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Herschel Walker: Champion of mental health

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
In the 1990 Sci-Fi action movie, “Predator 2,” a veteran Los Angeles Police Department officer, Lt. Mike Harrigan, played by Danny Glover, hunts a mysterious, murderous alien throughout the California cityscape.

After about an hour and a half of epic fight scenes, Harrigan finds himself aboard the predator’s spaceship, toe-to-toe with the hulking, seven-foot tall creature. Quickly, it becomes clear to the audience that the aging cop, who at this point had sustained several injuries accrued from as many cinematic scuffles, is no match for the universe’s ultimate hunter. At the very moment all seems to be lost, Harrigan manages to accomplish a feet even Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t accomplish; he killed the predator. Quickly snatching up an alien blade from the ship, he plunged it into the hulking creature so certain of his imminent success.

The immediate stress gone, Harrigan dropped his blade and slumped to his knees, attempting to catch his breath. Slowly, one by one, six additional aliens revealed themselves from their cloaked positions all around him. Grabbing the blade, the nearly defeated Harrigan jumped to his feet and growled, “who’s next?”

Professional athlete, Herschel Walker, recalled this scene during an all-call Dec. 5, 2017, on Dover AFB to illustrate his perseverance through his personal challenges with mental health.

“Guys, you’re going to get knocked down,” Walker said. “Some days you’re going to get tired. Some days you won’t think you can make it. You get up, because you’re blessed. The Lord has blessed us. You get up, and know that Herschel Walker is behind you.”

Walker spent two days with the Airmen of Dover AFB regaling his audiences with movie references, anecdotes and life experiences to raise awareness for the importance of mental health.

“Everybody knows [Walker has] had a distinguished career both in college and outside of college as well – Heisman Trophy, multiple SEC championships with Georgia, ran over people like nobody’s business – and then he’s been doing the same thing in life outside of football,” said Col. Ethan Griffin, 436th Airlift Wing commander, as he introduced Walker during the all-call. “He’s got a great story of resilience, both from his athletic career and from his life. He has spent an exorbitant amount of time visiting our [service members] across the board. He’s been on more than 300 military installations, and he’s excited to talk with our Airmen and our Joint Service members here at Dover and tell a little bit about his life journey and a little bit about where he finds inspiration. Honestly, sitting with him for the last 30 minutes, you guys are what inspires him. He’s excited to talk with all of you.”

Walker was an American icon, the pinnacle of success, but according to him, he was carrying a secret that even he did not know about.

Walker told Airmen that in 1999 he nearly killed someone he was trying to buy a car from. The gentleman called several times to say he would deliver the car, but he never showed up. Then, one day he got a call saying the gentleman was in another town trying to deliver his car. He had enough and grabbed a gun with the intention to kill the man.

“I remember getting out of my car, putting my hand on my gun and walking up to this guy’s truck,” Walker explained. “Before I saw this guy, I saw a sign on a bike that said ‘Honk if you love Jesus.’ That’s what calmed me down. I went back to Cindy,” now his ex-wife, “and I said, ‘I’ve got a problem.’ She said, ‘I know you do. For a month, sometimes I’d be trying to talk to you and you wouldn’t hear me. You scare me sometimes. I’m afraid of you.’ You know how much I love this woman and she’s afraid of me?”

A Christian, Walker went to the church for help. He visited a large church that tried to exorcise him. Running out the door, he decided to get a second opinion.

“I picked up my phone and I called up Pastor Tony Evans at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, and he came to my home and prayed with Cindy and me,” Walker said. “But, he also said, ‘you know Herschel, sometimes being a Christian, we think that God is going to throw it out of the sky and it’s going to happen when you pray. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve still got to get up and you’ve got to do something.'”

Walker took the pastor’s advice and visited a doctor, who asked him if he ever wrote anything.

“This is what’s going to freak you out,” Walker said. “I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and this is what scared me to death. You know all these great things that were happening to me – winning the Heisman Trophy, [participating on two] Olympic teams, [becoming] the NFL’s fastest man – all I ever wrote about was hurting people, killing people, shooting people. As a 16-year-old kid, I wrote I would shoot people if they bothered me.”

Walker was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and hospitalized for 30 days.

During his hospitalization, he met a woman with DID who did not trust men. A doctor told him that her husband was abusing her. The abuse was so bad she reached out for help from local law enforcement, but no one came. She called family members and friends, and still no one came to her aid.

One night, her husband broke her arm and backed her into a corner. With nobody else to come to her aid, another personality came out and put the husband in the hospital. Her husband took her to court and the judge sent her to the behavioral health hospital.

“It hit me for the first time that we all fall short of the glory of God,” Walker said. “That’s what had been happening to me my entire life. Everyone was telling me I wasn’t good enough, so I made this invincible man who could do all these amazing things. I had no pain. I had no emotions. I could run like a deer. I could jump like anybody. I won everything I ever competed in. We use coping mechanisms so we don’t have to deal with our problems.”

Growing up, Walker said he was overweight and had a stutter. The children called him “fat,” while his mother said he just had “big bones.” His teacher said he had a “learning disability,” but all the children said he was “retarded.”

“Guys, for four years of my life I never went out for recess. I never spoke in class. The kids thought I couldn’t speak. I was afraid of everything. I would walk around with my head down. I remember on the last day of school in eighth grade, I decided I would go out for recess. I remember going outside and there was a guy named Anthony Logan who jumped on me and beat me up. I still can remember that name. I remember going home crying, and all the kids thought it was funny that this fat kid was going home crying. I got home and I remember hearing a voice that said, ‘Herschel, you quit crying. No one else will ever beat you up again. No teacher will ever put you in the corner again.’ That’s the day in my life I started working out.

“I started doing 5,000 push-ups every day, 5,000 sit-ups every day. My parents had a tree in the back yard, and I started doing chin-ups on this tree. I started going to the library and getting books. I started reading these books to myself in front of a mirror, over and over and over. And, all of a sudden, this kid no one ever wanted to play with went back to school and became one of the best athletes in the state of Georgia in the ninth grade. This kid the teacher thought could never learn became the valedictorian of his class.”

He went on to become one of Football’s best athletes, both in college and throughout his 15-year professional career, but he never dealt with this unresolved childhood trauma.

“Sometimes we use alcohol, drugs, cutting or anger as a coping mechanism because we don’t want to deal with what is going on in our lives,” Walker said. “I was using athleticism as a coping mechanism, because I didn’t want to deal with the pain of being this fat, little stuttering kid who was made fun of, so I made myself into this hulk character.”

Realization was a big step for Walker. It came with heavy costs, though. He lost many of his closest friends. He lost his wife, but he learned to deal with his problems in a healthy way, and he was better for it.

“When I left this hospital, people thought I was weak, they thought I was crazy,” Walker said. “After leaving this hospital, I created three of the largest minority-owned companies in the United States … I used to play basketball with President Obama … so I’m supposed to be crazy but I’m still doing all these things. I’m here to tell you today that if you’re going through anything, you get knocked down, get up.”

After he began seeing success, the friends who left him began coming to him for advice with their own personal problems.

“You all are superstars, and you’ve got to look at yourselves that way. Things are not always going to go your way, but that’s ok. You just get up when you get knocked down, because that’s what a champion is. It’s ok to stay down if you want to sleep, but if you want to do something, you’ve got to get back up.”