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The Fighter
  • November 13, 2011 : 20:11
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Walker’s professional career also produced remarkable highlights. He is the only player in NFL history to have scored touchdowns in a single season on a run from scrimmage of 90 yards or more, a pass reception of 90 yards or more and a kickoff return of 90 yards or more. Because Walker spent his first years in the USFL, however, some of his greatest achievements—among them 2,411 yards rushing in 1985—go unacknowledged by the football establishment. Moreover, while he had spectacular seasons for both Dallas and the Philadelphia Eagles, he was not everyone’s idea of a classic NFL back. The pro game values finesse. Walker featured power. “Herschel was a bruising runner,” says Nate Newton, a retired Cowboys offensive lineman. “He wasn’t elusive. He didn’t have the shakes of an Emmitt Smith.” Then there was “the trade,” a still hotly debated deal that sent Walker from Dallas to the Minnesota Vikings in return for five players and six draft picks—an unheard-of ransom. The trade was supposed to turn Minnesota into an instant competitor, but due to internal squabbles, the Vikings underused Walker and went nowhere. The Cowboys, meanwhile, parlayed their influx of talent into the foundation of three Super Bowl championship teams. “The trade hurt Herschel,” says Michael Irvin. “But I say to him, ‘Look at what people think of you. Look at what they were willing to give up.’ ” Walker is satisfied to let his career numbers tell the final story. If record keepers took into account his combined USFL and NFL yardage—13,787—he would be the fifth leading rusher in pro history, ahead of Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Ricky Williams.

In 1998, after returning to the Cowboys for his last two seasons, Walker retired. It was then that his dissociative disorder revealed its dark side. “Herschel really went through a hard time after retirement,” says Blanchard. Jerry Mungadze observes, “He began acting in ways inconsistent with who he thought he was, and it was devastating. He had personalities that had minds of their own. They felt differently, acted differently and used language differently.”

For Mungadze, Walker’s condition was anything but academic. “Once, he, his wife and I were in the office,” says the therapist, “and he threatened to kill her, myself and himself. I called 911, and the police came. That incident ended with him hitting the door and breaking his fist.”

Slowly, however, Walker made progress. “By resolving the traumas his alters resulted from,” says Mungadze, “the alters started listening to him and following his directions. I think he has now integrated his personalities and is a healthy guy.” The odds of Walker exploding in anger today, declares the psychologist, are “practically zero.”

“Only over the past couple of years have I been able to look at myself and say I love who I am,” says Walker, who is now such a believer in therapy that he has endorsed two mental-health outreach programs directed at people suffering not merely from dissociative disorders but from a full spectrum of emotional problems. Through Freedom Care, a division of Ascend Health Corporation, an operator of psychiatric hospitals, Walker speaks regularly to American armed forces members returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I go to a lot of bases and say, ‘There’s no shame to admit you have a problem.’ ” Since 2009 the ex–NFL star has appeared at 31 military installations, helping initiate care for more than 6,000 troops. Walker’s other program, Breaking Free, is aimed at patients at Ascend facilities, where he helps lead weekly group therapy sessions. “What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is tell people there’s hope. There are people who’ve struggled so long they think there is no hope. But there is.” For Walker the programs offer an added benefit. “I get a lot of therapy by getting up and sharing and being brutally honest.”

Mungadze believes Walker’s entrance into MMA is the greatest evidence of his emotional well-being. Although the therapist says his patient’s warrior alter—“the one that supports him in his fighting”—is still active, he contends that Walker’s more troubling personalities have been silenced. If he were still hearing voices, Walker could not survive in the cage, where the very real threat presented by the fists, feet and knees of opponents would make such distractions deadly.

Walker’s love of MMA is unequivocal. The companionship of his fellow fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy and the attention he has received (his first two bouts aired live on Showtime and drew huge ratings) are gratifying. Even the money, whether he keeps it or not, is a form of respect. Promoters are dangling a $1 million payday for his third fight. “They’re making me an offer I can’t refuse,” Walker says. Most of all he relishes the competition. Since his teens, that is what has kept him sane. For Walker to thrive in the world, he must keep pushing himself to do things others regard as on the edge.

Those who care about Walker are now urging him to walk away from MMA. “We all feel scared,” says Blanchard. “His family does not approve. He’s done it. He’s proved it.” Walker hears them but says he will finish on his own terms. After this last fight, he says, “I can guarantee you there will be no more. It really won’t make sense for me to continue to fight after this year.”

Punk Carter’s Cutting Horse Ranch, 30 miles north of Dallas, is an unadulterated slice of old Texas. From its barn, bunkhouses and stables to its rustic ranch house, the place exudes Western authenticity. On a storm-threatened summer night, Herschel Walker has driven here to discuss an opportunity.

The proprietor, Punk Carter, spends most of his days teaching would-be cowboys how to ride and rope, but like a lot of country boys he is also a superb cook who augments his income with a line of spicy ranch hand ketchups and barbecue sauces. He and Walker are both in the food business. Along with a couple of partners they are developing a nutritional supplement, believing that a marketing campaign that capitalizes on Walker’s vaunted physique and his NFL and MMA pedigrees will get their product on store shelves. This evening potential investors have flown in from California.

As chicken and ribs sizzle on a grill, Walker, dressed in a TapouT T-shirt and faded jeans, strolls back to the barn, where Carter’s 14-year-old grandson, Brock, is performing rope tricks. Soon enough the boy has his famous visitor atop a mechanical device Carter devised to help instruct greenhorns. At the push of a button, a steer on wheels roars down a narrow-gauge track and the student tosses his lasso. After several tries, Walker gets the hang of it, and the boy graduates him to a more difficult task—bringing down a live calf. This job demands not only precise roping but also expert footwork. It is no easy thing to upend and control an animal that weighs 250 pounds. Again and again Walker tries. Again and again the calf breaks free. Eventually, however, Walker gets it right. With one leg wedged against the calf’s flank, he flips it over, ties its hooves and flashes a broad smile. He had come to Carter’s place to expand his culinary empire, but something entirely different is now on his mind.

“You know,” he says as he returns to the main house for his meeting, “a lot of the original cowboys were black. There’s no reason I can’t be a cowboy. I just might become a cowboy.” His grin suggests that while MMA may soon be behind him, he will still be game for just about anything. “To get greatness,” he says, “you’ve got to almost get crazy.”

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

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