NFL great tackles mental health issue during Tinker visit

  • Published
  • By John Parker
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Former NFL running back Herschel Walker knows how to overcome obstacles.

To defeat a stutter early in life, he repeatedly practiced reading aloud in front of a mirror. Although the stutter had nothing to do with his smarts, he became an "A" student to boot.

When University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley told his new freshman he wasn't ready to play, Walker trained harder. He eventually won the 1982 Heisman trophy and a national championship at Georgia.

When he realized later in life that he had mental struggles - in his case, dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder - he got help.

"We all fall short of the glory of God," Mr. Walker said, "and I'm telling you that we've all got problems, and we can't hide the problems. Because if you've got to hide the problem, then that problem gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

"I'm telling you that if you take care of that problem now, that problem becomes small," Mr. Walker said.

Although taking on a serious subject, Mr. Walker entertained hundreds of members of the 552nd Air Control Wing and Team Tinker on Tuesday during two speeches in the Bldg. 230 AWACS hangar. Autograph seekers queued up after both events.

His theme, "There's no shame in asking for help - I did," coincided with the Air Force resiliency program's four pillars of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness -- mental, physical, social and spiritual. He spoke on behalf of the Patriot Support Programs of Universal Health Services, Inc., Behavioral Health treatment centers.

Mr. Walker drew laughs with his personal tales of struggles from elementary school to the NFL. In the late 1980s, he said he was called into the office of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson, who promptly told him he'd been traded to the Minnesota Vikings.

Mr. Walker said the high-powered duo had forgotten one thing: his contract said he couldn't be traded without his consent.

The Wrightsville, Ga., native told the audience, "Ya'll know what? Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones were in a bind right now because Herschel Walker hates cold weather, and I'm not going to Minnesota."

Mr. Walker said he was told to make a list of anything he wanted to agree to the trade. He said it included large amounts of money, new cars, a new house and a bass boat. Jones signed the list without looking, he said.

Minnesota became "one of the best places I've ever lived in my entire life," Mr. Walker said. "Terrible football team. Great place to live, though."

Mr. Walker said one of his early indications of mental illness arose when he was enraged about a person who stalled for weeks in delivering a personal package in the Dallas metro where he lives. He felt disrespected. When the delivery arrived, he slipped on his holster and gun to meet him at a service station, he said.

"Voices were going off in my head. 'Herschel, people got to quit disrespecting you like that,'" Mr. Walker said. He prayed for help to not make a mistake, he said.

"I still remember getting out of my car, and I put my hand on my holster and I walked up to this guy's truck," Mr. Walker said. "He had a sign on the back of his truck that said, 'Honk if you love Jesus.' And it calmed me down."

Mr. Walker said he sought help from others. They included a Christian group that tried to do an exorcism, which he walked out of, and a different pastor who helped him find a psychologist. The doctor diagnosed him with DID and Mr. Walker entered a care facility, which helped him to recover, he said.

The solution is "not just going to fall out of the sky just because you pray," Mr. Walker said. "God says you still have to get up and do something."

Col. Jay R. Bickley, 552nd Air Control Wing commander, told Mr. Walker that he was always amazed at his "unbelievable athletic ability," but his admiration grew "a hundred-fold" for his perseverance and resiliency.

"We ask our military members to go through a lot of stuff," Colonel Bickley said. "And they see things that nobody should ever see. In the past there was a negative stigma attached when a service member sought help.

"We're changing that in the military.  We now understand that sometimes people need to take a knee. And to hear you come out and talk about it is just phenomenal -- a tremendous, tremendous story."