Drugs and lost careers

It is not unusual to find the odd footballer smoking a cigarette or having a drink. Some of them take it too far, though, like former Irish international and Aston Villa defender, Paul McGrath, who confessed to coming onto the field a little drunk. Legendary Russian goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, is known for smoking to “calm his nerves” and having a drink to “tone his muscles”. I know of a former South African Premier Soccer League player who would arrive drunk to training. His professional career barely lasted a season. I have even seen players at amateur level smoking cannabis before a match.

For some young footballers looking to carve a career out of the game, drugs and alcohol had led to their demise. One such player was Jarred Gaskin.

I was writing a feature on youth and drugs in June 2013 when I came across the 19-year-old Gaskin. He was walking with some friends on the Wits University campus. He looked like the typical teenager of his era with his hair shaven on the sides and a lengthy gelled crop combed neatly to the left. He wore dark, square glasses that covered half of his cheeks and sported a fake diamond stud on each earlobe. When I approached him, he took off his glasses and revealed a gaunt and lonely face.

Gaskin’s story is a painful one. His mother left him and his father when he was little. His father spent most of Gaskin’s growing years rearing him. They lived in Randburg in Johannesburg with not a lot of money coming in.

When I asked Gaskin if he ever dabbled in drugs, he sighed heavily. Sensing his reluctance, I said he should answer honestly. He gave me a response he thought I wanted to hear.

“I’ve smoked weed, tried it here and there. But I prefer to drink. I still smoke weed though.”

But I’ve learnt over my years as a journalist that if you spent enough time with a person, showed that you care for them and therefore gained their trust, they would open up to you quickly.

“Towards the end of 2011, when I was 17 and in grade eleven, I played soccer for Arsenal for two months in England. I was at the youth academy. I made the squad. They sent me back to Johannesburg in 2012. I got two months to stay here and get my citizenship for England because I was going to live and play there. Within those two months I started drugs. [Arsenal] drug tested me. I lost a career, basically.”

The drug in question is crystal methamphetamine, or as South Africans would call it, tik. The drug has become popular amongst school children in the country as it is easily accessible and cheap. It can cost anything between R15 and R30 on the street and can be snorted, orally ingested, injected or smoked. In South Africa, it is smoked by placing the crystal in a light bulb, from which the metal threading has been removed. A lighter is used to heat the bulb and the fumes are inhaled.

According to a Health24.com article published in November 2011, the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, which monitors drug use countrywide, stated that the average age of patients who used tik as their primary substance at the end of 2007 was 23. Health professionals have claimed the drug induces psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia and violent behaviour.

For Gaskin, it boosted his energy but the come down, he said, was torturous. So he needed more, just to maintain the verve.

The long term effects include uncontrollable rage, anxiety, mood disturbances and in Gaskin’s case, severe weight loss. When he was playing football, he weighed 97 kilograms. Within those two months of smoking tik, he lost 16 kilograms. When I spoke to him, he was even thinner, weighing in at 78 kilograms.

It can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, therefore damaging blood vessels in the brain that can lead to strokes. Recognising its negative effect on the youth  of South Africa, health authorities and law enforcers are doing a lot more to curb the dealing of tik than any other drug on the market.

Two men in their mid-twenties, who Gaskin considered his friends, introduced him to tik. He remained hooked to the drug throughout 2012 and even took it during his final matric examinations.

“I did pass but my marks could have been better. It was the stupid influence. The two guys, Slims and Bliss, who were my best friends at the time I was going through the stage, had actually moved overseas and left me here. So I can’t actually call them my friends.”

His father caught him doing tik at home. And that was when he decided to stop. His father threatened to put him in Noupoort, a Christian faith-based rehabilitation centre in the Karoo, a savannah region of South Africa, but it never happened. Instead, Gaskin’s father, being a strict man, gets him tested for tik every Friday.

“My dad sorted me out. I’m scared of him. I respect him.”

Today, Gaskin is studying financial management through Varsity College in Sandton, Johannesburg, and, at the time I spoke to him, was working for a motor insurance company.

When asked what advice he would give to drug users who desperately wanted to overcome their addiction, his answer was to the point: “Go to rehab or just don’t try it at all. It’s not worth it. You’ll say you only want to try it once but the feeling is addictive. You’ll mess up your life.”

I commend Gaskin for having told me his story. It takes some courage to be able to open up to a complete stranger, let alone a journalist who was going to publicise his story. The crucial question from Gaskin’s story is just how many talented footballers have lost careers because of alcohol and drugs. If we seek the answer, it might just scare us.

– This article first appeared in Media Club South Africa.com on 14 June, 2013.

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