To say the things I want to say, first I have to say something I really don’t want to; I nearly took my own life in August.
I’ve grown to understand that I self-destruct in the summertime. It might not be obvious to the people around me but the structures I build to support myself start to crumble. This summer was no different. I’d spent the weekend doing way too many of the things people do to feel good, to mask the fact I felt fucking awful.
By late Monday morning, I was on an island full of flags and narrow minds. It’s a place famous for its prison. I felt trapped. It was seriously hot. And I felt cold. I was ready to die. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be. So when I opened my eyes on Wednesday morning, I dressed, put in earphones full of Kendrick to create the illusion I wasn’t about to die alone, and walked to the beach.
And then I walked towards the sea and I hesitated at the water’s edge and then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Now, the irony of doing those same feel-good things at my football team’s Christmas link up, when I told some of the boys about my cold summer is not lost on me, but life is life. We tend to be off our faces when we’re radically honest, what does that say about masculinity? Anyway, in the midst of a weird, winding and wonderful conversation, I told the boys. And this is what I got back: love. No judgement. Just love and a beautiful gratitude that I’m still here.
I’ve belonged to a football team for almost as long as I could kick a ball. The first time I fully appreciated the superhuman power of a Sunday football family was when I was about to leave the ends for university. I was a teenager, performing the act of big, bad man to hide my many fears. I was changing with my old team before a game. Our pre-match preparations were a mess. Half the boys were busy strapping up zoots instead of boots. Outside, coach was talking quietly with our central midfielder. The two men came into the room. Player sits down. Coach stands next to him and places a comforting hand on his shoulder. He starts to speak: “Most of you won’t know this but a few years ago T had cancer. He’s just told me that the cancer is back and this might be his last game with us for a while.”
T had an impressive scar on his neck. Considering the lives most of us were living at the time, I’d always assumed it was the consequence of a very different, futile battle. Now I understood. T fixed his eyes on the ground. But for the sound of his tears kissing the floor tiles, our changing room, usually a place of music and laughter and escapism, was silent. Without speaking we all stood, almost in unison, and moved towards T. We embraced him. And in the very surreal, dream-like game that followed, when we should’ve been carrying him, T carried us. He played like a man very aware he might soon lose the deceptively fragile grip we have on life, simply grateful to share time and space with his friends. That season I drove home from Uxbridge to Edmonton every weekend, more to belong than to play. That was fourteen years ago. Just this week T celebrated another birthday.
I’ve been a part of my current team for four years. I’m not going to front, we’ve got a terrible name: ‘Enate United.’ The name was our founding members’ way of repping their (not my) postcode, N8. Given the super-technical, pass-you-off-the-park way we play, the boys added an acute accent to our name. We are Enaté. Adds a touch of continental flair, right?
On our day, you can’t get near us and it’s a wrap by half-time. On other days, we leave the kit-bag at the laundrette and forfeit the game, costing us promotion. After a flying start to the season, we spend a Friday night in the pub, gassing about how we’re going to win the league. We turn up on Sunday, probably still hanging, and commence a month-long losing streak. We get to the cup final. Then half the boys fly to live some life in Ibiza and miss that cup final. Sometimes we say we’re available for the game and on the day of the game we send our cousin to play for us instead. We are brilliant and chaotic, inconsistent and irrepressible. And more important than all that, is this: we love each other.
Some of us are fathers. Some of have sick fathers that we care for. Some of us care for our mothers, our brothers. Some of us were robbed of a parent way too soon. But together, we are a family. We are broken pieces of driftwood in wild waters, and Sunday mornings on the marshes binds us together. The boys are my lifeboat.
Two summers ago, when I was again in the grip of suicidal thoughts, it was the laughter of a brilliantly shambolic pre-season training session that gave me the strength to see another sunrise. When a friend of mine, nothing to do with football, was in a more-than-tight spot, the kind of spot that people sometimes never make it out of, I put a message asking for help on our group chat. My friend was back home and safe with his mum within a day. And last May, when I boxed away from home in Southend, which was as much a fight with my own demons as it was the man in-front of me, the last thing I heard before the opening bell rang was a booming chant of ‘EN-A-TÉ!’ And the Southend punters probably thought, what the fuck does that mean? But I knew. It means family. It means love. And when I won, it was for my football family, my brothers.
While those expressions of unity will stay with me forever, it’s the simple, subtle things that keep me going. The boys, my brothers, are there for me every week. We’ll all agree to be early and on-point. Half of us will be very late. Some of us will warm up. Some of us will pretend to warm up. Our goalkeeper will sink half a bottle of Gaviscon before kick off. We’ll play. We should win. Sometimes we don’t. We’ll change, big each other up, lament missed opportunities, curse referees. We’ll joke about our shortest guy being the longest in the shower. Interpret that as you please. And then we’ll spend an hour or so together. In that time, the darkness that stalks me will be forced to retreat by all the laughter and love. I’ll feel grateful to exist.
The team is now in its eleventh season, which is impressive for an amateur football club, and the vibe we’ve cultivated is straight-up special. It’s why, when we marked our tenth year with a big gathering of players past and present, I could embrace strangers I’ve never shared a pitch with. Because I knew that they knew. We’re related.
Rob Kazandjian is a teacher, writer and boxer from North London