“I’m afraid I’ve got to tell you something very, very sad. Mum’s not going to be able to get out of here. She’s got cancer again, and this time she isn’t going to get better.’’
Telling his children that their mum was going to die was the hardest thing Rio Ferdinand had ever done in his life.
A major theme in Thinking Out Loud is how all that made Ferdinand one of the best footballers in the world, also made him totally ill-equipped to deal with Rebecca’s death.
The book describes a happy childhood in south London but one where love was always implicit, not explicit. He describes himself as “a mixed-race lad from a … council estate” who one minute was being turned away from West End designer stores and the next was a rising star footballer with his photo all over the papers. He reveals himself as a very private person, not wanting to have a girlfriend because it would involve her knowing his business, and who would dread having to enter a room of strangers.
As a footballer he reveals an obsessive attitude. He describes his reaction to winning the Champions League Final, having a conversation – on the night of the final – with the chairman and Sir Alex Ferguson about which new players would be signed to keep the team winning, adding: “Sir Alex looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.”
When Manchester United lost a game, Ferdinand would come home and sit on his own watching TV until 4 or 5 a.m. even if he and Rebecca had friends staying and a restaurant booked. After training he slept for two hours to recover, irrespective of whatever might be happening at home. He did not do family social functions during the season, not even Rebecca’s gran’s funeral.
He says that “to the press and the public, Rebecca might have looked like a WAG, but in many ways she was more like a single mum” and “living with me was like living with a new-born baby”.
He explains the implications of fame and fortune – not trusting anyone, not making any real friends since he was a teenager, also wondering if they liked him or just his status. Another of his many poignant one-liners is: “With close family, wealth solves problems. With everyone else, however, it creates complications.”
The obsession is not so much a consequence of being a Premier League footballer as a deliberate chosen strategy, as the following four quotations from the book show:
“You cannot afford to feel ordinary human emotions in case they get in the way of your game. You don’t allow yourself to feel anything that could distract or soften you.”
“There is no place in a Premier League dressing room for sympathy, and any player stupid enough to show vulnerability will pay for it. What his team mates will see is a weak link – a liability – and nobody wants that on their team … Premier League culture is harsh, and unforgiving – and it suited me down to the ground.”
“To be the best, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of normal emotions. You don’t get to become a winner by being an ordinary boy. Most people live their lives with all sorts of competing priorities. Life is a balancing act, I hear people say. But for a footballer there are no dilemmas and there is no balance, because the only criterion for every choice you ever make is: will this make me a better player?”
Rebecca’s death is described brutally and with raw emotion. He describes taking the children to Rebecca’s grave the Christmas Day after she died, to wish mum a Happy Christmas. The phrase: “No child should have to be in a cemetery on Christmas Day” tears at your heart, as does one of the children asking who invented cancer and why does it exist.
Rio’s first attempts to come to terms with “washing-machines, tumble-driers, dishwashers, the number for the guy who services the boiler, the name of the house insurance company” are described with humour, as is his difficulty in dealing with invitations for one of his children to come to play or requests for him to have another child to his home, when he thought he was just going to pick up the kids.
Rio the footballer shuts out all distractions. At first, Rebecca’s illness was a distraction. Rio the footballer sees problems as challenges to be overcome. He had been trained not to allow negative thoughts any space in his life. Cancer was an opponent to be beaten – like Arsenal or Liverpool. As a result he struggled to accept the seriousness of Rebecca’s illness.
He writes of the humbling experience of being one of the best in the world at his job but a total amateur in his own house, of realising that “the tools I had learned to use as a footballer were the last thing my children needed from their dad when tragedy struck”. He writes: “As a footballer I had been equal to anything, and always known what to do. For the first time in my life, I was lost ... I had always thought of myself as someone who had the steel to step up to a challenge; who always confronted the big moments squarely, who did not lose his nerve. But nothing in my life had prepared me for this.” He felt clueless to console his grieving children.
The biggest struggle for him was that Rebecca had sacrificed her life to make him successful. When his career ended they would have a more balanced lifestyle with him no longer demanding all the time. The tragedy he refers to several times is that his chance to pay her back and give her her time never came.
There is a poignant scene when he describes sitting at Rebecca’s deathbed: “I come from a Christian family but watching Rebecca lie there in that hospital bed I found myself questioning God. All these people believe in Him – and He allows this to happen? How is that possible? I found it very hard to believe in a God who was supposed to be all powerful, knew this was happening but chose to do nothing to help.”
As the painful experience began to change him, he was determined to help others deal with their grief. This book and a TV documentary are part of that process.