Theo Fleury, a former NHL star, doesn’t believe in victimhood. He believes in survival and survivors.
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Theo Fleury, a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic gold medalist, is in the middle of a three-decades-long fight to take responsibility for his recovery and rehabilitation from child molestation.
Forgive him for having little sympathy for the people unwilling to muster the courage to do all in their power to stop a pedophile.
“What could they have done?” Fleury rhetorically asked me Wednesday afternoon as we discussed the controversy at Penn State that extinguished Joe Paterno’s coaching career, a controversy that left many in the public feeling like Paterno and others within the program didn’t do all they could to put a stop to former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions. “How about dialing three little numbers — 911? How about the right thing? How about doing what they would want done if it were them? How about saving a child?”
Today you will hear many voices sounding off on Penn State’s decision to fire Joe Paterno, Penn State students’ immature decision to “riot” in protest of that decision and how we should remember Paterno’s 46-year coaching career. None of those voices will be as important as hearing from a child-molestation survivor. Wednesday I had the pleasure of talking with Fleury for 30 minutes. He confirmed my beliefs on how we should view the adults who allegedly enabled Jerry Sandusky’s abhorrent, criminal perversion.
Talking with Fleury gave me a new perspective. The easy thing would be to think of him as only a victim. The more difficult thing is to listen to what he has to say.
"I am not a victim," Fleury told me. "I am here to tell you they are doing the world a disservice by painting me as a victim because that keeps me there.
“At the end of the day, I don’t really give a s*** what anybody thinks of me," Fleury added. "It is the shame and the guilt part that keeps you in that space. I was a people pleaser, always trying to please everybody, and I am not any more. The fact is, this is happening to a lot of kids and too many people are standing around doing nothing.”
Want to hear something depressing?
There will always be predators, men and women capable of the despicable acts alleged in the grand jury report about Jerry Sandusky. There are bad people in this world, people rotting on the inside for whatever reason who manage a facade of normalcy or even benevolence.
Graham James, a youth hockey coach, was the alleged Jerry Sandusky in Fleury’s life. Fleury alleges that James molested him over a period of two years. James is awaiting trial in Canada on nine counts of sexual abuse. He has already been convicted once of molestation, for the crimes he committed against another NHL player, Fleury’s youth-league teammate Sheldon Kennedy. James served three years, was pardoned and went to Europe, where he coached junior hockey. He fled to Mexico when Canadian authorities decided to charge him again. An investigative reporter found James in Mexico.
James’ trial won’t be easy. It will likely conjure memories that could drag Fleury back into the abyss in which he lived for so many years trying to survive.
Hockey games were Fleury’s only relief. His worst moments came when he was alone in hotel rooms, afraid to close his eyes for what he might see. It was hard to trust, hard to let people in, hard to breathe some days. It was so hard that he attempted to bury his pain in what he says was a $3,000-a-week cocaine habit and bottles of vodka.
On Sept. 18, 2005, the cocaine and vodka lost their ability to soothe Fleury’s pain. He cracked. He crumbled.
"I finally had a conversation with the Big Guy Upstairs and I called Him every name in the book," Fleury said. "I told Him, ‘I know the whole You-only-give-me-as-much-as-I-can-handle thing. Well, I’m full. I need you to take a little.’ At the end of the conversation, I prayed for Him to take away the obsession.
"When I woke up, I was walking and there was a mirror in front of me. From the time it happened until that second, I couldn’t look people in the eye. People who have been abused will know what I am talking about. Yet I looked at that person in the mirror, myself, for a long time and I said ‘Holy s***, it’s gone.’ "
Almost 35 years of emotional turmoil gone.
Almost 35 years of lying done.
Almost 35 years of hating himself evaporated.
Fleury has crawled through a lifetime of pain so horrific and so dispiriting and came out clean on the other side so he could tell us this:
“You are not alone. There is hope. And there is healing.”
What Fleury wants to tell those boys in this Penn State tragedy — the ones who have come forward, the ones who are trying to summon the courage, the ones who are suffering alone, the ones whom we will never know about — is don’t quit before the miracle.
It is hard to be brave. It is hard to stand up. It is, however, the only way.
One of the reasons Fleury said he did not initially come forward was because he feared being branded as a victim for life. What he eventually learned is there are worse things to be than a victim. You could be one of the Penn State adults who did nothing beyond passing the responsibility of courage on to a superior. That gnaws at your gut, too, only there is no respite in knowing you did nothing wrong. There are only days and weeks and years of knowing you did not do enough.
And 10-years-too-late, face-saving words about “praying for the victims” do not relieve you from that hell.
It’s easy to talk of Fleury as a victim. The more difficult thing is to listen as he tells us how we could have prevented it.