All Black star Neven MacEwan’s incredible tale of redemption


Former All Black captain Neven MacEwan has opened up on his path to captaining the All Blacks and his descent into alcoholism post his rugby career – which culminated in a conviction for theft as a servant and a suicide attempt – in his new memoir. Ahead of its release, he laid his skeletons bare to Neil Reid

Throughout New Zealand treasured match-worn All Black jerseys adorn the walls of living rooms and man caves of the men who earnt them – and the walls of their younger loved ones who proudly keep their sporting legacies alive.

They each tell stories triumphs and defeat in the heat of battle at rugby’s greatest arenas, and of the dedication and sacrifice shown by the wearers in gaining entry into one of New Zealand’s most exclusive clubs.

But a framed black jersey hanging on a wall in the suburban Palmerston North home of former All Black captain Neven MacEwan has one of the most epic stories of all to tell.

The number 5 shirt travelled to South Africa with the 1960 All Blacks and was worn by MacEwan in the fourth test loss to the Springboks at Boet Erasmus Stadium, Port Elizabeth.

On its return to New Zealand it was meant to be kept for generations of the MacEwan family to come to cherish.

But it all changed after MacEwan descended into a dark battle with alcoholism towards the end of his 52-match All Black career, which intensified after several post-rugby business failures.

Neven MacEwan in a portrait after selected for the All Blacks in 1956. Photo / Supplied
Neven MacEwan in a portrait after selected for the All Blacks in 1956. Photo / Supplied

Faced with crippling debts, MacEwan made the painful decision to off-load his collection of rugby jerseys – both from the All Blacks and French, Australian, English and Springbok tops he had swapped with opposition players post-match.

MacEwan – who has opened up on his life in a new memoir, When The Crowd Stops Roaring which is published on Wednesday, his 85th birthday – even sold some of his prized collection at a flea market in Palmerston North for $60 each.

“When I hit the wall going at about 160 miles per hour, when everything went crazy, I had to do something about surviving and getting enough money to keep the family together,” MacEwan told the Weekend Herald.

“The last jerseys that I had, including the All Black jersey from the last test I played, I sold them at a flea market and my son Angus was very upset. He said, ‘Dad you can’t do this’. And I had to explain to him that we needed to do this because we needed the money to keep the family together.

“I just had to let it go. It was part of the past that I had to leave behind me. As painful as what it was, it was part of the recovery.”

MacEwan did recover – and has since dedicated himself to helping others in a stunning redemption tale – but not before he was charged by police for theft as a servant and a suicide attempt two days before his scheduled court appearance.

But one thing that never changed was the pain felt by Angus over his father’s decision to sell the jerseys.

Neven MacEwan charging the opposition with ball in hand while playing in appalling conditions for Wellington against Canterbury at Athletic Park in 1954. Photo / Supplied
Neven MacEwan charging the opposition with ball in hand while playing in appalling conditions for Wellington against Canterbury at Athletic Park in 1954. Photo / Supplied

His father had defied both a late start to his rugby career and being tagged a “gentle giant” by scribes – a label he feared might work against him in making the All Black pack during one of test rugby’s most brutal eras.

Angus’ own determination saw him embark on a global search for the whereabouts of some of his father’s rugby treasures; a hunt which located the jersey he wore in the test against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth at the Cilfynydd Rugby Club in Wales.

It was re-gifted to MacEwan about 14 years ago after Angus explained his father’s story to the club – and the family desire to have him reunited with some of his treasures.

The pair travelled to Wales to retrieve the item.

“The function the night I got the jersey back in jersey was just incredible. Words just can’t explain it,” MacEwan says.

“And the jersey is pride of place in our home. And it will go to the family. It is a constant reminder of how important family is.”

Neven MacEwan taking a line-out ball against the British Isles Touring Side in 1959. Photo / Supplied
Neven MacEwan taking a line-out ball against the British Isles Touring Side in 1959. Photo / Supplied

MacEwan never thought he would be an All Black while growing up in Nelson.

He describes himself as being a “real rolly polly” boy.

“I was short and dumpy to say the least,” he says.

He initially played soccer but rugby gradually took over in his early teens after he went through rapid growth.

“I just went skyward very quickly,” he says.

He also never thought he would fall into the clutches of alcohol.

