Friday, September 20, 2013

The road to recovery

Don't look back in anger  … Former rugby league star Wendell Sailor.

Don't look back in anger … Former rugby league star Wendell Sailor. Photo: Tobias Rowles/Sam I Am Management

On the rare occasions today when Wendell Sailor wades into Sydney's nightlife, he knows the questions will be coming. "You on the rack tonight, Dell?" he'll be asked. "We know you're a party boy. You love that stuff, Dell." Sailor craves love and validation, but this is attention he doesn't seek. "No mate," Sailor will fire back. "That was a long time ago."

That was 2006, when Sailor arrived at his family's Bronte home in Sydney's east after a NSW Waratahs rugby union training session on a Friday afternoon and received a call from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). "You've tested positive to benzoylecgonine," the doping official told him. "It's a breakdown of cocaine. And because you've tested positive on a game day, you are probably looking at a two-year ban."

I was getting pretty cocky. I'd wake up and genuinely wonder if I'd been dreaming all this. 

In his autobiography Crossing the Line, published next week, Sailor explains: "If you want to know why I have that great, big, self-destruct switch inside me, consider this ... On July 16, 1974, in Royal Brisbane Hospital, I entered the world as Wendell Jermaine Quakawoot. Two days later, my mother Penny decided she couldn't cope and gave me to her neighbours: Daniel and Alison Sailor." The Sailors had gone to the hospital to visit Penny, who told them she was going to put the baby up for adoption. Wendell grew up believing his neighbour Penny was his aunt. Flick the switch to "self-destruct", he writes.

Laid bare … Sailor is candid about how his life came off the rails.

Laid bare … Sailor is candid about how his life came off the rails. Photo: Daniel Hopper

Whether Sailor can blame all of his erratic behaviour off the field to this long-hidden fact is debatable. But the switch was there nonetheless. "My switch goes two ways - and I don't have 'off'. Switch off the player and the energy goes from my body to my head and you get the performer. In its least-harmful mode, it makes me an entertainer; the life and soul of the party ... any party. But push it too far and I'm in self-destruct mode. Too often over the years, binge drinking, womanising, party drugs and bar fights have been the result."


Sailor retired from rugby league four years ago, but at 191 centimetres and 106 kilograms and with a 1000-watt smile nearly as wide as his shoulders, he remains one of sport's most recognisable figures. When we meet at a Sydney restaurant, the waitress wants a photo on her mobile. Wendell advises her to take more than one.

"If there's one person in your life that most people can count on giving them unconditional love, it's the woman who gave birth to you," reflects Sailor. "Take that away and it undermines everything." He says his wife, Tara, encouraged him to write his memoir to "set himself free".

The folks … Sailor’s parents Alison and Daniel Sailor.

The folks … Sailor's parents Alison and Daniel Sailor. Photo: courtesy of the Sailor family

"I deal all the time with young men who can't understand why someone doesn't love them," says Wayne Bennett, who coached Sailor at the Brisbane Broncos. "It's a huge burden in their lives. 'Why did my mother desert me? Why didn't she love me?' It was always masked with Wendell. The ones with the bravado are the ones with the most insecurity. They are concealing the pain."

Sailor's biological mum Penny is a Pacific Islander and his biological father West Indian, "but, for the record, I don't know who my biological father was and I don't want to. My real father was everything you could want in a dad and more, and that's good enough for me."

Sailor's adoptive parents were hard-working stock. His father, Daniel, a Torres Strait Islander, was a labourer on the railways all his life; his mother, Alison, cleaned schools while raising her family. "Our parents' cultures were different," he says. "Dad's involved in a lot of singing and dancing, while Mum's wasn't as distinctive."

Clear sailing … with wife Tara and children Matisse and Tristan.

Clear sailing … with wife Tara and children Matisse and Tristan. Photo: David Tease

When Sailor was scoring tries in his debut NSW Rugby League season in 1993, his friends spotted his birth mother, Penny, in a hotel in Mackay, Queensland, cheering as she watched on TV. "That's my son!" she shouted. "That's my son!" But when Brisbane journalists learnt that Sailor had been adopted, they respected his request not to publish the information. Sailor has never revealed it publicly until now.

"I didn't speak earlier out of respect to my own parents," says Sailor, who was told when he was 12 that he was adopted; until that point, Penny had been introduced as an aunty. "I've never really spoken to her again. Having kids now, you wonder, how could you give them away? Wayne always said that Dell is a bloke who wants to be loved. That was the reason why."

Score enough points, win enough games, get your head on TV enough, and love isn't hard to find. Having been rejected by five clubs before signing a $5000 contract with Brisbane, Sailor's swift ascension to superstar brought with it the usual trappings: money, parties, women, alcohol. He had vowed in his late teens not to drink until he made his debut for Queensland's State of Origin team, but when he turned 21 his life started to spin. "I'd had four 21st birthday parties. Who has four 21sts? I was getting pretty cocky. I'd wake up and genuinely wonder if I'd been dreaming all this."

Influential … with coach Wayne Bennett at St George-Illawarra.

