OPINION: Herschel Walker’s book revealed star’s mental health struggle and success

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donal Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Former professional football player Herschel Walker speaks to the crowd before introducing President Donal Trump during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

The last national football title the University of Georgia won was the 1980 national football championship. And as any Georgia fan will tell you, it would not have been possible without the running back from Wrightsville, Herschel Walker.

Now Walker is said to be considering a different kind of run, telling Fox News audiences to “stay tuned” when asked if he’ll challenge Raphael Warnock for Senate in 2022.

Politicos in the state tick through Walker’s pros and cons as a potential candidate as they wait for him to make an announcement either way.

The “pros” are obvious: The former Heisman Trophy winner is not just well known in the state, he has a hero’s status among legions of fans.

His improbable rise from rural Johnson County, where the Ku Klux Klan still operated during his childhood, to becoming a professional football superstar is the stuff legends, and campaigns, are built on.

As a Black Republican, Walker would both present a new face for a GOP that desperately needs one and position him to at least compete for minority votes in what both parties know will be a neck-and-neck race contest between Warnock and any Republican.

Last, but not least, Walker already has the support of his longtime friend, former President Donald Trump, who tweeted of Walker in March, “Run Herschel, run!”

Among the cons of a potential Senate candidacy for Walker are his lack of direct political experience and the not inconsequential fact that he has lived in Texas since playing for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some Republicans also privately worry about, “Breaking Free,” the book Walker wrote in 2008 about his diagnosis seven years earlier with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the mental illness that was formerly known as “multiple personality disorder.”

The book itself gives a first-hand, often raw account of the childhood trauma that Walker believes led to his need to separate himself from the abuse he experienced as a child. Although he describes growing up in a loving and deeply religious family, he also writes that going to school as an overweight child with a severe stutter left him isolated from other children and frequently beaten by his classmates.

On his loneliest days in elementary school, Walker writes that he used coins that he found at home, not to buy a trinket or piece of candy, but to coax classmates to talk to him for a bit.

“I can’t describe how good it felt to step out of my usual isolation tank into the fresh air of human interaction.”

At some point in his childhood, Walker says voices that once calmed him from frightening experiences grew into distinct identities, some protective, others menacing, that followed him into adulthood.

Throughout the book, Walker recounts his highest highs, including his physical transformation in adolescence to his breakout successes in football, track and even as a member of the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

But he also shares his lowest lows, caused and then worsened he believes, by his DID.

In emotional detail, he writes about his infidelity to his former wife, Cindy, after his football career ended. “I did something so horrible that I can’t believe to this day that I’m the one who did it,” he says of his affair.

He also describes the worsening rage he struggled to control without football as an outlet and structure in his life. In an especially dark moment, he writes of sitting alone at his kitchen table playing Russian Roulette with his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.

“I truly didn’t want to die,” he says, “but I was like a junkie looking for that next and better high.”

The majority of Walker’s story, like the majority of his life, is full of stories of achievement against all odds of race, class, opportunity and, now we know, mental illness.

And while Walker may have many other reasons to run or not to run, it would be a shame if writing, “Breaking Free,” is among the reasons not to.

His decision to reveal his diagnosis 14 years ago was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Although we now understand mental health to be as vital to survival as physical health, it wasn’t always so.

The year “Breaking Free” was published also marked the first time insurance companies were required to cover mental health services as something more than optional and superfluous.

Even then, mental health disorders were rarely acknowledged and often misunderstood as a sign of weakness or incapacitation. In reality, they’re a sign of being human and alive.

Walker has talked openly about his trauma and treatment since then, especially to military and veterans audiences, telling them he feels an affinity for their combat and recovery.

In an author’s note preceding the book, he explains why he chose to share such a personal and complicated story.

“I want to do what I can to help remove the stigma of mental illness,” he writes, “to demonstrate how once it is understood, DID and the mental process of dissociation can be channeled into something positive.”

It would be naive to believe that Democratic opposition researchers are not already combing through Walker’s past, including this memoir and the interviews he did to promote it, looking for damaging details to fold into political attacks should Walker run.

But the larger questions are ones only Walker can know before he gets in, if he ever does: Is he ready for a Senate race with his past thrust back into the present? And does he believe he can do the job?

The rest would be for voters to decide. As we have been reminded in Georgia this year, nobody knows how the story ends until voters make up their minds.