A troubled professional athlete gets a second chance with a team that believes he’s turned his life around.
Determined to put a dark past behind him, he stands up before the cameras and microphones and addresses his demons, publicly, for the first time — not only for his own therapy but in an expressed desire to help others dealing with a similar devil in their soul.
The devil of depression.
For the second time in a year, a Winnipeg sports team is dealing with the shadowy spectre of mental illness.
This time it’s the CFL’s Blue Bombers, and the revelation, Wednesday, that Jordan Matechuk’s checkered past has an even darker, more dangerous, side.
Matechuk’s arrest on drug charges a year ago, just before CFL training camps opened, rocked the league.
Crossing the border into Canada on his way to Hamilton Tiger-Cats camp, the Yorkton, Sask., native was caught with hundreds of steroid pills, steroids in liquid form, syringes, replacement needles and a small amount of marijuana.
Cut by the Ticats, Matechuk pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, serving around two-thirds of it.
In February, he resurfaced, signing with the Bombers.
And Wednesday, at the first day of the team’s mini-camp, he took the brave step of coming clean not only about his drug use, but his illness.
“The things that happened to me, I did them to myself,” Matechuk said. “I live with depression... and I used steroids and marijuana as part of a coping mechanism to make me feel better.”
The 26-year-old, trying out as a fullback and long snapper, says he was diagnosed two and a half years ago. He’s learned, the hard way, he can’t go off his medication.
“This is the first time publicly speaking about it,” Matechuk said. “I was fighting for my life last year in June. It’s a hard thing to talk about. But I feel if I talk about it I can help others. I can be a positive influence in the community.”
I asked Matechuk to explain what he meant by “fighting for his life.”
“The mental illness, depression, takes a toll,” he said. “It really doesn’t make you feel that good. I was fighting inside demons, and I overcame them.
“I’m not the only one out there dealing with depression. There have been other athletes dealing with this. I’m going to bring some greatness out of this and move forward with it.”
And that’s when this story began sounding eerily familiar.
It was last March that Rick Rypien emerged from his battle with depression to sign with the Manitoba Moose.
Rypien also talked about being more open as time went on, hoping he’d be able to help others dealing with a similar illness, an illness that twice caused him to leave the Vancouver Canucks.
In the summer he signed with the Winnipeg Jets, and his life appeared to be on track.
On August 15, Rypien was dead, a victim of suicide, at 27.
The Jets were shocked, saying Rypien showed no signs of breaking.
“That’s extremely unfortunate,” Matechuk said. “I’m feeling really good. Everything’s on track. I’ve had the support with my family and my friends and the community where I’m from.”
I remember Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, who was part of Rypien’s inner circle, wondering, hoping, something positive could come of the tragedy.
Heisinger says the publicity around it and an ongoing awareness campaign by the Canucks has made a difference: men suffering from depression are coming forward in increasing numbers.
One has shown up wearing football cleats and a helmet.
“The positive is he’s reached out and told somebody,” Heisinger said of Matechuk. “And that’s always the hardest step. I’m sure the Bombers will take it very seriously.”
Let’s hope so.
“You find that a lot more common nowadays,” Bomber head coach Paul LaPolice said of depression. “Certainly he’s talked about it. He’s gotten great help to overcome it.
“He’s a good kid who made a mistake. I’m sure he’s going to fix it.”
But LaPolice said he didn’t feel comfortable comparing Matechuk’s situation with Rypien’s.
I say we have to.
Or we’ve learned nothing.