Depression amoung sports men and women.In the light of the tragic death of the soccer star, Gary Speed, John O’Brien, OFM, looks at the dark reality of depression among sportsmen and women.



Depression amoung sports men and women.In the light of the tragic death of the soccer star, Gary Speed, John O’Brien, OFM, looks at the dark reality of depression among sportsmen and women.


Robert Enke was a German goalkeeper, one of the best. He was tipped to be number one for Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In 2009 he asked his wife Teresa what would she like for her birthday. She said a poem. He wasn’t sure he could produce a poem for her. He pretended to go to extra training while he wrote a poem for Teresa. He felt a surge of joy in his attempt – just like saving an unstoppable shot. On Teresa’s big day on 18th February, 2009, he had a surprise for her birthday. Firstly, he had to put the dogs and cats out. There are nine dogs and two cats. Teresa loved animals and rescued them whenever she could. She wanted to save a pig too, but hadn’t got around to it yet. Robert sat Teresa down, showed her the poem but recited the words by heart:


For your birthday, what will it be?
A diamond, beautiful to see?
Perhaps a watch from the jeweller’s store?
It won’t be cheap, of that you can be sure.


And what about having a pig for a pet? 

 Robbi will put down his foot about that! 

Cats, then, or horses, or maybe a dog?
No, please, stop it, my head’s in a fog.


So, for her birthday, what’s it to be?

Oh no, what she wants is a poem from me!

 It isn’t too big, or too much, or too dear 

Yet the very thought of it fills me with fear.


In the poem he felt strong enough to talk of his daughter Lara who was born with a serious heart defect and died after an operation at the age of two.


Then Lara came with her imperfect heart –
That was something that tore us apart.
But she was strong, and even in pain
She still lived up to the family name.


Robert Enke was thirty one, the German national team’s goalkeeper, strong, good-natured and happy. On Tuesday 10th November he heads out for training. He kisses his second daughter, Leila, with a kiss on the forehead and says goodbye to Teresa. On the magnetic board in the kitchen he makes a note of all the things to be done – including getting four tickets for the Bayern Munich match. There was no training on that Tuesday. His friend Ronald rang him to tell him about the people who want to interview him. He jokes about being Robert’s secretary. That evening Robert took his life by walking out in front of a train. Robert had been crucified by depression and anxiety. After his death (something like the grief after the death of Gary Speed) there was an enormous outpouring of grief. Many of the sportsmen Robert played with and against began to share their own vulnerability and the demons that afflicted them. They were not supermen, but human beings. Teresa spoke of Robert’s depression. He told her once that she could only understand him if she could live in his mind for half an hour.







It’s very hard to describe depression. I have suffered from it. It’s a black world of anxiety, fear, loneliness and a terrible feeling of not being worth anything. Music can help in our understanding. Kris Kristofferson sang: “Help me make it through the night.” He also sang of the death of a friend, Bobby Dee. He said the world Bobby found was lovely but not half as lovely as the one he left behind. If only people like Robert Enke could have seen the outpouring of grief!

John Kirwan was a member of the rugby world cup-winning All Black team of 1987. He was a class act. He scored some of the greatest tries ever in the world cup. With his long-flowing blonde hair, he was devastating and a much- loved New Zealander. Then one day he woke up with that deep feeling of emptiness and loneliness inside. He cried and could not get out of bed. This could not be happening to an All Black, a World Cup winner and a legend in the game. But it did! John began to speak and ask for help. Robert Enke in his depression was afraid to speak because of fear – fear that someone would say he was mad and maybe he might even lose his second daughter. Kirwan recovered and decided to help people come forward. If people could realise that an All Black can cry, then we all can. He made a series of advertisements for New Zealand television. He was someone who apparently had everything, but was ill with depression. Money, fame, adulation do not save any of us from illness.


In one of the advertisements he made for National Depression Awareness he speaks of being ill. Getting help was hard for him, because, like so many of us, he saw admitting to depression and asking for help wasn’t a manly thing to do. Reaching out was a big step. He began with loved ones and then spoke to professionals. He tells his audience to talk to someone who knows about depression and don’t be put off by those who know nothing about it. He walks with his son in an advertisement and his son climbs a tree, putting out his hand for his dad to climb with him. The message of the ad is “reach out.” In another advertisement he writes the word “Hope” in the sand. He says he felt no hope but he reached out and got help. Cling on to hope!


All the advertisements are brilliant lit- tle bits of storytelling. Before he made them he was afraid of what the reaction would be. Would people think he was nuts? He needn’t have worried. During the Lions tour of 2005 he had to queue up for tickets. The person who had promised him tickets let him down. While queuing he was approached by a well- dressed man coming from work. He whispered: “Your ad saved my life.” If one person could be helped then it was worth it.







Gary Speed: An outpouring of grief

Other sports people have admitted to mental agony and depression. Frank Bruno, the boxer, has helped increase awareness. Alan Quinlan, the Munster rugby player is helping awareness of mental illness. Serena Williams, the tennis player, went through a period of grief and depression after the death of a loved one. Neil Lennon, the footballer and Celtic manager, suffered from depression as did people like Justin Langer (Australian cricketer) and Marcus Trescothick (English cricketer). Dame Kelly Holmes, a double Olympic gold- medalist, suffered too when she thought she would never recover from injury. Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, spoke about his battle. Stephen Fry, the comedian, helped many people by doing a television programme about his battle with bi-polar depression. All these people have helped raise awareness and helped have any stigma removed.


In the Gospel of Mark we have an account of Jesus’ affliction in Gethsemane. The scene is raw and the language stark. Jesus entered the world of mental affliction. When any of us are depressed we find that there is one who was lonelier than us and He came through so that He can be with us in our Gethsemane.