How a life-threatening brain injury and a troubled recovery couldn’t stop an everyday love-affair with football

How a life-threatening brain injury and a troubled recovery couldn’t stop an everyday love-affair with football

This feature is a part of Football In Common, a series which explores the stories belonging not to those who play out their lives between the white lines but those who watch from behind them; tales forged not by the stars of football but those who gaze up at them; featuring not the extraordinary athletes whose living is made by the game but the extraordinary everyday people whose lives, one way or another, are forever transformed by it.

The life of Gavin Haverty is one that is cleaved perfectly into two distinct periods: before the accident and after. The former began with his birth in February 1982. Growing up in Ireland, Gavin’s early existence was one of a self-diagnosed football obsessive. Enjoying nothing more than devouring football literature from across the ages, a young Gavin would spend his days delving into books and magazines to relive historic moments captured fleeting between crisp ivory-coloured pages.

“My collection of football books was exceptional,” Gavin told These Football Times. “Books from the World Cups, European competitions, Boca Juniors and River Plate’s rivalry, Spain’s fiercest derbies; I had it all, including hundreds of magazines.” Like a lost mortal caught in the manic throes of drug dependency, Gavin felt as though his very existence relied upon the continued compliance to his addiction; his ever-growing anthology of football writing.

Such was the exotic palate he had developed, as his compulsion to learn about football took him far beyond the historical and cultural reaches of his own humble nation, Gavin began to feel detached from his fellow football fans at school. “A fiercely loyal Barcelona fan, LaLiga and Serie A follower, I was one of the lads around school and within my junior footballing team but I still felt alone. Not in a sad type of way, I just never really had anyone to share my experiences of players like Rivaldo, Beppe Signori and the others who adorned the leagues I was watching.”

In 1999, Gavin turned 16-years-old. For many adults-in-training, being 16 is a challenge all of its own accord, demanding an often inappropriate level of maturity and foresight from those with their priorities embarrassingly skewed and with nothing like the life skills required to plan for the future in the way that is required of them. For even the most biologically and sociologically blessed of adolescents, the mid-teens can be a tricky phase of life to come through unscathed. This seemed not to be the case for Gavin.

Having only left school the previous year, Gavin was fortunate enough to have been offered a printing apprenticeship at a local firm. “This was an enormous opportunity for me, one that would have seen my life become practically complete on a financial level, such was the prestige of the trade in Ireland at the time.” What’s more, certainly more important to a 16-year-old lad, the first seeds of his burgeoning love life appeared to be flourishing.

“I’d also found out that a girl I had been chasing had spoken to her friends about having the same feelings towards me and so we’d all made plans to meet up that weekend. Life was bloody good.” Before Gavin’s weekend rendezvous could commence, however, he’d promised to spend his evening in the company of his father and his football team at their Monday night training session.

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“I had stopped playing for my team before Christmas due to a falling out with the team manager. As such, my Dad stated I should come train with him that evening, as his team had just acquired the rights to train on one of the most high-tech training fields around – we call them 4G pitches today. The curiosity of playing on such a pitch had made my mind up in an instant. I’d rushed upstairs and gotten ready, always remembering the feeling; getting the chance to play football with men. The day was perfect.”

Gavin arrived at the ground around 7.30pm and spent the first few minutes flitting nervously around the circle that had formed between the familiar teammates. Fortunately for him, a handful of his father’s friends spotted him and made small talk, putting a lid on his nerves. A half hour or so later the game began, a seven-a-side match on 4G turf under spotlights. Gavin could scarcely stifle his excitement but still wished to appear composed to the elders he now shared a pitch with.

“As a player I’d say I was quick. I flew around like a wasp, up and down the field always hoping to get on the ball. On this occasion, the ball was out on the left, I was over near the right wing and I’d made my run in towards the centre, screaming for the ball as I always did. I was spotted and a cross was put in.” It was at this precise moment the reality of Gavin’s existence fractured, his singular timeline diverged, and both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ came to be.

“I leaped to head the ball but scuffed it over and wide and I fell to the ground in pain. Initially it felt like I’d been scalped; that feeling when you don’t connect properly with a headed ball, when you’ve longish hair. I got up to my feet, annoyed with my miss but determined not to show the pain on my face in front of my father’s friends. I must have run about 10 feet when I felt my knees go. I mean, like I had no knees anymore. I got back up and began to run again but this time I froze still and clasped my hands to the right side of my head, where I had headed the ball. I let out a scream I can still hear to this day.”

