Guts & Balls

Death of a Sportsman

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Accidental deaths are not common in sport

LAST SUNDAY, Choirul Huda, a professional goalkeeper from Indonesia and a veteran of 503 games, darted off his goal line and slid in for a tackle towards charging legs, as goalkeepers tend to do. Like countless times in the past, he collided with the said legs—on this occasion belonging to a defender from his own team, Persela Lamongan, and a striker’s from the opposition club—as goalkeepers tend to do. During this particular incident, the major impact was made by Ramon Rodrigues, the defender, when he crashed into Huda’s sliding upper torso.

As is the case when heavyset bones and joints such as shins and knees strike with momentum against more fragile parts of the human body, such as the face, neck and chest, goalie Huda came off the worse for it; again, as goalkeepers in such collisions tend to come off. This, too, must have occurred several times in his 18- year top-flight career, occurrences that goalkeepers such as Huda tend to miraculously recover from, sometimes during the course of the match itself. This time, sadly, there was no recovery—on the Surajaya Stadium field in East Java, or even off it. Minutes after he was stretchered off the pitch and to a hospital, Huda died of a cardiac arrest, suffered due to the ‘possibility of chest trauma, head trauma and neck trauma’, according to the doctor’s reports. He was 38.

The most devastating part of the six-minute video of this incident that has been widely circulated on the internet is the look on defender Rodrigues’ face when he hears the distress calls of the paramedics. Evidently, by this point, they seemed to know that something had gone awfully wrong with Huda, just before they haul the goalie off the field. Rodrigues is slouched over besides the goal post, when his face goes white, like he’s seen a ghost. He would be told only later that his teammate had died due to their “traumatic collision”. But you can see, in the video, that the overwhelming feeling of guilt, one that will fester for the rest of his life, had already begun settling in.

There’s a strong chance, and I’m only making an educated guess here, that Rodrigues wouldn’t have slept that night. Or the next few nights. Just like Bangladeshi cricketer Mehrab Hossain didn’t after his pull shot struck former India batsman Raman Lamba, a former India international, then fielding at forward short leg without a helmet, in the temple, an injury that killed him back in 1998. Just as grief kept Australian fast bowler Sean Abbott up for a few nights after his bouncer struck and killed his countryman Phillip Hughes, behind his helmet and just above the nape of his neck, in 2014. “It was all a bit of a blur and I felt like I was in a bit of a daze. I felt super tired,” Abbott said during a coroner’s inquest. “These feelings stayed with me for the next few days.”

Accidental deaths are not as commonplace in sport as they are in life. But that said, men like Rodrigues, Hossain and Abbott suffer just as severely as accidental killers behind steering wheels do in coming to terms with that unintentional moment. In an educative New Yorker article titled ‘The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer’, author Alice Gregory writes: ‘There are self-help books written for seemingly every aberration of human experience: for alcoholics and opiate abusers; for widows, rape victims, gambling addicts and anorexics; for parents of children with disabilities... But there are no self-help books for anyone who has accidentally killed another person.’

Accidental deaths are not common in sport. But men like Rodrigues and Hossain suffer just as severely as accidental killers behind steering wheels do in coming to terms with that unintentional moment

Gregory’s article mentions how accidental killers, across the board, report experiencing exactly the same kind of post-traumatic stress disorder—nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations. Fear, guilt and shame, the author says, rise to the surface and remain there, becoming the person’s appropriate emotions. One of the many accidental killers Gregory interviewed for her piece told her that she visited a therapist. The session ended with the therapist telling her: “I’m sorry but I don’t have the resources to deal with this.”

Few do. Back in 1998, the concept of sports psychologists didn’t even exist in cricket when a 19-year old Hossain was left to his own devices to figure out his PTSDs. His team-mates from the club match have gone on record to say how he wept for three straight days and didn’t sleep a wink at night. But the road to full mental recovery, as Hossain stated in a recent interview, took a whole lot longer. “It took me two to two-and-a-half months to recover and get back to normal life, to sleep again and return to cricket,” he said.

Hossain’s successful self-therapy has always been measured—mainly by sportswriters—by the fact that just three months after the Lamba incident, he made his international debut for Bangladesh and went to the become the country’s first centurion. But real evidence of his mental recovery surfaced just a few years ago, days after the Hughes incident, when he sent this message to Abbott: “Friend, I have gone through exactly what you are going through. What happened was an accident. Your family and friends, the cricket board, and cricketers from all over the world are in your support. We want you to come back to the game, but only when you are ready.”

The fact that the death was caused unintentionally is a crutch that the player can rely on during their attempt at recovery. “Everyone saw what happened,” Hossain said in the interview shortly after Hughes’ death. “It was nothing deliberate.” An Indian footballer of much renown, unfortunately, didn’t even have that crutch to rest on. Here, too, everyone saw what happened. But after watching it, Subrata Pal was called a ‘murderer’.

At the Federation Cup final at the Kanteerva Stadium in Bangalore in 2004, Mohun Bagan goalie Pal, much like Huda on his fateful day, rushed out of his goal line to stop Dempo’s Brazilian striker, Cristiano Junior. At that point of time, Junior was the most expensive player in Indian football, and he was about to show just why he was worth the money by scoring Dempo’s second goal of the night from a one-on-one position with the keeper. But just as the ball slipped past Pal’s reach and towards the open net (and it did go in), Pal lunged at Junior with his left arm, striking him under the neck. The paramedics in Kanteerva rushed Junior to Hosmat Hospital in heavy traffic (instead of Mallya Hospital that sits adjacent to the stadium) and he was declared dead on arrival, due to a cardiac arrest. He was 25.

Pal left the field to jeers and boos. A Times of India article called his tackle ‘overzealous’ ten years after the incident. Other publications dug up his past and found him to be a knife-wielding goon during his teenage years. Far from being cocooned, Pal was sold down the river by his association, the Indian football federation and the sport in general, left to deal with both his grief and incredible accusations all alone. And when he did, when he soaked it all up and became India’s number one keeper in internationals and also landed for himself a stint in a Danish club, ghosts from Kanteerva followed him around in the form of questions at press conferences.

Pal never has and perhaps never will speak on the incident. But today he wears his side of the story in a tattoo. ‘Everything can be left for the truth but the truth cannot be left for anything.’ Never have sadder words been inked on a sportsperson’s body.