Thursday 27 June 2019

Neil Francis: 'Lives on the line when players choose to walk on the wild side'

Being a talented athlete in America comes with many temptations which not everyone can resist

It looks like the slippery slope has opened up in front of Kareem Hunt. Career over; life unfulfilled. Photo: Getty
It looks like the slippery slope has opened up in front of Kareem Hunt. Career over; life unfulfilled. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

1 THE CHAINBREAKER

'Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court and now it is my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences - you will go to prison for five years.'

Above right: Tom Brady issues instructions to New England Patriots team-mates Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman. Photo: Getty
Above right: Tom Brady issues instructions to New England Patriots team-mates Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman. Photo: Getty

These opening lines from the brilliant comedy series Porridge starring Ronnie Barker, spoken by Judge Rawley, left an impression on me for the intonation construed about criminals accepting arrest as an occupational hazard and the presumption that most criminals accept imprisonment in the same casual manner.

What type of person finds a custodial sentence a minor inconvenience?

On September 9, 2018 I watched the Los Angeles Chargers play the Kansas City Chiefs in the first match of the season in StubHub Centre, which is where LA Galaxy play. I believe its name has been changed again to Dignity Health Sports Park. You have to wonder if naming rights are worth the money, although in fairness, the naming of the Aviva is one that has worked.

I did not need to avail of StubHub's usurious services to get a ticket for the match. In fact there seemed to be more Kansas City fans in the arena, which was a long way short of full. It is a tidy little stadium with a capacity of 27,000. Work is well under way for a 100,000-plus seater stadium in Los Angeles which will have the LA Rams and Chargers as co-tenants and will host the 2028 Olympics.

The quality of the stadium was inconsequential as both teams lit up the park with some sensational play. The Chiefs' wide receiver Tyreek Hill has run better than 9.95 for the 100 metres and in the first minute of the game he ran 91 yards for a punt return. I don't think I have seen a human being run faster. That was the first of three touchdowns he scored on the day but the stand-out was rookie sensation Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. He announced himself to the world with a surgical display of accuracy and authority that even Tom Brady would find difficult to match. Mahomes carved the Chargers to pieces, with bullet passes right into the bread basket, including a couple of side-winders on the run. I can always say I was there.

The Chiefs are now the number one seed in the AFC and have home field advantage all the way through the play-offs. If their defence can hold up they have a chance, although their coach, Andy Reid, has a habit of only getting you so far.

Last year the Chiefs unearthed another superstar in the form of 23-year-old running back Kareem Hunt. The former University of Toledo star rushed for 1,369 yards and picked up 440 yards receiving in the full season. Very impressive for a rookie. Very impressive full stop. He didn't really figure in the game against the Chargers. Why run when your aerial game is so proficient?

A year ago, on January 6, the Tennessee Titans beat the Chiefs in Kansas and a moderately promising season came to an end. Hunt was used sparingly in the second half after Kansas led 21-3 at half-time. Reid got his tactics wrong - again.

Six days after the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in Minnesota, Hunt was involved in an assault on a woman in a Cleveland hotel. Ten months later the Chiefs cut him. Why the wait?

Having made a statement to the Chiefs organisation and to the NFL, the running back was allowed to continue to play but when tabloid news website TMZ got their hands on a video of the incident, it seems the pictures were at odds with Hunt's version. The assault is not as shocking as the Ray Rice elevator punch and subsequent knock-out of his fiancée but it is still disturbing.

It is online, if you must.

It's 3.22am, it looks like there is a gang of about a dozen people in the hotel room and in the hotel corridor. It also seems that everyone is drunk or worse. This is a bad boy situation, one you wouldn't want your son or daughter anywhere near, because bad things always happen in these situations at that stage of the night.

The girl in question is 19 years old. Where do her parents think she is? She is pushed violently into a wall and is then kicked by Hunt. What is he thinking? The footballer should be thinking of getting to the play-offs with the Chiefs, who are favoured to get there. He should be thinking about the thrill of the play-offs, the thought of playing in a Super Bowl. Then there are the huge money contracts and the possibility of leading a life of relative comfort. Steady now. Just keep the bus between the ditches. Behave yourself. Stay out of trouble and all of this could come true. See the big picture, see the light.

Back in September at the StubHub Centre during that 38-26 win over the Chargers, unseen in the seats behind me, fate was quietly slipping lead into his boxing gloves. Hunt had both hands tied behind his back - his genes and his family tree had contrived and conspired against him since birth.

When I heard he had been cut, I thought, what a gobshite, you have thrown it all away. But when you dig a little deeper you realise that to get as far as he did was a miracle.

Hunt's father, also Kareem, has been arrested 35 times and spent a total of nine years in jail for domestic violence and drug-related felonies. Hunt's uncle, Rashan Hunt, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and is still serving a 23-year term in jail. Another uncle, Kevin Riggins, is doing a 10-year stretch for drug trafficking and other drugs-related charges. A cousin, Gregory Hunt, is serving a 12-year term for drugs and gun offences.