His scream understandably gained the attention of every player on the pitch and the first to his side was his father. Foregoing concern, however, the look on his face was one of utter embarrassment. “He jogged over to tell me, basically, to ‘shut the fuck up’. “At that point I had experienced what is known in the medical field as a thunderclap headache. I screamed again, begging to be taken to hospital as I knew something terrible was happening, but my pleas were ignored. I collapsed to the ground again, vomiting uncontrollably, battling this headache that seemed to strike then relax for a minute then strike again. I actually knew at that moment I was dying.”

Gavin’s father dragged him to the car and drove him home. “Madness I know, but what was he or anyone else on the field that day to know about what was happening to me. At home I was still going through the same symptoms but this time my pleas were angry bursts of insults aimed at both my parents, accusing them of allowing me to die. The ambulance was eventually called and I was rushed to hospital.”

There, Gavin’s parents were told to prepare for the worst. “I was told afterwards it looked like there was no hope as they couldn’t determine what has happening to me. At 16 you get checked for meningitis; you don’t assume it’s a subarachnoid haemorrhage.” A blood vessel in the area between Gavin’s brain and its protective layers, the meninges, had burst.

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“Eventually, after numerous tests, it was determined I was suffering from a subarachnoid haemorrhage and was sent to another hospital to have emergency surgery, which lasted many hours. I woke up in hospital two days later, on  3 February 1999, the day of my 17th birthday, with a head resembling John Merrick in The Elephant Man.”

Gavin spent nearly two months in hospital. His daily routine during this time involved being woken for tests, allowed to walk the short distance to the hospital shop, have friends and family visit briefly, before being allowed to fall back to sleep. “The day I left hospital was the first day I look back on knowing something had changed drastically. My surgeon told me giving up football was a must and avoiding any head contact for a minimum of 12 months was vital. As a 17-year-old with a large circle of friends, all doing what 17-year-olds do, that was going to be hard.”

Gavin was collected from the hospital by his aunt and his mother. Upon arriving back home, the first thing he did was hoover the sitting room. “My mother was begging me to sit down.” Gavin was simply trying to be normal, trying do normal things.

“It’s true what they say when someone has had an ABI (acquired brain injury); it’s knowing you’re back at home but you can’t figure out if someone has moved the furniture around. The initial few months after the injury were surreal. I had gone back to work, as I was losing my mind stuck at home, and the girl I was so interested in before was now my girlfriend. I should have been happy but I wasn’t.

“To me, the job had changed, the people in the job had changed, my girlfriend wasn’t who I knew before, my parents weren’t my parents, my friends weren’t my friends. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I couldn’t figure it out and I assumed it was the drugs I was on and that things would get better. But it never did.

“I had injured my right temporal lobe. An injury to the frontal lobes can lead to a number of changes including changes in personality, difficulties with attention and retaining information, reduced emotional responses, difficulties with motivation; apathy, changes in the ability to control behaviour; disinhibition, making the sufferer more impulsive. They may say or do things without considering the consequences, have reduced self-awareness and poor judgment and decision-making, difficulty planning things and meeting goals, becoming more irritable and less tolerant of frustration.”

Gavin experienced many of these personality changes and they changed the person he was perceptibly. “I ended up walking out of my job just a few months after coming back and splitting up with my girlfriend around the same time. I didn’t feel any worse off. Football had taken a back step, too. Actually, football had disappeared from my life altogether. I hated it. It had destroyed my life. If I hadn’t have headed that ball I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now; I’d be looking forward to the rest of my young life which had, up until that point, been almost perfect.

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“I had actually forgotten about football after the initial stay in hospital. When I came home, it’s hard to try put into words, it was like it had disappeared from my mindset. This lasted months. The 1999 Champions League final meant nothing to me. I didn’t care who won, how it was won. I just didn’t care.”

For Gavin, this apathy extended far beyond an uncharacteristic disdain for football. “I’d fallen into a deep depression. Well, I assumed it was a depression until many years later it was explained to me that it wasn’t depression at all but just the way I naturally felt because of the changes in my perception and cognitive skillset as a result of the accident. I had a new personality, a personality that I knew was mine but one I knew wasn’t who I used to be. I’d have snippets, brief moments or thoughts within thoughts of how I used to be.”