The future All Black captain saw first-hand the ravages severe alcohol use could have on families during the battle his father Ian had with alcoholism.

“If you talk to my wife [Jeannette], my father said to her on one occasion, ‘Of all my children, Nev is the one most susceptible to becoming an alcoholic’.

“She thought that would never happen because I knew all about what it meant and entailed. That is how stupid you get. Alcoholism is cunning, it is baffling, it is powerful.”

MacEwan met Jeannette when they were growing up in Nelson – they would marry in 1958 and have four children.

While other teens may have partaken in sly-grogging, MacEwan was concentrating both on his rugby exploits – something which saw him contact legendary All Black lock Tiny White for advice – and his school studies at Nelson College.

Four of the successful 1956 All Blacks against the Springboks Mark Irwin, left, Don MacIntosh, Neven MacEwan and Bill Clark, at a reunion in 2006. Photo / NZPA
Four of the successful 1956 All Blacks against the Springboks Mark Irwin, left, Don MacIntosh, Neven MacEwan and Bill Clark, at a reunion in 2006. Photo / NZPA

He moved to Wellington to train as a teacher in 1953 – and three years later made his All Black debut in the second test against the Springboks at Athletic Park. Team-mates that day included White.

“When you try to think that here was my idol and now I am packing in at No 8 in my first test [alongside him], it was a dream to come true,” MacEwan says.

“Playing for the All Blacks was the ultimate.”

His voice breaks when asked for his recollection of being handed his first test jersey, finally answering: “It was tremendous. It is so hard to put into words but it was very significant.

“It was an incredible honour to play for your country, particularly at that time . . . to be part of that amazing era when we beat the Springboks in a series for the first time.”

MacEwan’s introduction to test rugby saw him both exposed to the brutality of the ill-tempered 1956 series and what he described as a “pretty rough” drinking culture within the All Blacks at that time.

Springbok props Jaap Bekker and Chris Koch were the chief protagonists of the brutality directed the All Blacks’ way; injuring All Black prop Mark Irwin in the first test and then rough-housing his replacement Frank McAtamney in the second.

After the match – which the All Blacks lost 8-3 – he swapped his debut test jersey with Bok captain Basie Vivier – a player who was later vilified on his return to South Africa after his side had lost their first test series against the All Blacks.

“I was honoured that the captain of the Springbok side would ask for my jersey,” he says.

Former All Black Neven MacEwan with his prized jersey, from the 1960 All Blacks tour of South Africa, at his Palmerston North home. 18 April, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former All Black Neven MacEwan with his prized jersey, from the 1960 All Blacks tour of South Africa, at his Palmerston North home. 18 April, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“Ironically he died through alcohol. The pressure on him apparently when he went home after that test series was huge … he was virtually pushed aside and it wasn’t good what happened to him.”

Ill-discipline remained on the field throughout the rest of the series – including the All Blacks fighting back by recalling veteran prop and former national heavyweight boxing champion Kevin Skinner to “sort out” Bekker and Koch.

Off the field and things post-match for the All Blacks during that series were also fairly messy.

“Horrific. It was certainly uncivilised,” MacEwan says of the general rugby drinking culture.

“After an after match [function] it was back to the hotel or somebody’s place and everyone partied on.”

MacEwan’s alcohol intake was “virtually nil” pre-1960. But that all changed when he travelled to South Africa in May of that year. He captained the team in two non-test matches.

The Springboks, provincial sides, combined selections and in some cases even local referees seemed intent in seeking revenge for the men in black’s historic test triumph four years earlier.

MacEwan was now a mainstay in the All Blacks and played 12 of the tour’s first 16 matches.

By the time he trudged off Cape Town’s Newlands stadium after the 11-3 second test win he was “almost at breaking point” and collapsed in the changing rooms.

“The doctors came in and said ‘He needs to have a break away’,” MacEwan says.

“The doctor said to me, ‘You need to relax more, you need to be imbibing more from the top shelf’. It was the coolest thing that somebody could say when I was almost at breaking point.”

1956 All Blacks v Springboks second test team: Neven MacEwan is in the second row, fifth from the left. Photo / Supplied
1956 All Blacks v Springboks second test team: Neven MacEwan is in the second row, fifth from the left. Photo / Supplied

MacEwan was granted temporary leave from the tour, resting up with Springbok convenor of selectors and former Bok test captain Basil Kenyon.