Hunt's brother spent two years in jail for criminal trespass. Hunt's mother Stephanie Riggins was arrested for cocaine possession and continuous DUI and avoided a custodial sentence because she was the only responsible adult to raise the family.

Hunt's stepfather also got eight years for drug trafficking and other offences.

The list just goes on. The casual manner in which jail sentences are received are an occupational hazard!

The reason this story is noteworthy is because it is more than NFL bad boy goes off the rails. It's a bad news story because Hunt looked like he had finally broken the cycle. He could have taken the NFL draft in his third year at Toledo but chose to stay and complete his education when the money on offer was enormous. If he had then picked up an injury in college it could all have been over before it began.

Ironically, Hunt studied criminal justice at Toledo. Whatever a diploma in criminal justice is worth from the University of Toledo, it marked one thing: that in seven generations, not one person in Hunt's extended family had gone to college, let alone picked up a degree or diploma. Very few of them finished high school.

Yes, he had one or two misdemeanours in high school and college, but generally Hunt kept the show on the road, despite what was going on with his family and presumably his friends. It is a minor tragedy that, having got that far towards having a life and a lifestyle free of criminality and then succumbing to the temptation that money and fame bring in the NFL, you have nobody to guide or counsel you.

How easy or difficult is it to walk away from provocation or temptation? As a national figure and a power athlete, was it inevitable? But Hunt assaulted a woman. You cannot assault a woman. Full stop.

Hunt was involved in an another assault in a nightclub in the first week of December and it looks like the slippery slope has opened up in front of him. Career over; life unfulfilled.

I have wondered why the Chiefs didn't have a chaperone for this high-value athlete? Protect your player and your investment.

Is it easier said than done?

2 THE CHAPERONE

Last September, the New England Patriots - desperate for a deep threat and a wide receiver with genuine pace - traded a fifth-round draft pick for Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns. Gordon had missed 43 of the last 48 games for Cleveland because of repeated substance abuse and consequent suspensions. There was no doubting his athletic ability, just his ability to stay clean for 17 weeks of the season.

Bill Belichick is a very smart coach and a man who can coax the very best out of players where talent doesn't seem to exist. To call the trade for Gordon a calculated risk is wrong because when you are working out the equation you have to be sure you can absolutely rely on something. There needs to be a base point or a foundation and if there is, you have a chance. Unfortunately when you are dealing with a junkie there is no basis for a working arrangement. Junkies who happen to be talented athletes are the most worthless investment in a human being and the most pointless.

I have always marvelled at Belichick's determination and abrasive edge. So I guess if somebody was to get something out of Gordon, it would have to be Belichick.

Even in middle school Gordon was experimenting with Xanax and marijuana. He joined the Six Deuce Harvard Park Brim Blood gang in high school, which meant he carried a gun at all times. The gang stole cars, got involved in lethal gang fights, got involved in scamming and dealing drugs.

In college Gordon never played sober, frequently taking cocktails of drugs hours before games mixing it with several measures of Grand Marnier, of all things. I was reminded of Christy Moore's famous line about "how your man stayed up on the surfboard after 14 pints of stout".

The gravitational pull to the dark side was irresistible, but despite taking Class A drugs in industrial quantities before, during and after games, Gordon had real ability and his numbers told you he was a genuine threat.

Gordon was thrown out of Baylor University and then Utah. Yet Cleveland went after him in the draft and he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year. He descended into hell the following season.

Cleveland showed astonishing patience with him as he played in only five games in four seasons, but they eventually gave up on him. They wished Belichick the very best in his endeavours. Most rational, sane, sober people can figure out when a last, last chance eventually lands in their lap. Belichick read his new wide receiver the riot act, arranged weekly blood tests and a contract that was strongly weighted on a pay-for-play basis. The kicker, though, was he needed 24-hour surveillance - a team of security operatives were ready with the Andrex Extra Soft when Gordon went to the crapper. He was tagged. He had to bring his phone everywhere and be contactable 24/7.

When he started playing, Gordon's figures were good and he did what he was picked to do. He played in 11 games, scored three touchdowns and gave the Patriots what they had been missing. The Patriots were on track for the play-offs and most likely as a seeded team. They had a reasonable chance of a cut at the Super Bowl. Everything looked good. You can't, though, reason with a junkie and when New England had their bye round on November 20, Gordon, despite his life and his career on the line, spent Saturday trying to ditch his chaperones. After an exhausting day he managed to do it, contacted his local drug dealer and got bombed.

There is no point in trying to reconcile his behaviour with what he had to lose. The next day he issued a statement via his lawyers: "I take my mental health very seriously at this point to ensure I remain able to perform at the highest level. I have recently felt like I could get a better grasp on things mentally."

What part of last, last chance does he not understand? "Able to perform at the highest level"? Career over Sonny. Rehab for you and maybe jail when you can't pay the child support anymore.

