THE YOUNG PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE
“Knaves, grifters, hangers-on, druggies, prostitutes, need to be avoided.” This guideline was clearly written in a poster that his coach gave him and that he hanged in his bathroom. Jambert looked at it with his bleary eyes while he was in the throes of a hangover from the previous night’s party at a local club. He had his share of cuties that seemed to always surround him, and he had no willpower to say no. In fact, one of them was snoring in his bed right now. He couldn’t tell you her name. Her pillowy bosom and steely buns caught his fancy, and his pecker went into overdrive. Indeed, she gave him a blow job right outside the club in his brand-new and sleek sports car and it felt so good that he wanted to have some more. So, he brought her to his place. And he drank and drank. Now this. It never fails. Whenever he gulps liquor, he is sure to be sick afterwards. This lesson, like so many others, Jambert, aka “J,” had a hard time to learn.
He was a success story on the field. He possesses an innate ability to control the ball and score goals. He was a wunderkind, with sculpted quads and calf muscles, ideal for strength and stability. He grew up in the “hood” in Miami and his family was very poor. They had immigrated from Haiti and were barely literate. From early on, he mesmerized his peers with his talents. He was a quick learner. He excelled at the local academy where word of mouth about this incredible talent had spread fast, and recruiters came like locusts to sign him and offer him gratuities. That little detail, they would deny vehemently. Suffice it to say that his parents were able to move from their 2-bedroom dilapidated flat in Liberty City to a comfortable home in North Miami that ostensibly they couldn’t have afforded based on their take-home pay.
“J” was a quick study and led his high school team to win many trophies, including state championship. He came to the US at age 8 and by the time he graduated high school, he had no trace of any immigrant accent. He was then 17. He received a contract for a team in the American professional soccer league. He earned the stellar distinction of scoring a hat trick on his professional debut. As a rookie, he established new scoring records and assists. His free kicks were described as “crafty geometric creations.” His reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Very polished on the pitch but not so refined intellectually, not exactly eloquent, he nevertheless became a catnip for agents looking for the next star to sign and to help themselves with their own bottom line by whatever means necessary.
Four years after graduation from high school, he had become a starter for Newcastle of the English Premier League. His two-seater carried the following license plates: “BBs.” Fans and beat sportswriters were all over the map guessing the abbreviation and that became sort of trivia madness sport. Whether one was friendly toward him, they could be described as “Banging Broads”, “Beautiful Babes”, “Best of the Bees”, “Best Buns.” As is common in a supercharged environment of professional sports where unleashed passions cut both ways, snickering fans would just as well see “Beast and Beauties”, “Black Blokes”, “Beget Bastards”, “Bad/Black Boys.” One subject that everybody agreed upon was his frolicking with English women, a matter that frazzled some sensibilities. The image of a cocky, dark denizen, flaunting his riches and publicly cavorting with blondes didn’t sit too well with some corners. Others either were willing to turn a blind eye or couldn’t care less so long as he kept scoring goals and kept on winning games.
His success on the pitch went to his head. From a somewhat shy dude, he became full of hubris, maybe too much so and he committed the mortal sin of surliness and arrogance with the press corps. The kerfuffle started over J’s snickering at a reporter’s asking him about what sounded like “shedule” instead of his accustomed sound of “skedule.” The honeymoon was over. Imagine a lily-white, all-male bastion on the receiving end from an uppity athlete of dark complexion. His mouth and attitude turned out to be his worst enemies. Waiting for the propitious time to even the insult, like sleuths, they trailed him and compiled a dossier on him. Any thoroughbred sooner or later becomes tired unless properly paced. This law of nature knows of no exception. J thought he was. Playing and partying into wee hours finally caught up with him. His recklessness resulted in an unprovoked, silly but painful thigh injury on the pitch. That opened the floodgates for the criticisms. What followed next was the perfect storm of misery attracting firestorm. His productivity fell off due to the injury. Rather than letting it heal properly, he resumed playing and his performance worsened.
