By Dave Smith,
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — “Don’t be ashamed to admit you have problems, everyone has them and probably more than you do,” said Heisman Trophy winner and pro football legend Herschel Walker.
Walker visited Peterson Air Force Base June 8, sharing the story of his battle with Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) in hopes that it can motivate service members to address their problems, whatever they may be, and get help to overcome them.
Walker knows what it’s like to be at the pinnacle of success. He is a successful athlete with a Heisman Trophy, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, holds numerous records and was a bobsledder in two Winter Olympics. He has a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and is a mixed martial arts fighter. Walker is a business owner. He even won a Food Network cooking show. So what problems could Herschel Walker have? They start in his youth.
Early in life Walker dealt with being overweight and stuttering. Teachers sat him in the corner of the room and told him he was special. He was quiet, kept his head down and didn’t interact with the other students until the last day of eighth grade when he decided to, for the first time ever, go out for recess.
“All of a sudden something happened in my life,” Walker said, a phrase that would be repeated throughout the morning.
He crossed onto the playground and was beaten up by another student. He got home and was still crying when he heard a voice inside tell him to quit crying and feeling sorry for himself.
“That’s when I began working out,” he said. Those workouts would become 5,000 pushups and sit ups every day, along with chin ups he did on a tree branch behind his home. He began walking with his head up and reading out loud to himself. His speech improved, he amazed his teachers and by the time high school was done, he was an elite athlete and valedictorian of his class.
He shared an anecdote about children told to shovel manure. One of them was asked why he kept digging enthusiastically and replied that with all the manure, there had to be a pony in there somewhere.
“I am living proof that if you carry a big enough shovel and keep digging every day, you’ll make it,” he said.
Even when he was pursued by the elite programs in college football Walker had to deal with doubt and uncertainty. He wanted to go into the Marine Corps, not college, and when he did decide to accept an offer from the University of Georgia, the head coach was skeptical about his abilities at the next level of competition. When Georgia Coach Vince Dooley paid the Walker family a visit, he offered a surprise opinion.
“Dooley said, ‘I don’t think he can play at Georgia,’” Walker said. “All my life people told me I wasn’t good enough. So I started training.”
By the end of his first season, Walker was so impressive that he garnered a nomination for the coveted Heisman Trophy, given to the best player in college football. He wasn’t well versed in football lingo yet and had to go to the library when told of the nomination.
“I didn’t follow football. I just played football so I didn’t have to do the dishes,” said Walker, “But I found out you play football and you still have to do the dishes.”
Walker finished third that year, but went on to be nominated the following year, finishing second and then again in 1982 when he won the top honor, beating out John Elway. The following year he was drafted by the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.
Things were good and Walker continued to be an unstoppable force in the pros. However, the USFL soon folded and his future was unsure. A sports writer visiting with Walker asked where he would like to play in the NFL if he could choose. When Walker said he wanted to play for Dallas, the writer laughed and said Dallas would never draft him. Shortly after the writer left, Walker got a phone call from the Dallas Cowboys telling him they’d drafted him.
Walker played a few years at Dallas then he played with other teams throughout his career, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants, eventually retiring from the Cowboys.
When his football career ended, things suddenly changed in his life. His wife at the time noticed changes in his behavior and it was scaring her, she didn’t feel safe. Walker was puzzled by her comments, but soon he would worry about it himself.
The eye-opening event for him was related to the purchase of a street rod. The man he purchased the car from kept changing or postponing delivery dates. Walker was upset by it and when the man finally came with the vehicle, Walker had become so angry over the situation he took his gun to meet the man, intending to shoot him.
“I started praying,” he said. “When I got out of my car to kill him I saw a bumper sticker that said ‘honk if you love Jesus’ and that calmed me down.”
The whole experience shook him up. He talked with his wife and as people of faith, the couple sought help through the church. Eventually they found a pastor who introduced them to a doctor who could help.
The doctor asked Walker if he felt pain and if he ever cried. He answered no to both. Then he asked if Walker ever journaled. This time the answer was yes; he had journaled since his youth. The doctor suggested he read what was written in those journals and it was revealing.
“He told me to look and I saw I only wrote about death and bad things,” Walker said. Even after all the years of keeping a journal, Walker never realized the other side of him that was revealed on those pages.
Seeking more help, he admitted himself to a hospital. There it was discovered he never dealt with the pain of his youth, leading him to dissociate from it. Since he faced his problem, admitted it and got help, he is now a happier and more stable person.
“I realized I was dealing with something I didn’t understand,” said Walker. He compared the situation to a scene in the movie Predator 2, when the hero killed one Predator only to have several more show up. Walker said the hero just grabbed a sword and faced the new challenge head on.
“You’ve got to have faith it is going to get better,” he said. “You’ve got to step up to the plate and admit your problems.”
For Walker, he said things are better. He talked about his family singing songs around his mother’s table and his used to be the sad, “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me,” by Hank Williams. Now he sings “Joy is mine,” from an old Gospel tune.
Walker adopted the mantra “You look up, you go up,” a nod toward how he took the first steps to change his life as a young boy. Conversely, he said if you look down, you go down.
“Always get up,” said Walker. “Never put anything off. If I did and never sought help the woman I love might not be here.”
At the close of his presentation, Walker deflected praise and asked the audience not to clap. Instead he turned the focus onto the Airmen gathered at the event.
“You guys are the true heroes,” he said. “It takes a big man to stand up for himself, but a bigger man to stand up for someone else and you guys stand up for the country.”