walker said. “I’ve had a chance to go to over 160 installations all over the world, and to see what our young men and women do for this country is absolutely amazing. You look at athletes who are good people and good heroes, but a true hero is someone who has to sacrifice a lot more.”
Walker’s speech was much like a sermon, stand-up act and motivational speech rolled into one.
He spoke a great deal about his faith, which he has leaned on through most of his life. He also looked back at his childhood in Wrightsville, where he was bullied as an overweight, stuttering kid before he took it upon himself to begin physical training. He subsequently became a world-class athlete.
“(Wrightsville) is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there,” Walker quipped.
Walker detailed his playing days in full, dropping interesting anecdotes about his time as a Georgia Bulldog and the 15-year professional career that followed.
He spoke of spending time with Donald Trump’s children, Ivanka and Eric, during summers when Trump owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. He laughed recalling Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson realizing he had the first no-trade clause in the NFL, putting a hitch in the deal that eventually sent him to the Minnesota Vikings. He shared memories of going with Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Reggie White to south Philadelphia, where White stood on the street and preached.
But when Walker’s story started focusing on his post-football life, the tone was much different.
Walker said he knew he had a problem when his then-wife, Cindy, told him she was scared of him shortly after his playing days had ended. After initially seeking help through his church, Walker eventually checked himself into a hospital, where he was diagnosed with D.I.D., formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
One of Walker’s personalities won the Heisman Trophy. One personality could “really, really run,” according to Walker. It was up to Walker to take responsibility for all those personalities to maintain his life.
Walker’s early experiences with name-calling and being singled out were detrimental, which leads him to encourage people to share what they’re going through, no matter how personal.
“Being bullied and being put down, you put blinders on and things don’t hurt you anymore,” Walker said. “You displace that pain and put that pain way back in the back of your mind thinking that it’s over, but it’s not over. Those are things you need to deal with.”
Walker’s testimony on his mental health struggles became a valuable conversation for many soldiers and civilians in the room. After his speech was over, he fielded several questions about his personality disorder, from the support he received to outlets that can help others who are going through similar problems.
Walker sees those inquiries as an opportunity to open up even more to people who might have known Walker as a football player and want to learn more about Walker as a man.
“People look at Herschel Walker as a mystic character,” Walker said. “For a long, long time, I was the epitome of strength. I went to a hospital and was diagnosed, and I’m better now than I’ve ever been.”
Before and after Walker walked on stage, he stood on the floor of the auditorium, diligently signing autographs and smiling for photos with enthralled fans. Those who watched Walker in his prime as an athlete never knew the struggles he dealt with, but talks like Tuesday’s give those onlookers more insight on his life away from the field.
Even after all he’s been through, Walker said nothing has changed about himself; he’s just got a much tighter grip on his life than he had in the past.
“I’m still the guy people have known,” Walker said. “What you see now is what you get. I’m not going away tormenting myself or doing anything crazy. I’m going away happy and going away in a good mood and in a good place. That makes a big difference.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports