Georgia legend Herschel Walker talks about mental health for Athens audience
By Sarah Spencer, RedandBlack.com
“Hello, nice to meet you. My name is Herschel, what’s yours? Where are you from? What do you do?”
Herschel Walker, Heisman Trophy-winning Georgia running back, warmly greeted guests filing in to hear his speech at an event titled “Mental Health Awareness – Removing the Stigma.” The gathering took place in downtown Athens, fittingly at Herschel’s Famous 34 Chicken and Ribs Kitchen.
Coming to terms with his dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, led Walker to begin speaking for the Patriot Support Program, a United Health Services program that addresses behavioral and mental disorders in soldiers and veterans.
“Out of my time at UGA, winning the Heisman, my record in the NFL, this is what I’m most proud of,” Walker said. “Sports has given me a platform to bring awareness to things like this.”
Walker, who was bullied and teased as a child, said that because he never confronted those feelings, they affected him negatively later in life.
“I had a speech impediment, teachers put me in the corner, kids beat me up, and I never went out to recess,” Walker said.
The desire to stand up to bullies is what inspired him to begin the rigorous callisthenic regime of push-ups and pull-ups for which he would one day become famous. Walker also started playing football for the same reason and took trips to the library and read aloud to better his speech.
Walker went on to have a successful football career at UGA, and still holds nearly all of the school’s rushing records.
During his time in the NFL, Walker was often referred to as “the Cleaner” by many of his coaches and teammates. He was a role model and supporter of teammates who were facing problems in their lives or under emotional strain.
“No mafia ties, though,” he assured a laughing audience.
These are the same teammates who did not want to associate with him after he went public with his disorder, he explained.
After his retirement in 1997, without football as a medium to channel his aggression, Walker began to notice out-of-the-ordinary personality changes. He would occasionally black out and be unable to remember violently losing his temper.
After seeking help to explain this behavior, Walker was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. He received treatment, and his desire to reach out to others was still prominent.
“Whether I talk to one person or 100 people, I’ve done my job,” Walker said. “Because that one person can tell others, and support will spread.”
Because of the negative stigma associated with mental disorders, Walker insists that if he could tell the UGA student body one thing, it would be that there’s no shame in asking for help from professionals.
“I don’t feel bad that I was in a hospital. I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to go,” Walker said. “I might not be here if I hadn’t gotten help.”
Now a successful businessman, Walker owns both Renaissance Man Food Services, the largest minority chicken company in the country, and 34 Productions, which handles the promotional side of his enterprises. However, Walker continues as a spokesman for the Patriot Support Program and visits military bases every month.
“A big man stands up for himself. A bigger man stands up for others.”