Influential … with coach Wayne Bennett at St George-Illawarra. Photo: Anthony Johnson

In 1995, when the Super League war sparked and player payments spun out of control, he signed with News Limited's rebel competition. "What do you think of this?" he told Tara, handing her the $100,000 signing check. He then bought his parents a new Holden Calais. "That was one of my proudest moments. They still had an old Cortina from when I was a kid."

The sharp upward trajectory of his career didn't just ensure lucrative contracts but opened him to a fantasy world. "When you were on the road, the football groupies would be waiting for you the minute you stepped out of the showers. Sometimes they sidled up to you individually, sometimes they hunted in packs ... They were the hunters and we were the prey, even though it didn't always seem that way."

Tara, then a fitness instructor, met Sailor in 1994, when a fellow Broncos player tried unsuccessfully to set him up with one of her friends. They were, in key ways, an unlikely match. "There was a bit of adjustment when I found myself with a permanent girlfriend who was nobody's idea of a footy chick. I can see how she would have been very wary of this whole scene. We'd go out with the boys and have a few beers, a dance and a flirt, and there were some girls who seemed to be almost blind to the fact Tara even existed."

Tara recalls women pushing in front of her to get to Wendell when they went out together. "He was always so charming - he'd never be rude and tell them to back off. And I'd be looking daggers at them and he'd be all, 'Hey, babe ... it's cool ... it doesn't mean anything ... it goes with the territory.' Which it did, of course, but that didn't make it any easier. Ironically, no guy could come and talk to me or even look my way because Wendell was sooo jealous."

In 1996, his one sibling, Michelle, died from liver and kidney disease. She was in her mid-30s. A heavy smoker and drinker, she had run away from home to Sydney at 18 and eventually had six children. Sailor wasn't close to her, but the two kids - Jasmine and Daniel - she left behind to be raised by his parents became like brother and sister. His mother was devastated by Michelle's death. "She kept saying, 'It should have been me.' "

In 1998, when Tara and Wendell were married and their first born, Tristan, was two months old, Sailor received a letter from a woman, Amy. "I thought you might like to see a photo of your son," she wrote. Wayne Bennett advised Sailor to get a DNA test. Sailor knew from the attached photo that the child was his. The boy, Jackson, had been conceived during a period when he and Tara had separated, both uncertain about whether they wanted to pursue a serious relationship.

"He was as shocked as me," Tara says. "When we got back together he told me about that night [with Amy]. That was before we knew anything [about the baby]. That was the last thing I had thought would come out of it. I was just crushed. I was sitting there, with my brand new baby in my arms, and I was like, 'Oh my God.' I was hoping, 'Nothing else!' It was hard. Really hard."

Meanwhile, Sailor's behaviour was becoming more erratic. He was arrested following an altercation at a Brisbane club after he was king hit. On an end-of-season trip to Bali, he merrily offered to buy a car off a local sitting in a Mercedes. "I wandered over to the car," recalls Sailor, "and said, 'Hey mate, you've got a nice big car there. How about giving us boys a lift back to our hotel?' He stepped out of the car, pulled a gun from out of his shirt, and pointed it straight at me." On another occasion, he was arrested in Townsville for an altercation in a bar, later doing push-ups in his cell until he was released the next morning. He says he'd "taken to drinking like a fish to water".

Throughout this time, he writes in his memoir, "there was a little voice that was niggling at me, asking a question I didn't want to know the answer to". Bennett was aware of the subliminal forces eating away at him: "Without the right people, and if he's not in the right circumstances, Wendell will create mayhem."

Sailor knew how critical he was to the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) when, in the months before the 2003 Rugby World Cup, they hired a helicopter for their prized signing. He was shooting a promotion at Homebush, and was needed back at Wallabies training in the Sydney CBD. "I'm the man," he thought. "How good is this?" Sailor's defection from rugby league to rugby union in 2002 meant he stepped further away from reality - more money and celebrity, and greater downtime -which only added to his descent.

Just after his signing with the ARU, Wendell's father Daniel died from a heart attack. He was devastated. His parents, reflects Sailor, "took me in when my own mother didn't want me and, with the odds stacked against them financially, did everything they could to give me a good life. And that is why, I think, I went off the rails after Dad died."

Two nights before a rugby union Test match in Cape Town in 2005, he was caught in the middle of a scuffle between Wallabies teammates Matt Henjak and Lote Tuqiri, who were arguing over Tuqiri's refusal to drink. A year later, after he'd moved from Brisbane to Sydney to play for the NSW Waratahs, there was another Cape Town nightclub incident. The ARU fined him $25,000. Sailor didn't care. "It's like getting fined $200," he recalls. "You do another endorsement or promo and you get your $25,000 back."

"Wendell was someone you had to keep a close eye on because he did have to enjoy himself," says former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. "If anything was going to happen in the team, you knew Wendell would be a part of it. He was always on the edge." Then Jones offers this: "In rugby [union], he didn't feel loved. When Wendell didn't feel love, he'd look for love in other areas. That's when the demons come out."

When the phone call from ASADA came alerting Sailor to his positive drug test, he was faced with a problem he could not solve with another endorsement, or another flashy performance in a golden jumper.

