Chris Kerr: ‘A rollercoaster I couldn’t get off’

When Chris Kerr spoke out on his struggles to cope with depression, it stunned the sporting community in Antrim. Now the Saffrons keeper is coming out the other side, and proving an inspiration on and off the pitch, writes Declan Bogue

Since Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr told his story on his mental health issues he has become a touchstone for others dealing with depression.

There are a few lines in the South African novelist JM Coetzee’s Youth that read; ‘Through these balmy summer days, which seem made for ease and pleasure, the testing continues: what part is being tested he is no longer sure. Sometimes it seems he is being tested simply for testing’s sake, to see whether he will endure the test.’

For sportsmen living with depression, this is how it is. Those that file through the gates, that fill the bleachers to watch baseball on sunny days or stand in huddled masses at National League matches exhaling puffs of their own breath, they might struggle to believe that the combatants, those gods they have come to bear witness to, can struggle through their days.

Especially if the people who suffer are the life and soul of the party, the ones cracking all the jokes, such as Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr. In all those snippety type pieces you see in programmes and magazines, the Antrim senior panel will name him as the joker in the pack, or crowbar in some wicked in-joke.

At the end of February when he decided to go public about his crippling periods of depression, when all he could consider is how and when he might commit suicide, it came as an enormous shock to Antrim and the wider Ulster GAA population.

His depression was brought on by the bereavement of his father Pat, a man who as a taxi driver and coalman, knew everyone and had a bit of craic everywhere he went in Belfast.

On his taxi runs, he would tell his fare all about his big strapping son, the one with a biscuit tin full of medals for winning the Antrim Championship with St Gall’s, all about the saves he made and how well he played. And the funny thing was, according to his son, Big Pat had no real interest in sport. It was his son he loved.

But Pat was a heavy smoker.

On July 3, 2012, Chris’s mother Maud met him at the front door of their home and floored him with the words, “Daddy has cancer.”

They went through the hell that has become so familiar to almost every family. Treatment. Setbacks. Improvements. Hope, elation, and then despair as the tumours returned, ever more aggressive.

And then on February 24, 2013, he was travelling to the hospital after Antrim training, but got there too late.

Eighteen months of routine followed where he threw himself into the routines of work and playing football for club and county. Antrim being Antrim, the occasional goal would go in, and then the walls would come tumbling down.

“You might make a mistake, you think the world is going to end. I was beating myself up,” he recalls now.

The facade was impeccable. He fooled everyone by going around pretending that nothing had happened. The wisecracks and stunts in the changing room, the quips at work, the show went on.

He was living at home with Maud, couldn’t leave her at this time. A sister Nicola was in New York, no sense in worrying her.

Behind the scenes, it was as he described in an essay he wrote for the Gaelic Player’s Association website; “I became withdrawn from my family. From my friends. From sport. Not eating and losing weight, up to 9kg at a stage.

“Going to training was a chore. I found myself during drills and games just wanting to be back in bed on my own. I was going to work, coming home, getting in to bed, putting my earphones in and I just lay listening to my daddy’s favourite songs. Crying myself to sleep into the pillows so my mummy or sister wouldn’t hear me.

“Overthinking everything. Jobs. Sport. Relationships. Lying in a pool of my own tears. This became my routine and the norm for me. I couldn’t sleep at nights and was exhausted during the day. It became a vicious circle. Over and over. Operating on no sleep added to the way I was feeling. A rollercoaster I couldn’t get off.”

He sought, and received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It altered his thinking, put in place a scaffold for his mindset, and the tools to deal with things when the scaffold wobbled in the breeze.

After a time, he climbed back into the light. When he wrote his piece, he was staggered by the reaction. Confidence has been flooding through his body. A few weeks back, he stood in a hotel in Cookstown, giving a talk about depression alongside another speaker at the event in Oisin McConville. He had to catch himself to see just how far he had come.

“There were complete strangers who came up in the middle of the street and even after the first few league games with St Gall’s there, people walked up from the opposition, managers, young people at the games would come up and just start a conversation about someone they know, or themselves,” he says.

“People said that what I wrote, it felt like they could have written the exact same thing. It was published on a Thursday and by the Saturday, eight players had contacted me.

“It might not have been to do with grief, it might have been other troubles they have had. But I was hoping it might help one person, in north or west Belfast, where this thing is so prevalent.”

Kerr is 31 now; the oldest player in the panel now that Kevin Niblock and Sean McVeigh are retired.

For men between the ages of 30-34 in north Belfast, they are at a higher risk of suicide than anywhere in Northern Ireland or Britain. It is a sickness, an epidemic, and yet funding for mental health was cut by 25% in one of the last acts of a dysfunctional Stormont administration.

He’s doing good now, but he doesn’t take it for granted. He and girlfriend Maria are hoping to buy a house soon together. They say he gets his light-hearted side from his mother Maud, and she is by all accounts the life and soul everywhere she goes.

Of course, they still pine for and miss Pat, especially on weekends like this when the sun is high in the sky and Saffrons jerseys will invade Newry for Antrim’s chance to take out Down. Given how organised this current group are, don’t believe the odds for one second.

Depression can take a hold, but it can’t change your personality.

When Lenny Harbinson got the Antrim manager’s job, he called up Kerr. And he has been rewarded with just one goal conceded across six league games, the most consistent period of Kerr’s career.

The two were St Gall’s men, but Harbinson preferred then-Fermanagh goalkeeper Ronan Gallagher to the younger Kerr when they won the All-Ireland club title in 2010, so the only question Kerr asked in response to the invitation was, ‘Is Ronnie coming with you?’

Soon after that, the draw for the Ulster Championship was made. Antrim got Down, away, which throws in this evening at 7pm.

Over the winter, Gearoid Adams was recruited by Down, having spent the last couple of years as joint Antrim manager.

Gearoid being the son of his rather more famous father, Gerry, Kerr grabbed his phone and keyed in the message to his former manager; ‘It’s like your Da said years ago — you haven’t gone away you know!’

Maria and Maud will be in Newry. And so too, will Pat.

“Anytime I play or anything I do in life in general, I do it in memory of him.”

Other sportsmen who struggled with depression

Robert Enke: Goalkeeper with Hannover 96 and the German national team, Enke’s tale was captured with biographer Ronald Reng. He suffered from depression for six years and had been treated by a psychiatrist. Took his own life by standing in front of a train at a level crossing in Eilvese, Neustadt am Rübenberge.

Eamonn Magee: The Belfast boxer recently released his autobiography with ghost writer Paul Gibson, detailing a life spent making bad choices and an upbringing that was two parts horrifying, three parts terrifying. Eamonn struggles with depression now and admits to abusing alcohol as what is described as a ‘highly-functioning alcoholic’.

Oscar De La Hoya: At the beginning of his career, Golden Boy had the looks and the charm, but his aspirations towards a career in architecture and his fondness for golf betrayed a man who felt trapped in the world of boxing. Substance abuse and alcohol problems are an all-too familiar ending to a boxer’s career, and De La Hoya battled depression by self-medicating.

Ian Thorpe: Identified as a teenage prodigy in swimming, the Australian found the weight of expectation a heavy price to pay throughout his childhood.

“I am someone who has struggled with mental health issues since I was a teen,” Thorpe said in a Huffington Post Australia piece. “From the outside, many would not see my pain.”

Darryl Strawberry: Despite all his success in Major League Baseball with the New York Mets, Strawberry was scarred for life by an abusive father. An addiction to cocaine and alcohol followed, but through professional help he overcame them.


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