Former NCAA football and NFL standout Herschel Walker, representing the Patriot Support Program (an anti-stigma campaign designed to encourage service members to seek help for mental health and substance abuse issues), shared his life story with members of the military at Abrams Theater on Thursday.
FORT LEONARD WOOD – Former NCAA football and NFL standout Herschel Walker, representing the Patriot Support Program (an anti-stigma campaign designed to encourage service members to seek help for mental health and substance abuse issues), shared his life story with members of the military at Abrams Theater on Thursday.
Thursday's face of the campaign, a charismatic and boisterous Walker, evoked uncountable laughs as the 51-year old shared his life story – a tale of trial and turmoil tethered to his 1999 realization that he suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID) throughout his being.
"I'm excited to have an opportunity to speak to the military because they do so much for us," Walker said. "Some of us don't give that support that we need to and I'd love to see more support until we get every American home."
Born in Wrightsville. Ga., Walker was one of seven children in a blue collar family. Growing up, the future athlete admitted to stuttering and weight problems. A young foe bullied Walker in high school because he was "special." That specific incident resulted in a change of Walker's vision. When he went home that afternoon, Walker committed his time to studying and strength training (although Herschel has never lifted a weight) to prove naysayers wrong.
Herschel eventually graduated valedictorian of his class and, in lieu of washing dishes, played football, rushing for more than 3,000 yards and helping his Johnson County High Trojans win a Georgia state championship in his senior campaign in 1979.
When flowers began budding in the following spring, Walker was torn between joining the Marines and playing college football, something his parents pushed him to pursue. After several coin flips and drawing school names from a hat, against his will, Walker determined he was destined to play college football at the University of Georgia.
In three seasons at Georgia he earned 5,259 yards on 994 carries, a National Championship, three unanimous All-American designations, and finished in the top three in Heisman Trophy voting three times, eventually winning his junior year in 1983.
Because of his efforts, Walker earned a spot in the United States Football League where he played for three seasons with the New Jersey Generals. Walker worked for the rushing title in both 1983 (1,812 yards) and 1985 (2,411).
His dominant performance in the USFL led then-Dallas Cowboys owner Bum Bright to call the young star and draft him with a fifth-round pick. Walker joined Cowboys teammate Tony Dorsett to create the NFL's first Heisman-winning running back duo in league history.
Walker's 11-season stint in the NFL led him to play for five different teams before he retired in 1997. He amassed 8,225 rushing and 4,859 receiving yards in the NFL and became one of the most prolific athletes in the game.
Staff Sgt. Miguel Aviles of the U.S. Marine Corps was initially unsure of Walker's message before realizing its relevance to the military community.
"Once he started talking – he was a very humorous gentleman – I got to learn a lot about him," Aviles said. "[Walker's story] was inspirational and very entertaining."
But it was also meaningful once the message became clear.
Walker explained that, throughout his career, violent spells plagued the troubled running back.
At one time after his NFL career Walker acknowledged plotting to kill a man with whom he had a feud. Wielding a gun, the discontented Walker approached the supposed victim driving his car and noticed the man's bumper sticker.
It read: "Honk if you love Jesus".
That very moment reminded Walker of his Christian childhood and his mother's advice to always look to a higher power to lead him. It was then that Walker decided to seek help. He began reading his past journal entries and soon understood that he was more than one person living in a single body.
As a child, Walker wrote that he wanted to kill bullying classmates in school. In his 2007 memoir, 'Breaking Free', Walker mentioned he cannot remember winning the Heisman Trophy, nor the season leading up to the award. The all-time great even threatened his own life with personal games of Russian Roulette several times.
He admitted to using his experience in the NFL as a coping mechanism to contain his rage.
Diagnosed with DID, which is characterized by having two or more separate personas that alternately control an individual, Walker spent two subsequent years in a state hospital and began ongoing treatment.
Upon learning of Walker's plague, Aviles said he was more informed of mental health problems and why Walker decide to speak to the military.
"There's a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to mental health issues," Aviles said. "A lot of people don't want to talk about it."
Walker's overall message was simple yet powerful.
Calling himself an "eccentric...wild stallion," Walker simply said, "Never give up."
"You gotta love yourself and love who you are," Walker said. "Giving up is a disease that will take over and control you."
And Walker lives by his own advice, never even skipping an exercise in his personal workout routine.
Herschel realizes that several military personnel suffer mental stress related to their service.
"There is no shame in asking for help," Walker said. "The shame is if you injure yourself or someone else. Continue to work; continue to love yourself. Don't listen to what other people say about you."
Herschel ended his heartfelt soliloquy by using the old cliché, "There is light at the end of the tunnel."
"If you see someone going through a problem, help them," Walker added.
Because of Walker's speech, Aviles said he is prepared to face his and others' personal issues.
"The more people talk, the more they might be able to get some help and understand it's not a negative," Aviles said.
"I'm glad he did this," the soldier added. "Not that I have any issues, but if I do, at least I know that a professional went through it and if he could do it, I could do it."
For additional information about the Patriot Support Program, complete with a list of 42 treatment centers, visit uhsinc.com or patriotsupportprogram.com.
*Note: Walker currently holds an undefeated 2-0 record in Strikeforce MMA and trains with a vigorous running regiment, 1,000 push-ups and 2,000 sit-ups each day.