Walker unmasks demons in book

Like so many of the more than 220 people snaking in line through the University of Georgia bookstore, finally coming face-to-face with the legend strikes a certain measure of awe that the legend tries earnestly to diffuse.


"Hi, Mr. Walker," junior Rachel Nix, a third-year microbiology student from Marietta, said shyly when her turn to meet him came up.

"It's Herschel, please," he replied softly.

The man every Georgia Bulldogs fan knows by only one iconic name says he has had as many as 12 distinct "alters" running around inside his head since he was a fat, stuttering kid in Wrightsville, Ga., through becoming a Heisman Trophy winner, pro football star, Olympic athlete and successful entrepreneur.

Walker's new book -- Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder -- is his attempt to come to terms with a condition (once known as multiple personality disorder) that even he was skeptical of when it was first diagnosed shortly after the end of his playing career.

"My experience was a seamless stretch of events narrated by a single person," he wrote. "I didn't realize then that there was inside of me a kind of chorus or a cast of actors each taking their turn to step into the spotlight to take charge."

Judging by the crowd that had started gathering at 5:30 a.m. outside the bookstore -- seven hours before the 90-minute book signing period Friday -- Herschel hasn't lost a step in their eyes since details of his new book filtered out before last Monday's official release. Some of the crowd had sifted through as much as a third of the book while standing in line, and it only enhanced their opinion of the man they'd already cherished for leading Georgia to its last national football title as a freshman in 1980.

"You hold this guy to be almost like an idol, it makes him even more special the fact that he's willing to be flawed," said Dianne Wellems, a junior cellular biology major from Rockville, Md., who was among the first to camp out in line.

"I didn't realize Herschel had all these problems," said Jim Ray, who came to Athens from Toccoa with his 14-year-old son, Jonathon, to meet the Bulldog legend. "I feel less skeptical. I've always admired him. I guess I never realized how much he had to overcome. Maybe some of the reasons he was so successful is because of what he had to overcome."

That seems to be the message Walker wants to get out through this book. By his own account, it was a very difficult story for him to share. That kind of openness has always been tough for him.

"For a lot of my life I've felt like an alien and tried to put a great distance between other people and me," he wrote.

But he was drawn to close that gap by writing this book in hopes that other people might benefit from his experience dealing with a mental illness that at times drove him to do things against his nature -- from lashing out at his wife to playing Russian Roulette with a loaded gun.

"I'm hoping and praying it will help a lot of people who have been hiding," Walker said Friday. "We all battle our demons and some people are too scared to come forward. No one's perfect and they need to talk about their problems and it's okay to get help."

His message resonated with the people who came to meet him on the campus of his alma mater.

"I'd have to say it's really courageous for him to come out," said Wellems. "As a football player, Georgia fans hold him up as, you know, Herschel. He's supposed to be perfect. But the fact that this man can come out and be just totally open with his own afflictions and really encourage people to be imperfect-- that's OK. Being imperfect I think is what makes him perfect. It's honorable."

Kae Burnam of Oglethorpe County certainly rates as a big Bulldogs fan. Her son who suffers from cerebral palsy is named Eric Russell in honor of a former UGA quarterback (Eric Zeier) and defensive coach (Erk Russell).

All he requested for his upcoming 14th birthday was a copy of Walker's book, which she got signed with a personalized note.

"It would be awesome for kids with disabilities to help them cope with obstacles and knowing they can be successful," said Burnam of the message in Walker's story. "I think my son will love it because of his challenges."

Walker's own challenges are just another layer of his legend -- and in his eyes perhaps the most important part.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.



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