Tall, athletic Fabrice Muamba climbs up the staircase of the PFA offices in Manchester to meet us for an interview. He is announced as he enters the room and stands uneasily in the doorway. Immediately he is ushered to a chair facing a camera in front of a black screen. He is stripped of his designer shirt and given a non-descript black t-shirt (strictly no logos) to wear.
Fabrice is very apologetic for his lateness – 10.45 am for a 9.30 am interview. We were anxiously thinking: was he actually coming or was he showing prima donna footballer behaviour and making us wait? Of course it is neither of these. Since his operation Fabrice has had a microchip placed in his heart that monitors its electrical activity and sends information to a computer. This morning there has been irregular activity and so he has been summoned to the hospital for a check-up.
This serves as a reminder of how the young man with the big smile’s life has changed. He was effectively dead for 78 minutes when his heart stopped pumping blood around the body. If the brain does not receive oxygenated blood for four minutes its cells start to perish. His heart was artificially compressed by doctors and medics for those 78 minutes until a defibrillator finally returned it to its normal rhythm. I am full of questions for Fabrice:
How do you rebuild your life after a near death experience witnessed by the public?
What happens when you have lost the thing that defines you as a person?
Almost every sports person will eventually lose one of the things they love the most. It is usually through injury or the ageing process but rarely through ill health. It took me a good ten years to get over the fact that aged 33 my very modest sprinting career, which had peaked 15 years earlier when I became county champion, was well and truly over. But a fit and healthy young man having a highly promising career (33 England under-21 caps) taken away from him at the age of 23 by a heart attack during an FA Cup quarter final, live on Saturday evening television - that just shouldn’t happen. But what happens when the cameras stop shooting and the media pack up and go home? How do you cope then?
As Fabrice is interviewed it transpires that he has had to cope with change all his life. He sees it as another challenge in a short life that has had more challenges than most: Coming to England from the Democratic Republic of Congo as an 11-year old boy to live with his diplomat father who had fled the country after a change in regime; Kinshasa to Hackney; French to English. Mother to Father… A new school could have been difficult but while he learnt English he communicated through the international language of football. He was initially rejected by the coaches at the Arsenal academy but he kept working hard until he was given a trial. He eventually signed as a professional but made just two appearances before being sold to Birmingham City.
Fabrice tells us about his faith and how he feels that this was the life that was intended for him and thus he hasn’t lost anything. He has a loving, supportive wife in Shauna and the privilege of bringing up two energetic boys – enough life for anyone. Only once does he hint at the pain caused by the loss of his career as he admits that deep down it kills him. Off camera he talks about the degree in Sports Journalism he is taking and how he wants to become a sports presenter or reporter but he does not want to be a pundit. So well-known is Fabrice’s story that he can no longer go to the canteen at the university as the last time he went everyone stopped eating, stared at him as he made a swift exit. He prefers to eat his sandwiches alone in a classroom now.
Unfortunately Fabrice cannot play football at any level again. He cannot exercise at any intensity as during the heart attack many of the cells of his heart died when they were starved of oxygen. The most strenuous activity he can hope for is a kick around in the garden with his sons.
After the interview I am left with the feeling that I have been in the presence of a remarkably resilient individual. A shy, hardworking, conscientious young man who has had exceptional circumstances thrust upon him and the experience has changed him forever. Fabrice is a man who wants to play football but instead is being forced to think about his health every day. He is defined by what happened on one day in February 2012. He is stronger, more humble and extremely grateful for what he still has rather than chase after what he has irretrievably lost.