Hall of Fame player. World Cup veteran. Former NCAA, university, club and Canadian under-20 coach. TV and newspaper analyst.
Paul James’s soccer pedigree is long and distinguished.
But away from the pitch, James lived a secret hell. For more than a decade, the intense, meticulous coach was a crack cocaine addict who lived in fear that his secret might leak out.
The 48-year-old James, after three trips to rehab, lifts the veil on his addiction in a self-published E-book called “Cracked Open.”
“In spite of losing so much — including my soccer employment, my financial security, and, many times over, my dignity — I appreciate that I should take comfort from the fact in 2012, I am indeed fortunate to be alive,” writes James.
James showed The Canadian Press excerpts from the book, which is slated for release Monday. It is a white-knuckle journey through addiction that also holds a mirror up to Canadian soccer.
Canadian soccer officials, coaches and players will read the book with interest and — in some cases — foreboding. Many of today’s Canadian stars passed through James’ youth team and some did not behave well.
James hopes his harrowing past might help shed light on addiction — and ultimately help others see warning signs and seek/provide help.
“For me, drug addiction has proven to be a cruel disease with no simple remedy — not a moral failing or a weakness of mind, but a unique, personal, and devastating experience,” he writes.
His double life will come as a shock to many (I have known James for more than a decade, having covered him as a coach and worked with him both as an editor and fellow TV analyst, and never suspected).
“Everybody has said that to me. Anyone that I’ve opened up (to) has been stunned and shocked,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a badge of honour to wear but what it is, it’s to alert people and society in general that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
He pulls no punches in the book, detailing disturbing incidents as the drug pulled him down one ugly rabbit hole after another.
Ten weeks before coaching Canada at the FIFA 2001 World Youth Championships, he found himself bloody and in need of stitches (he later had 16 to close three facial cuts), dazed and without any money “somewhere along Queen Street in Toronto.”
On a trip to London, England, after another incident with crack, he found himself at an automatic teller paying off the woman who apparently lived in the house where he was using.
In Saskatoon, after another episode, he was robbed with a Stanley knife at his throat.
“It was another nasty experience in a subculture that I was now a part of,” he writes. “Living the double life was terrorizing.”
And yet James kept functioning — and in most cases succeeding — as a coach.
He took his under-20 Canadian team to the 2001 World Youth Championship. And from 2004 to 2009 as “master coach” of York University soccer program, he led the women’s team to four championship appearances. He was CIS women’s coach of the year in 2007.
As a coach, James says he always gave his best to his employers.
“I gave everything I possibly could have to them as an organization. I hid this as best as I possibly could. I haven’t stolen from people. I haven’t hurt people. I haven’t committed crimes.”
At tournaments or on tour, James says he was in his element surrounded by people and focused on the task at hand. After the incident 10 weeks in advance of the 2001 World Youth Championships, for example, he says he was clean for 2 1/2 months.
It was alone at home that his demons reared.
He believes his ability to function at the professional level “might open up people’s eyes to a whole new world of other addicts that are out there. I don’t believe that I’m the only sport coach across the world that is either going through this or gone through it.”
“There are some extraordinary moments in my life that I wished hadn’t happened,” he added. “But when I look at it now, I feel by exposing those moments, I think it can not only help other addicts but maybe society as well in how we view addiction. We tend to stereotype, we’ve been conditioned in a certain way of what we see of addiction.”
James details a loving but difficult childhood in Wales (today he talks of having nothing but love for his parents). Money was tight and sparked family rows. James, himself, was bullied and traumatized by the way his “right-angled” ears looked (years later he had surgery to fix them).
“Sometimes I would lie in bed at night and add up all my worries. If they numbered less than 10, I felt it was a good time for me,” he writes of his childhood.
Socially awkward, James found pleasure in soccer.
He now sees the sport as the first — and most pleasing — of four addictions he has experienced over his lifetime.
The others are: “My addiction to work, which I made sustainable for many years; my addiction to crack cocaine, which realistically should have cost me my life, and finally my addiction to excessive stress, which has been the fulcrum of my health problems.”
In later years, as James’ drug use escalated, so did his fear of being exposed — a fear magnified by his position of leadership as a coach.
“As terrorizing as the paranoia was from the act of taking the drug itself,” he said. “And as terrorizing as the stitches and the scars and the burn marks on my body, there was nothing more terrorizing than being found out. And the terror of trying to hide your situation, your circumstances. It was really awful.”
James says 70 per cent of addicts never come forward — “That’s an incredible indictment of how we approach drug addiction. So I imagine a lot of those 70 per cent are living a life like I did, where people are shocked that I did it or that I would be an addict because of my approach to life. I was sort of a goody two shoes, very honest, didn’t drink very much.”