On a dime, cheers quickly turned into jeers. Conveniently, his antics-off-the-field-cum- poor-playing became fertile fodder for a feeding frenzy among sportswriters. Anonymous sources would describe in graphic details his drinking habits and innuendos about use of drugs and his renowned hangovers. The aggrieved sportswriter sounded the clarion call by saying, “This bloke from an unsophisticated upbringing can’t be expected to live the life of an upright citizen. That would be asking too much of nature. One can take the man out of his environment but not the environment out of the man. Sooner or later, one would expect his excesses to catch up with him. How does one stay in good shape physically when partying all night and going to sleep so late? He is making a mockery of the fans who pay to see him perform at his best as he is so handsomely rewarded financially.” Others conflated his ethos, pathos with his genetic makeup, either slyly or bluntly, short of approving the reviled “monkey chants” of deeply biased opposing fans.
One sportswriter veiled his criticism with the varnish of academe when he stated, “An outstanding orator can leave one spellbound even through a screed that the uninitiated would just as soon discard as prolix and boring. A great musician can keep us enraptured through a long piece called a symphony, anathema to the metal-clanging style of the riffraff, very likely familiar to him. An outstanding athlete enthralls us with his consistency and his stats and gravity-defying moves. This lad’s elocution is far from captivating, and he was in no position to deride an Englishman’s pronunciation. He did show some flashes of brilliance but it’s very doubtful if it’s not similar to the beginner’s luck. At the end we may conclude he was much ado about nothing substantial.”
J had his first face-off with adversity. It was happening very publicly, and the emotional wounds were just brutal. Fans were no longer so adoring and the girls no longer as inviting at the clubs. His coach summoned him to a meeting.
“Are you that daft to ever think that the party would last forever? Why do you think I bothered to give you the poster? I have seen many young blokes like you let their careers sputter by not keeping the head on the shoulders. Fame is very fickle and finicky. If you want to continue to be a starter, you must make up your mind. Do you want to be known as a reliable performer on the pitch or the fodder for the gossips?” Whereupon he showed him a few unflattering pictures of him partying late and also throwing up. The tabloids described his female companions as “members of the oldest profession.”
J felt emasculated. A picture of him dancing with a blonde with the caption “Are we paying him for this instead of scoring? If so, that would be a damned shame. We have plenty of blokes to foot this role, we don’t need to import any. Enough is enough.” The tabloids were having a field day.
For all the money and success he had acquired, J realized he had no good friend to turn to for guidance. He fell into a deep depression and his performance suffered even more. He became demoted to a bench warmer role. His appearances on the pitch from warm cheers turned to loud boos by the heretofore adoring fans. His coach, sensing his major mental setback insisted on him seeing a psychologist. He resisted at once. “You have no choice in this matter. If you don’t do it and correct a listing boat, it will capsize and in simple terms it means you will no longer be part of the team.”
“Not being part of the team!” Not having a salary, not having access to all the amenities he had become accustomed to hit him like the force of a punch on the solar plexus. J felt degraded to his lowest level. He relented and did start seeing a psychologist. He was Jamaican-born and living in the country for past 15 years.
“You have been spoiled for too long and have come to expect awe, acclaim and adulation as a given. Life doesn’t work like that. There is a price for everything. Nothing comes for free. Your talent can carry you so far and for so long. One day you will become slower, and another young talented player will replace you. When you become a victim of a drought, then people will begin to tell you how they truly feel about you. You have forgotten your roots and that is a major blunder. Unless you can pause and ask yourself where you want to go, things will go from bad to worse. As quickly as folks were flocking to see you, they will flee from your sight that much faster when you carry a loser label. Professional sports can the warmest or the coldest environment. Unless you have solid social bonds, you won’t survive long. I strongly suggest you take some time off. Go back home where you were born. Go see how your folks handle hardship and reconnect with old friends instead of relying on the fake and new acquaintances who see in you the dollar signs.”
