This POV was originally written for Radio-Canada and has been translated to English.
Even today, a very specific sound drives me crazy.
You know the sound a can makes when you open it? That metallic click, followed by the pschitt sound of the carbonated gas escaping?
Every time I hear that sound, it reminds me of the house I grew up in. It brings me back to the memory of my father, who would open a beer as early as 6 or 7 a.m. That sound? Hearing it brings me back. Way back.
From what I remember, my father was always violent with my mother. For months everything would be fine at the house. Then suddenly, he would start to drink more and it was chaos.
The abuse was mainly physical, according to my recollection. And my mother was his only target. Of course, my brothers and I were punished on occasion but never without cause.
It happened mostly on the weekends. And it was always — always — tied to alcohol. That was our normal. That’s just the way it was. My father was an alcoholic, he drank every day. When we found out he had been drinking more than usual, it was inevitable: we would ask ourselves if today would be the day something bad would happen.
I don’t remember the first time it happened, but I most certainly remember the last. One day, once again, we heard the cries and bangs through the walls of my parents’ bedroom. My older brother had had enough.
He got in between the two of them and he stopped the fight. Basically, he told my father that enough was enough and that it could never happen again. He must have been 12 years old. Me? I was 11. I will never forget that.
I always wondered if our extended family was aware of what was going on at our house ... I don’t think they did. I’m sure my mother did a good job covering it up.
Our parents never told us not to say anything. We just didn’t. In our immediate family, we all just understood that we shouldn’t say a word about it.
I definitely would not have spoken to anyone about it, not even a teacher. We accepted it, I think, as a normal way to live. As children, we knew deep down that what was happening in front of us was wrong.
But at the same time, we asked ourselves if life was like that in other families. Were we the only ones living like this?
Emotions buried within
As children, we manage those kinds of situations simply by keeping our emotions buried within. But we all need distractions.
I would always play sports: it was my escape. Playing sports was my life. It allowed me to think about other things. It helped me manage everything that might happen in my home life. It was a way for me to turn the page and move past the violence.
Because of the home life I grew up in, I gained the ability to easily move on from a situation, whether it was a success or a failure. It’s an ability that I have carried with me throughout my life, even until today. We didn’t have a lot of money and my father was violent with my mother. We kept these things hidden, but we had to continue to live, to be quiet about it and move on.
Maybe I’m just made like this. I’ve always been this way, as long as I can remember. I am completely at ease experiencing an emotion that comes from adversity or from success, to feel the excitement or depression in that moment, and then quickly move on to what might come next.
I continued to be like this in my own career, long after leaving my family home. I never played football with the hope of becoming a professional — never. I simply played because I enjoyed it and it made me happy.
It wasn’t until my last year at university that I started to think that it might be possible for me to make a career out of playing football.
I was very aware that at six-foot-two and 185 pounds, I was much smaller than the prototypical NFL quarterback. When the NFL organized an evaluation day at my university, Utah State, I was not even invited to attend.
Regardless of this setback, I carved my own path. I began by taking my chances with an expansion team of the CFL at the time, the Las Vegas Posse.
There were 13 quarterbacks trying out to make the team, but by the end of training camp, I was named the starter. After Las Vegas, I played with Hamilton, and then I made my way to the Montreal Alouettes.
It was after my first Grey Cup win with the Alouettes, in January or February of 2003, that an NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed their interest in me. I met with them and went through an evaluation, but two weeks later, I got a phone call from the Steelers: their back-up QB, Charlie Batch, had just signed a new contract with the team.
In other words, they didn’t need me. I had just turned 30. My chance at playing in the NFL, likely my only chance, was gone. Was I depressed? No. I would turn the page and move on.
A few days later, 10 minutes before becoming a free agent, I signed a long-term contract with the Alouettes and I stayed in Montreal for good.
Another chance at life
I always said that I would never become a coach. I made this known to my friends, to journalists, to everyone. But in my last years as a player, I asked myself what I wanted to do when my playing career was over.
I absolutely wanted to do something I would be passionate about, and my passion was football. Not the administrative side, or at the downtown office, but in the locker room, the white board with the Xs and Os.
When I was a player, I put a lot more hours into my work than most of the majority of my teammates, but at least I had days off. As a coach, it’s a different story. The hours are even longer and days off cease to exist.
On top of this, during the last two years, the team hasn’t seen much success. Of course, I wanted the stress and frustration from the team to stay at work and not interfere with my family life. I tried to keep it all at the office, but there was a period of time when I brought these emotions home with me in the evenings.
I was frustrated and irritable. I remember one day, I sat down on the couch with my wife and daughters and apologized to them. I explained to them that I had not been myself lately, that I was trying to handle my new job and that the last thing I wanted was for the failures of the team to affect them.
I had been doing this to them for a full month before I finally brought it up. I wanted to tell them that it had nothing to do with them, and that I would make things better. I had spent almost the entirety of my life up to this point devoted to football — it was my passion and my job — but it’s not everything in life.
My wife and I have both fought and beaten cancer. Yes, my job frustrates me sometimes, but knowing we are both healthy now, that we have another chance at life, helps me put things into perspective.
I take full advantage of the time I have at home with my wife and daughters because my family is what is most important.
Many men who grow up in a violent environment remain prisoners to it, and they continue the cycle. That’s what they learn in the first years of their lives so they believe that is how a man should behave. But deep down inside I knew I wasn’t like that, it wasn’t in me. For me, it was the contrary: I always wanted to cherish my wife, love my children and make sure that they know what real love is, and that they understand it.
The cycle would stop at me. In fact, violence had the opposite effect: it showed me what I didn’t want to be.
Where I come from - La Puente, Calif. — very few people ever go on to university. In my family, we didn’t have money to travel so we didn’t go anywhere. La Puente was my world. In my eyes, it was the entire universe.
It was the only universe I knew. I really enjoyed my years at university. For a long time, until I realized I could make a living at football, my plan was to return to my high school to become a teacher and a coach.
To tell the kids there that La Puente isn’t the universe, that there is much more to see in the world. Maybe I could even convince some of them to go to university. That was my plan until the door to professional football opened up for me.
How did I get through such a childhood? Simply put, there was always someone who believed in me and someone who gave me a chance. Later, in junior college, my coaches thought I had the potential to be a great football player. Even in university, people continued to see my potential and my talent.
I got the opportunity to play at Utah State and it was thanks to one man, my coach Jim Zorn. When I think about it today, it was he who showed me what it is to be a father.
Sometimes, he would invite me over for dinner and I saw his interaction with his wife and kids. They hugged, they kissed each other, they said “I love you,” to each other. None of that seemed strange. It was natural.
It was very different from what I had known until then. Those visits to Jim Zorn’s home opened my eyes and I thought about how I would like my future family to live like this. I had the choice, I would make it happen.
People can change
These days my mother is doing well. So are my two brothers, who are still married to their high school sweethearts. My father? For years, I wanted to establish a relationship with him. I tried several times, but it never worked out.
He no longer drinks and he is a born-again Christian. He is living proof that people can change. I strongly believe that. But to build a relationship with him? We never got there.
There was a time when I used to fear the day that I would receive a call telling me that my father was not well or that he was dying. That would have been terrible.
If I got that call today, I would feel badly about it, but nothing like in years past. I am at peace.
I turned the page and I am moving on.
(Large photos by Dominick Gravel: Montreal Alouettes/Utah State University/Canadian Press)