This new personality of Gavin’s altered his life in ways he couldn’t understand and at a rate he could hardly keep up with. It made endeavours that were previously thoughtlessly easy, or even enjoyable, exhilarating, an enormous mental undertaking. Often they got the better of him.

“The lads from my job were having a do and I was asked to attend. I’d never been out with them before and it was the first time I’d been out at all since my injury. Long story short; I arrived at a club in Dublin city centre, all prepared to go in, only to get out of the taxi and run down the alleyway beside it in terror at the amount of people that were around me. I was petrified. To this day I can remember sitting around for hours on end, shaking with fear; a fear I couldn’t understand but that terrified me nonetheless. I waited until it was starting to get bright before I emerged from the alley and grabbed a taxi back home.

“I remember that weekend I stayed at home and watched television, mainly football, as that’s what my father was watching. I was too traumatised to go out again. It was the start of the new season around Europe and the TV was showing LaLiga highlights. I can’t remember the weekend exactly but I know it was before October as I had started a new job working 12-hour shifts and Deportivo had beaten somebody that weekend. I just remember a feeling of warmth and belonging watching it – a real strange sensation I can still feel today.

“Slowly my life had started to feel like it was worth something again. My new job had no real responsibilities and I was well paid. I’d made new friends who didn’t know the old Gav and instead took me for what I was. I met new girls, and for a time was enjoying life, and every day I was buying newspapers, reading the back pages for the sports news. I’d created a new routine that I was finally starting to enjoy again.

“It had been six months since my injury and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t adhere to doctor’s orders. I was out partying, drug taking and, in my own opinion, doing what any normal 17-year-old would. But the reality was that what I was doing wasn’t really normal as I did things to excess. Every weekend and, at times, most weekdays I was taking drugs.”

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Though he knew he should look to rediscover himself elsewhere, for Gavin, recreational drug use had become an almost daily occurrence; an essential escape from the unrelenting nightmare that was his life post-ABI. “I could afford them and they allowed me to remember what I was like before. But, throughout the madness, I found solace watching football. Having spent the past six months trying to remember who I was, the only times I began to feel at ease was watching football. Slowly the allure of seeing Deportivo mount a challenge for LaLiga was more appealing than getting off my face on the weekends. It wasn’t a case where it had rescued me or stopped my descent into depression, but it was the only outlet that prevented me from slipping further.

“Throughout that season I’d been a ticking time bomb but at Christmas that year I had met my future wife, my childhood sweetheart, if you will. It was her that saved me from the brink of total destruction—her and football.

“Over the next 17 years, I struggled almost daily to accept who I was but it was her love and companionship, and most importantly her understanding, which helped me along the road to recovery. Yet for all the things she did for me, the only thing she could never do was set my mind at ease. This is where the importance of football had taken hold.

“After my operation, I had essentially unlearned the fundamental ability to cope with my surroundings. It’s hard to explain. It’s like knowing everything but not knowing why you know it. I suppose it sounds weird until it actually happens to you. People I’d known, friends, ex-girlfriends, co-workers, even family, had taken on roles of strangers to me. I knew who they were but didn’t have any connection to any of them. Football was the only constant; the only memory I could relate to before and after my operation, albeit it took some time to acknowledge this.

“In the 17 years since my ABI, I’ve gone onto have three kids, one who has autism, I’ve gotten married, bought a house, started and finished a business, and every one of those life-changing moments came with stress; stress I felt I didn’t handle as well as someone with a non-fractured persona could. But during this time, the World Cups of 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 were so very precious to me. I’d basically take a month off whatever I was doing and watch every game. It was like going on holiday to some remote island where I was alone and I was content.”

Today, football is still yet to lose its lustre that Gavin is so grateful for having fallen in love with once again. “Most weekends nowadays it’s just me and LaLiga. Sometimes it could be said I watch too much but my wife accepts it’s just what I do, as long as there is a balance between myself and her and the kids, which is more than fair on her behalf.

“People will sit and analysis and try make sense of the game. I just sit there and view it for what it is, for what it means to me. It’s part of my life, it’s what helps me remember what I once was all those years back, and it allows me to remember how I was, to try to reinstall some of the personality that made me who I was back then, and it allows me to keep searching for my identity.”

Words  |  Will Sharp  @shillwarp

Art  |  Pablo Luebert  @luebert

Many thanks to Gavin Haverty for allowing his story to be told for Football In Common. If football has changed your life and you’d like for your story to be shared, please send an email to support@thesefootballtimes.co and mention Football In Common within the subject line.

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