No soliloquy ever had a more profound effect. J did take a sick leave. He took the time to learn about the troubled lives of famous talented athletes whose careers fizzled prematurely due to their off-field shenanigans. He did pay a visit to his home country and met some cousins he had not kept in touch with for a long time. Their survival skills impressed him. “We are surprised you still remember us. We used to play together in the days on the dirt pavements with rolled socks as ball.” J felt embarrassed. For too long he had erased this part of his past. He had forgotten it. He saw firsthand human suffering after witnessing the aftermath of flooding brought about a downpour. He realized his good luck of having escaped all this hardship. He sensed the sincerity of relatives’ feelings who knew him when he was poor like them. He reassessed his priorities in life. He stayed back home for 2 weeks. Then he went to visit his parents in Miami.
“I can tell something is troubling you, my darling. Come and eat first; I made your favorite meal and then we will sort this out.” His mom’s instincts never failed. She had cooked plenty of joumou soup and beef patties. Either the sight or the smell of the food or even both flushed his blues. He was back to the old days when his mom’s cooking was the best antidote to his travails. True to form, he sat down and ate aplenty. As soon as he finished, “Now tell me boy, what happened to you? It has been more than two weeks since you called us when you were in England. Are you trying to abandon an old pot for new one? Do you really believe them gals in England care about you the way I do? When you stray too far, you will lose your way and bad things will happen to you.”
J gave a sanitized version of his upheaval. However, this didn’t fool his mom. She knew that a young, successful and talented hunk would fall victim to his surging hormones and the pitfalls thereof. “No matter, you are still my lovely son. I will love you, come what may.”
His mom went on a mission to nurse him. For his slight limp due to the injury, she threw everything at him. First, he has to stay immersed in the bathtub with lukewarm water and Epsom salt for 2 hours at a time. Then, she would massage the area with aloe vera alternating with palma Cristi oil, imported from home. Of course, she would get up at 5AM each day, would brew coffee and would make sure she fixed him porridge, either oat or plantain. He ate plenty of gryo with fried plantains, rice with all combinations of beans, yam, the works. His bruised ego benefited. He also spoke to his high school friends who advised him to slow down to avoid flaming out too soon and most of all to save money because it wouldn’t last forever.
J became reacquainted with his parents’ work ethic. Their regular and early rise rubbed off on him. Being around his parents provided him the best mental therapy he could have hoped for. He felt reenergized. “I promise to call you guys at least once a week.” J made that promise at the airport on his way back to England. He and his parents felt misty as he waved goodbye.
Back in England, he regained his aggressive pulse, his zest for life and desire for safe success based on hard work and free of hangers-on. His workouts on the pitch retained the raw efforts of yore and his physical form and production of the halcyon days returned without missing a beat. After a hiatus of a few weeks during which the criticisms from the fans and sportswriters saw no abatement, he both shut out people and shut them up by offering his signature performance in scoring a hat trick. The jeers that greeted him were soon forgotten and turned into cheers. Just like a flick of the finger. He felt good but he had learned his lesson. He continued to see the psychologist who became his counselor, his Yoda. He enrolled in a speech class to enhance his mastery of the language and especially his delivery during mandatory interviews with the press. He had to learn the ropes and avoid falling into unforeseen potholes that literally can turn into large craters that can crater his career.
At nights, instead of going to the pubs to celebrate, he now turns either to a chessboard or he keeps busy with his textbooks and homework. He had become smitten with the game of chess when he had gone back to his homeland, and he had watched with amazement his cousin play and excel at it. Instead of wasting money on liquor and “broads,” he would just as soon pay for the tuition of poor relatives, smart and ambitious. Serenity replaced drama in his life.
He was growing in wisdom as he not only understood the meaning of the words in the poster, but he was also able to apply them. Along the way his productive life benefited. He became involved in calisthenics and yoga, and they helped keep his tendons well stretched and he became far less prone to injury.
Reynald Altéma, MD