James’s first encounter with powdered cocaine was in 1998, at the end of a stint as a U.S. college coach, just before he joined the Canadian Soccer Association as youth coach.
He had no money after coaching for peanuts in the U.S. And he was a victim of stress, combined with low self-esteem, long hours and lack of a support system. His long-suffering sister had kicked him out of her house because he kept leaving the door open.
“I was a lost human being. I had nowhere to turn and to go.”
So as a Canadian youth coach, he found himself living in a hotel in a rough part of Toronto, his belongings in two garbage bags. He did not abuse alcohol but it often proved to be the door that opened to the drug.
“You end up going into a scruffy bar and you end up somewhere you shouldn’t. And that’s how it started for me.”
It was crack cocaine, a drug he calls brutal and ruthless.
And he remembers the first time he used it, returning to his hotel as the sun rose and the city was coming to life.
“Nothing worse, ever, than that first moment of recognizing you’re a national team coach and you’re involved in illicit behaviour.”
Adding to his lack of confidence was the permanent black cloud of a match-fixing scandal in 1986 in Singapore while playing for Canada. The initial ring of four Canadian players approached James before the semifinal and he agreed to join them for $10,000.
“While I should have stood up and ran to the (team) management, I instead made a huge mistake,” he writes.
“I did not have the courage I needed and it would haunt me for years,” he adds.
Sleepless nights followed as the game neared. Canada lost 2-0 to North Korea.
“Being nervous at right fullback, I am not sure how I played even to this day,” he writes. “I genuinely just tried to compete as best I could, despite the fact that I still felt I was letting everyone down: my country, my real teammates, the coaching staff, and ironically even the four conspirators.”
A guilt-ridden James gave the money back to the four other conspirators after the game.
He later confided in a teammate and the story made its way to the Canadian Soccer Association, which launched an investigation. Criminal proceedings against the four were eventually dropped, although they were later suspended by the CSA.
There was no action against James but he never really escaped his role in the affair. Years later when he joined the CSA as coach, he says it took just days to hear internal whispers and complaints about his hiring.
His dream position had become “a nightmare job for me.”
James, who is unmarried and has no kids, says some coaches and players clearly had the knife out for him.
James’s intense, hyper and driven approach to coaching, combined with his personal issues, made for a dangerous recipe. He reckons in the 500 “significantly high-pressure games” he has coached, he never once sat down — instead pacing in the coach’s box.
Cocaine was always his drug. He says he has smoked a joint twice in his life.
In his early days of using, there might be three to four months where nothing would happen.
By the time he was nearing his first visit to rehab — in late 2008 — he was using three, four or five times a week while working 12 hours a day. He wasn’t eating and people were noticing.
Plus his paranoia was excessive.
He would light up his crack pipe in his apartment, then start feeling that someone was in his bedroom watching him. He’d throw away the pipe and hide under the covers, burning his bed or his body with the heated pipe.
It was like a scene from “The Exorcist,” he said.
That aside, he believes people were beginning to put two and two together from his appearance and behaviour.
It was not the first time the penny had dropped. He recalls years earlier when he had opened his CSA pay stub to find a brochure for a health and welfare clinic north of Toronto.
He called and found out the simplest drug rehab problem was $16,000, which he could not afford. They suggested he go to a publicly funded centre for addiction, but he believed his cover would be blown.
He financed his last stint in rehab, which ended in February 2011, by cleaning out his RRSP.
His recovery has not been helped by financial hardship — living “practically on the street.” But he refuses to feel sorry for himself, saying if he ever needs
a reality check all he just has to do is walk to a rough area of Toronto’s downtown to see those still caught in the web of drugs.
There have been a few relapses, but James says he can now connect the dots and “manage it,” immediately getting on a plan of recovery.
He will not say when his last relapse was, saying it’s private. “But I’ve been good ever since.”
James says the main purpose of writing the book, which took two years and two months to complete, was cathartic.
“And to try to save my life, in many ways,” he said in an interview. “It was really about getting my past out of my system.”
His advice is to avoid drugs. “There is nothing redeeming in it.”
“It doesn’t mean that every time you use a drug, that you’re going to become an addict. But if there’s the slightest risk, you should avoid it. It’s a ugly existence.”
And for those already caught up in drugs?
“You have to do whatever you can to seek treatment and to open up. You need to be careful and discerning in who you open up to. And I would say you open up to a professional and family before you do (to) friends.”
It’s advice James wishes he had followed years ago.
Today a trim-looking James, appearing younger than his years, sees brighter days ahead. He has a supportive girlfriend and wants to get on with his life and “be productive.”
But he recognizes he got so far down the addiction path that there is no easy answer.
“It never seems to go away,” he said. “The thoughts are always there.”
But now he believes he has the understanding and tools to deal with it.