Sailor says he first dabbled in party drugs after the 2000 rugby League World Cup in England, and more so after he arrived in Sydney to play for the Waratahs. On a Wednesday night before a match against the ACT Brumbies, he went out with friends "from outside of footy". He has never named who these people were. "A couple of those blokes aren't my mates anymore, if they had been real friends or if they had been from football, they wouldn't have offered me the stuff. It wasn't even that much. The effects of a line of cocaine only last for a couple of hours and I was sure it would be well out of my system before the game on Sunday."

How big had his night been? "I didn't just stop at one line. I had a good night. But I didn't go for two days. But when you start doing that, and thinking like that, you don't even want to be playing football."

Telling Tara he had been busted remains a vivid memory. "It was one of those moments when everything in your life falls apart," he recalls. "You're looking over Bronte, you've got a nice apartment ... She said, 'How could you do this to our family? How could you put us in this position?' "

Sailor lost his sponsorships, his $140,000 Mercedes, and eventually his fat contract with the ARU. Media was camped outside the family's home for weeks, forcing him to hide under blankets in the backseat of the family car.

He was determined to prove he hadn't taken the cocaine to aid performance. "That was the first thing we said to Tristan when he asked what was wrong," Tara says. "He asked, 'Why isn't Dad playing any more?' I said, 'You have to understand that Daddy didn't cheat. He was just stupid.' " Sailor was also adamant he wouldn't implicate others when the idea was floated by ASADA that he could halve his suspension to one year by revealing who had supplied the cocaine. "I'm the one who did it," Sailor says. "I caused that destruction."

The ARU eventually accepted his insistence that he did not take the cocaine to enhance his performance. "But the ARU announced that they were going to stick with their two-year ban anyway," he says, "because I had refused to dob in the other people involved."

Sailor's fall from grace turned out to be what saved him. Bennett was one of the first to call when news broke of his positive test. "Why [would] a person like you need to take drugs?" the coach asked. "You're silly enough without them." Then Bennett arranged for Sailor to address the issue of his origins that had plagued him throughout his life. "That was the first time we got him some counselling," Bennett says. "He's not a drug person. But it was another way of getting away from the pain."

"Everything happens for a reason," says Tara. "Something big had to happen to make [the self-destruction] stop."

Wendell sailor lost it all, but his three-level home with coastal views just north of Wollongong - where Bennett urged him to move, to get away from Sydney's night-time temptations - is the material evidence of how he got it all back. Walking along the hallway, the walls are covered in family photos, which include some with Jackson. While I sit with Tara and Tristan in the kitchen, Sailor, now 39, is packing bags in preparation for a flight to Queensland. He's an ambassador for Jeep, and will spend the next four days playing golf with corporate partners. He played two seasons for St George-Illawarra Dragons in the National Rugby League after his drug ban was served, and stayed on as the club's most visible ambassador.

"If they don't want to talk about me, I can talk about me," he says in the distance, eavesdropping on our conversation. "They [son Tristan, now 15, and daughter Matisse, 10] are very lucky to have a dad like me." His two years out of professional sport allowed him to be a good father. "It was [previously] all about Wendell and Sydney and the bright lights and Wendell, Wendell, Wendell," says Tara. "The family time he [was missing when] away was crucial. Tristan was coming through, playing footy. Wendell coached him, and Tristan suddenly saw his dad all the time. Until then, he'd been away so much."

A gifted athlete, Tristan has just signed a two-year deal with the Dragons. "I want to be a professional footballer," he says. "The Dragons' fullback." It sets him on the same thorny path as his father, but Wendell and Tara are confident that Tristan can avoid being hurt. "Tristan has always said to me, 'I won't drink when I'm older, Mum', " says Tara. "I think all that stuff might have actually worked in our favour, for the good. That he's scared of it. [But] of course I'm always concerned." After playing rugby league one afternoon recently, Tristan was told by the father of another player: "Well done, son. Hope you don't get into drugs like your dad did."

Sailor is trying to incorporate Jackson further into his family, "at least, as much as he and his parents want. It can be hard on Tara, but she understands how important it is both for Jackson and for me." How often do Wendell and Jackson see each other? "I see him a lot more now, mostly during school holidays because he lives on the NSW Central Coast. He's part of the family. He gets on really well with my other kids. They are as close as brothers and sisters can be, and I put a lot of that down to Tara's influence."

Tara believes her husband won't be truly healed until he asks the question that continues to gnaw at him: why did his birth mum let him go? "I know where she is," says Sailor. "I've got her number. She had five kids to five different blokes. If you've done it once, you've done it twice, why keep doing it?"

Tara's father was adopted and, by the time he eventually tracked down his mother, she'd been dead for two months. "Having seen how easy it is to wait too long," she says, "I just want to make sure Wendell doesn't miss that opportunity, too, and then be sorry for the rest of his life." Right now, she adds, "he's more concerned about his mum, Alison, as she's in failing health. If he spent more time trying to find Penny and talk to her, rather than being with his mum, he would never forgive himself. But I think he will see her eventually. Wendell always ends up doing the right thing eventually."

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