Walker 'Breaking Free'; Former Star Tries to Raise Awareness with Memoir about His Mental Illness

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Cohn

As a football player, Herschel Walker had several identities and incarnations.

A running back with uncommon power and speed, Walker was an instant All-American at Georgia in 1980 and a Heisman Trophy winner two years later. He left school early to join the fledgling U.S. Football League - a shocking move at the time - and then played for the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he had one notable season before going to the Minnesota Vikings in a blockbuster trade for several draft picks. The deal helped the Cowboys build a dynasty, while Minnesota, for whom Walker proved serviceable but unspectacular, went nowhere. He finished his career as a backup with three other teams, including Dallas again.

That was the Herschel Walker familiar to the public - one of the greatest college players ever, merely a solid pro. But there were other versions of Walker, many others, known only to a select few. It was because of a mental illness called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

During the last few months, Walker has discussed his battle with DID, formerly known as multiple-personality disorder, to raise public awareness and promote his book, "Breaking Free," which he co-wrote. The book details his struggles with DID, including how he played Russian roulette several times and considered killing a man.

His ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, also went public, discussing how Walker put a gun to her head, threatened her with razor blades and knives and choked her. Walker doesn't disavow this but said he recalls none of it.

Why share such a story and its disturbing personal details (which have since provoked a measure of ridicule)? Walker said it helped him come to grips with his problem. And, he said, the proceeds from the book will go toward building or converting hospitals in San Francisco, Dallas and El Paso, Texas, to help those suffering from mental illnesses and substance abuse.

But mainly, he intends to enlighten and educate.

"My life is not complete yet," he said. "I'm as proud of this book as I was of playing football. I think it can help a lot of people. If one person can draw inspiration, if they have a drug or an alcohol problem and they see that I come out and tell my story and they say, 'I want to get there, too,' this book is worth it to me. This book is for people who are hiding, who are ashamed. I had a serious problem. This ain't no joke. This is real."

In recognition of his efforts, Walker will be honored today during a National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day event at the Lincoln Theater. Held by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the event includes dance, music and poetry performed by local high school students.

"He's using his celebrity to ultimately help other people," said Dr. Gary Blau, chief of the adolescent and family branch at SAMHSA. "Because of people like Herschel Walker, people might have the courage to make that phone call."

Walker, 46, who lives in Dallas and runs a food manufacturing and distribution business, said he tries to explain DID in simple terms "so that people can understand it." This, he said, has upset some in the psychiatric community because it is, in fact, a complicated and often misunderstood illness. He is not taking medication, instead relying on the counseling of Jerry Mungadze, a psychologist.

Blau and others familiar with DID say 85 to 95 percent of the cases are the result of abuse, usually sexual or physical, during childhood. Not Walker's. While growing up in a small town in Georgia, he said, his parents were supportive and did not abuse him. But he had other issues. His peers ridiculed him for stuttering and being overweight. He was afraid of the dark and suffered through nightmares.

By the summer before ninth grade, "enough was enough," he said. …