Alcohol was cheap in South Africa and MacEwan relished in taking up his doctor’s orders.

“I was already on the road of decline. Initially I never drank at all, I would not go near it. But it just crept in.”

While MacEwan’s huge presence couldn’t be missed on the field in a black jersey, one thing he became a master at was disguising his heavy drinking from his All Black team-mates; going out drinking on his own.

“That is where an alcoholic can be very clever. He thinks he is clever, he thinks he is hiding it, but the thing is you have to live with it yourself,” he says.

“While it may take a few years for it to break through, it does eventually happen [Alcoholism] is cunning, it is baffling, it is powerful.”

He retained his spot in the All Blacks for tests against France in 1961, the 1962 tour of Australia – where he again captained the team in a non-test – and the first two tests against the Wallabies in New Zealand later that year.

Booze ultimately ended his test career when he gave the All Black selectors an alcohol-fuelled tirade at a function after the test team to play England in 1963 was named. MacEwan was missing from the squad after battling a knee injury.

“In a very brief statement I questioned their pedigree,” MacEwan says. “Selectors in those days did not like to be questioned or told things.

“I blew my stack. I knew I should have kept quiet, but I had enough alcohol to loosen my inhibitions and let fly. I knew from that day that my days of playing for New Zealand were over.”

All Black number 578 Neven MacEwan, third from left, and team mates during an after-match function. Photo / Supplied
All Black number 578 Neven MacEwan, third from left, and team mates during an after-match function. Photo / Supplied

Professional rugby is littered with former top players who hit the skids after hanging out their boots.

Players who concentrated solely on their sporting pursuits without cementing any plans for life after rugby should they fall victim to injury or become surplus to the national selectors of the day.

But MacEwan’s tale highlights how that happened decades before the sport turned professional.

He had earlier shelved what appeared to be a promising school teaching career as his rugby career took off. Several months after his All Black debut the “lure of big money and opportunity” saw him take on management of a service station, something he recalls as being a “bad decision”.

“It wasn’t until the adulation and the rugby went into the past, that is when things started to go really haywire,” MacEwan says of his drinking.

“Rugby had become my whole existence and unfortunately I moved away from what I was really good at work wise. I should have stayed as a teacher. I had gifts in that line but I gave that up to go into business initially with an oil company.

“That was a dreadful decision.”

MacEwan says he was guilty of making a succession of decisions largely “motivated by money”.

“Things started to get really frustrating and I started to hit the bottle,” he says. “I put the family through a lot of unnecessary pain.”

All Black number 578 Neven MacEwan and his son Angus in an undated family photo. Photo / Supplied
All Black number 578 Neven MacEwan and his son Angus in an undated family photo. Photo / Supplied

He hit rock bottom when he was charged by police in 1979 for theft of a servant; relating to the taking of funds from the National Travel Association (Manawatu Branch) Inc.

“I confessed I needed the funds at the time to meet personal commitments and the money had been returned at a later date.” MacEwan writes in his book.

“I was subsequently charged . . . and discharged on bail to appear in court the following Monday. When they fingerprinted me, the enormity of it all started to hit home.

“These ink-stained fingers were part of a pair of hands which time and time again had reached high above the opposition to take the ball in the line-outs, accompanied by the cheers of the roaring crowd. Now they were being branded criminal for life.”

MacEwan says he realised he “had lost my standing in the community, I had lost respect, I lost all that I had achieved.”

“And the shame and the guilt were the two factors that were really crippling to me.”

He kept the charge secret from those closest to him – including his wife – and two days out from his court appearance he made an attempt on his life.

“[Losing respect] was what drove me to think well the best way was to end it all,” he says.

The decisions he made while recovering in Ward 5 of Palmerston North Hospital are ones that he credits with saving his life.

When the Crowd Stops Roaring - by Neven MacEwan.
When the Crowd Stops Roaring – by Neven MacEwan.

Staff at the clinic told him he should seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous for his rampant drinking, a suggestion he initially rebuked.

“I was so arrogant, so full of self absorbed and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’,” he says.

MacEwan ultimately took the advice and he says the “pennies dropped” for him when his sponsor told him alcoholism was a disease and he wasn’t at ease with his true self.

