This Guy

norris-mainI don’t know much about sports network ESPN, except that once I saw in an article that some American had worshiped it so much that they named their kid after it. However, a few days ago I came across a great article from them via another news site. Not much of a sports fan, I read it anyway and was intrigued. It told the unconventional story of a rising baseball star, Daniel Norris, apparently the top prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays (I’m assuming Toronto’s baseball team?)

At only 21, he already has a couple of million in the bank but chooses to live in an old van, and live off the $800 dollars a month his financial advisers feed into his account. He buys simple food from the supermarket and cooks it in his van, wherever in Florida or another state he may be parked.

He told ESPN, “It’s like a yin-and-yang thing for me,” he says. “I’m not going to change who I am just because people think it’s weird. The only way I’m going to have a great season is by starting out happy and balanced and continuing to be me. It might be unconventional, but to feel good about life I need to have some adventure.”

The article goes on to state that, ‘HE HAS ALWAYS lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone; a hippie who has never tried drugs; a major league pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet. He is 21 and says he has never tasted alcohol. He has had one serious relationship, with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform. His newest surfboard is made from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never a Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.’

Instead of living the bling life with his teammates, he goes back to his van after practice to cook, think, surf and write in his ‘thought journal.’

As quoted in the piece about him,'”Research the things you love,” he wrote one night. “Gain knowledge. It’s valuable.”

“Be kind. Be courteous. Love others and be happy. It’s that simple.”‘

I like the example he sets of living a life on one’s own terms, however unconventional it may be, as well as doing things for the sake of doing them, rather than for a purpose or rewards dictated by society. It brings to mind another celebrated baseball player whom is close with a friend of mine. This young, seven-figure earning player grew up impoverished in Latin America, became a baseball prodigy and has played all over the world. On the off-season, he makes films. Not for money, obviously, but for love and passion. While I can’t love baseball, these guys are inspirational both on and off the pitch.

On Ya JK

9780143204800I can’t say exactly what drew me to John Kirwan’s memoir, All Blacks Don’t Cry. Maybe it’s being so far from New Zealand and feeling a bit homesick that made me want to read about the mental health struggles of one of the country’s greatest sporting heroes, a man that figured prominently in my childhood as I was dragged to rugby matches and forced to watch endless matches on the TV by my rugby-mad father and brother.

In fact, it’s possible that I once had a crush on him – those tree-trunk thighs in that black uniform that symbolized so much, the sandy blond hair and shy, boyish good looks. I do remember having an All Blacks coin collection and a few All Blacks plastic figurines with over-sized heads that I got from the service station. I think JK was my favorite.

There’s something quite compelling and inspiring about this revered figure, the epitome of Kiwi masculinity, coming out about his demons and making himself so publicly vulnerable. New Zealand is a country that does have a terrible suicide problem, coupled with a tendency to keep everything on the inside, to ‘harden up’ and get on with things. To sweep things under the rug and say, ‘she’ll be right.’ This is probably more so for men, and Sir Kirwan does talk about this – how it was so hard for him to seek help because of stigma attached to a man of his status needing to see a psychiatrist.

The arc of his life thus far is amazing – from humble, working class roots to becoming one of the best rugby players in the world. He was an underachiever at school. He failed School Certificate and became a butcher, working with his father. He then reached the top levels of rugby playing for the All Blacks. He was rugby royalty. When he retired from rugby, he moved into a coaching role, first with the Italian national team then the Japanese national team. He currently coaches in Auckland. He is also married with three teenagers. His wife is Italian and they have a restored farmhouse in the north of Italy, and a beach house near Auckland. JK speaks fluent Italian and almost fluent Japanese. His accomplishments become even more extraordinary when we take into account that through his 20s and 30s, he suffered from debilitating depression.

Imagine the sheer willpower it took to get out of bed, train and play in front of tens of thousands of people. To engage in such a physically demanding game under intense pressure. Fortunately, his story so far has a happy ending. He describes his journey to wellness in clear and simple terms. He is candid and brave. Not too many sporting heroes want their fans to know about their mental breakdowns, but it’s all laid bare here.

His perspective is refreshing and balanced (“Rugby is a game that I had a gift for, and through it my life was enriched. It’s left me with friends all over the world. It’s the greatest game ever, but it is a game – and there is a bigger picture.”) As he outlines his road to recovery, he takes a nuanced approach. Medication helped him a lot, but it wasn’t a silver bullet. He also sought out therapy and had to try two or three psychologists before he found a good fit. He worked on himself a lot and had to rebuild his confidence and self-image. He saw that there was a genetic factor, as other family members had also suffered. He looks outside himself as well and believes that society is putting too much pressure on to lead faster, busier lives. He speaks of his Italian life which, with its emphasis on family, spending quality time with others and working less, he advocates.

JK was knighted in 2012 for his contribution to rugby and to raising awareness about mental health and depression. In his book, he recounts stories of some of the hundreds of people who have approached him in public to thank him for saving their lives. It’s warm fuzzies all around. Due to the big impact his personal story and awareness raising have had, a second book was recently released aimed at teens. Called Stand By Me, it is a comprehensive book that includes the voices of not only JK but also mental health professionals and a range of teenagers who have suffered from various mental health issues.

Both of his books are interesting, entertaining and informative. To me, it seems that the wide audience they are reaching and the impact they are having signals a positive change in how New Zealanders deal with mental health issues. We need to give JK a pat on the back for opening up the conversation and helping to remove the stigma attached to it. As the subtitle of the cover states, it is a story of hope.