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The Fighter
  • November 13, 2011 : 20:11
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People close to Walker were incredulous. “I know him better than anybody,” his father told a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-­Constitution, “because I raised him. This is my first knowing about that.” In an attempt to make light of the revelation, Vince Dooley, Walker’s college coach, said, “I like the personality he had when he ran the football.”

Initially Walker was also uncertain. Seeking a second opinion, he entered a California psychiatric hospital for three weeks as an outpatient. “For the first couple of days,” he recalls, “you say to yourself, ‘I’m not like these people here. I’m not like these people.’ Then, all of a sudden, it hit me. I was just like those people. The diagnosis was right—is right. That’s what it was. That’s what it is.”

As Walker came to understand, the source of his disorder could be traced to childhood. Although he grew up in a large, supportive churchgoing family in the rural Georgia town of Wrightsville, he had been a frightened boy (he was terrified, for instance, of entering his darkened home alone) who was dealt two of youth’s cruelest cards. “I was chubby, what my parents called big boned to keep from having to call me fat,” he says, “and I had a terrible speech impediment. I’d have to slap myself repeatedly on the arm just to get a word out.” By way of illustration, Walker takes a breath and with consonants catching on the back of his teeth mumbles, “I c-c-c-could not s-s-s-say w-w-what was on m-m-my mind.”

An overweight stutterer gripped by a resulting lack of self-esteem, Walker was, in his words, “a doofus” who in elementary school was so unpopular the only way he could get fellow students to talk with him at recess was by bribing them with his lunch money. Schoolmates called him Herschel the Girlshul. “By eighth grade I’d been beaten up 15 times,” he says. “On the last day of eighth grade I got beat up again. I went home and watched Gilligan’s Island and said, ‘That won’t happen to Herschel again.’ I was tired of it. I said, ‘Let’s do something about it.’ ”

In 1975, which he calls his “year of independence,” the 13-year-old Walker began forcing himself to stay up alone in the house at night and started reading books aloud in front of a mirror. “I read Cowboy Sam over and over to give me confidence,” he says. Walker also inaugurated his exercise program. Not only did he begin doing the thousands of sit-ups and push-ups that still sustain him, he started running barefoot along a lonely country railroad right-of-way and over a course his father plowed for him with a tractor in a field near their home. With the help of the high school football coach, he also invented a piece of brutal but effective training equipment. From an old harness, an oversize tire and a number of 10-pound shots, he built a weighted sled. After school, while his classmates wiled away their afternoons, he hitched himself to the sled and pulled it around the school track at top speed. “In eighth grade,” he says, “if anyone had asked if I’d be a good athlete, it would have been a big fat no with a laugh. By ninth grade I’d gone from a joke to one of the fastest kids in Georgia.”

Walker’s athletic feats at Johnson County High School are the stuff of legend. In his senior year he won state championships in the 100-yard dash and shot put and was the most highly recruited football player in America. But the triumphs, he says, came at an enormous cost. To survive the isolation that was his lot and the rigors of his singular pursuit, Walker developed an array of personalities that soon dominated his inner life. Some, like “the sentry,” were intended to ward off the taunts of schoolmates. Others, like “the enforcer,” were charged with punishing, at least in his fantasies, those who had done him wrong. “The hero” summoned him to ever greater gridiron achievements, while “the warrior” prepared him for combat with opponents. According to Walker, these alters, as therapists who treat dissociative disorders call them, were not just aspects of self but distinct characters with joys, needs, grievances and aspirations. Day in and day out he heard their clamoring voices.

For a long time it all somehow worked. As Walker writes in Breaking Free, his alters usually functioned in concert, transforming him into a veritable athletic superman. At the University of Georgia he overwhelmed huge linemen and sprinted past swift safeties. In his Heisman Trophy–winning year Walker averaged 159.3 yards rushing per game. Few could tackle him, and almost no one could catch him. “I think as a pure running back he’s the best there’s ever been,” says Dooley. “He had world-class speed, strength, toughness and discipline. He broke so many long runs for us. Even today he’s among the top 10 rushers in collegiate history. Most of the other guys in that group played four seasons. He played only three.”

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read more: sports, magazine, interview, issue december 2011

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