Gordon's story is just a microcosm of what is happening in America. Since 1999, nearly three-quarters of a million Americans have died of drug overdoses. Last year, 70,800 died from opioid (Fentanyl) overdoses or misuse. One in 20 of 18 to 25-year-olds in America uses cocaine on a regular basis. Gordon talked about his mental health, but you have to ask if those mental health issues are derived from mind-altering, mood-altering, illicit drugs? And I wonder too how many of the 50,000 suicides a year in America have their beginning in illicit drug use? Gordon was in a privileged position, unlike a lot of those in the statistics you've just read. He had the American dream in his grasp. All he had to do was . . .

3 SAY IT AIN'T SO

When Julian Edelman, the two-time Super Bowl slot receiver for the New England Patriots, was caught with a PED in his system, a little bit of me died. I am an arch-sceptic. I believed that, yes, almost everyone was on something, but not him. Edelman has been the beating heart of the Patriots' offence since he was drafted from Kent State and he has developed a telepathic relationship with quarterback Tom Brady.

Edelman's determination and ability to pull completions out of impossible situations are what makes his personality so compelling. At 5ft 10in you root for the little guy because invariably he will make the play no matter how difficult.

What is troubling about the whole affair is that the positive was "triggered by a substance that wasn't immediately recognisable". There are 71 proscribed substances on the NFL/WADA list and so it seems that the sample had a substance with "a similar chemical structure and similar biological effects".

Just how far are the bad guys ahead of the good guys?

At that time Edelman was in the middle of rehab for a torn ACL. He had enlisted the services of Brady's medical guru Alex Guerrera, who has kept 41-year-old Brady fresh, lithe and alive in the most violent league in the world. Guerrera felt compelled to issue a statement denying any responsibility or culpability for Edelman's positive drug test. Edelman apologised to everyone without admitting liability and took the enormous suspension of four weeks. Edelman is back good as ever aged 32 and is central to the Patriots' push for the Super Bowl. He may show his boundless enthusiasm and resilience to see the Patriots advance but I may not be so gung-ho anymore.

Disquietude is the word I am looking for. If not shaken, certainly stirred.

Meanwhile, there has been no follow-up by the NFL; nothing to say that they have positively identified the substance to deter its further abuse. If there is a new class of anabolic agent out there, surely the parent body should at the very least be inquisitive about it. I think Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song about the situation.

4 THE LUNATICS

We conclude with a 'sport' that definitely knows what it is taking, we just don't understand why. Once you hit 18 you are pretty much in charge of your own life. You can pretty much do what you want within the law and within social standards. Bodybuilding is at the forefront of pushing out the boundaries, and there are some disturbing trends in that area.

As that 'sport' evolves, the quest for a small percentage edge takes us a large step towards lunacy.

I've observed three new practices. See for yourself . . .

1) Some of you might have had a granny who had a paraffin stove to heat up the living room or kitchen. It would take the rest of the day to feel anyway normal again after inhaling the fumes. Bodybuilders, in conjunction with the usual cocktail of androgynous anabolic steroids, have started to inject paraffin oil into their limbs in industrial quantities. The side-effects from taking this toxic fuel are truly terrifying. We wait for the death toll to multiply before the fad becomes yesterday's shortcut to the perfect body. Diesel anyone?

2) Synthol was developed in Germany in the 1990s and was geared for men who wanted to have huge muscles but didn't want to do all the hard work in the gym. If I was a bodybuilder it would have been the perfect product for me - except I didn't want to die in my 30s. The magic components of Synthol are lidocaine 7.5 per cent (a local anaesthetic), Benzyl Alcohol 7.5 per cent (a steriliser) and medium chain Triglycerides 85 per cent. You know when you go to the doctor for bloods and they tell you all is well but try and get the triglycerides down below a certain level? What the boys are injecting would bring your levels up 100-fold, and with it heart disease and strokes and a guaranteed death before you reach 40.

3) The clincher is the abuse of insulin, which is what a lot of the mainstream bodybuilders use. Its merits are widely debated but it is popular because it is easily prescribed, easily available and the state pays for it. I can't figure out any possible benefits but it is endemic in America. If you take huge amounts of insulin, and you have to in order for the substance to work in the quest for the perfect body, you won't become diabetic when you stop, you will just die very young.

In America, 1,084,000 people regularly take anabolic steroids.

It is a $13.8 billion industry, and close to 10,000 people die from the side-effects of misuse of these drugs every year. That number is not insignificant.

You can't really mirror that number in Ireland but you can be sure that a goodly amount of eejits in Ireland will either kill themselves or get into serious medical difficulties from the stuff they are taking. If they are daft enough to take paraffin, insulin and in particular synthols in America, then it is likely that a small number are doing it in Ireland.

Sport Ireland should take a positive and aggressive interventionist attitude to this. Arbitrary and out-of-season tests are not good enough anymore. Any athlete who is a member of any sports organisation in the country should if they have an exceptional or unexplained physique be tested as a matter of course before, you know, they kind of die.

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