“That was me, I was trying all my life to be somebody who I thought I ought to be and I forgot who I was.

“That moment brought relief. I knew I had to go to AA. Ward 5 at Palmerston North Hospital was a life-saver for me. Then it was my journey through AA and the incredible people who started visiting me, strangers, who came in a non-judgemental way and they helped.

“They gave me hope. And that was beginning of my journey and commitment to my Christian faith.”

He was later fined $500 for his financial crimes; with headlines of the rugby star’s demise featuring in newspapers throughout the country.

The reaction from the tight-knit rugby community to MacEwan’s downfall was as swift as a swarming All Black defence.

The majority of mates he had made playing alongside simply “disappeared”.

“The number of people from the past, my rugby days, who came and spoke to me I could count on the fingers of one hand,” he says.

MacEwan says he couldn’t blame them – his decline was attributable solely to his own actions, he stressed.

“I had let them down too,” he says.

Former All Black Neven MacEwan with his wife Jeanette (Netty) at their Palmerston North home. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former All Black Neven MacEwan with his wife Jeanette (Netty) at their Palmerston North home. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“I was really conscious for the first time what my actions, and they were my actions and rugby can’t be blamed, had created. They were results of my decisions that got me into the mess.”

MacEwan’s initial reaction was to “run” – he considered relocating to Ireland or South Africa.

But his wife told him he had to stay and deal with his issues, telling him: “Wherever you go, you will take the problem with you. You have to now deal with it.”

“So began the journey of finding that peace and serenity which I now have an abundance of,” MacEwan says.

MacEwan says it took about four years for him to be healed.

“There were a lot of things that had to be repaired. Pride in me was just like a cancer.

“The Lord had to deal with pride in me and get rid of a lot of stinking thinking that I had toward a lot of people. My judgemental attitude was just terrible.”

Once he was healed, he started dedicating himself to helping others; including working for 14 years as a prison chaplain (until 2005) and he is still called on by a Palmerston North company to help assist with any staff members battling addiction issues.

“Now not drinking doesn’t bother me at all and I am coming up to 40 years without any alcohol.”

MacEwan has dedicated the past 12 years to writing When the Crowd Stops Roaring, which included launching an online fundraiser to help pay publishing costs.

The idea of first writing a memoir was sparked by his 2005 trip to Wales and Ireland with Angus. He wanted his children, grandchildren and other family members to know his true story.

“And not everything that I have experienced has been included . . . if I put everything in there it would have been like a trilogy,” he joked.

Neven MacEwan, helmet, right, playing for the All Blacks against Eastern Province in 1960. Photo / Supplied
Neven MacEwan, helmet, right, playing for the All Blacks against Eastern Province in 1960. Photo / Supplied

MacEwan says that despite its contents, no one in his family raised any concerns about its publishing.

“In fact it is the opposite. They have been very supportive [about the whole story being told].

“There is no use hiding from it. In 1979 it hit the papers anyway . . . and once it has hit the papers it is public knowledge and history.

“When I die, I am sure they are going to write not about the good stuff and the other stuff I did post rugby, but reflect on the negative stuff. That is just human nature, the nature of what we are about at the moment.

“But I did do some good stuff.”

He also wanted something people could read which could help them as they faced their own demons in life.

MacEwan says he has taken positives out of how his story had previously helped inspire those he met behind bars during his 14 years as a prison chaplain. He hopes the book can do the same.

Playing for the All Blacks is something most young rugby players dream of. For those who make the highest honour it is regarded as one of their greatest life achievements.

For MacEwan wearing the black jersey is still a source of immense pride 63 years on from his test debut. But it doesn’t define him. For him, his greatest achievement has been conquering his own battle with alcoholism, facing up to the consequences of his actions and “healing” himself so he can help others.

“If you did something good for somebody else then you are starting to heal yourself,” he said. “That is the way we are made; we are made to exist to help each other.”

>>

When the Crowd Stops Roaring

, published by Wild Side Publishing, is released on Wednesday and has a RRP of $40. It is available through book stores and also via: https://www.nevenmacewan.com/books/index.htm

WHERE TO GET HELP

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

Samaritans 0800 726 666

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For others, visit: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines/

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Publish date : 2019-04-26 17:01:10

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