Meet the FEDs: How boxing brought Mark back to life
An overdose left Mark nearly dead and almost blind. Fitness coach Bill gave him a reason to live again, warning children not to make the mistake he did. He's proving a knockout.
Mark McClure was a smart, dishy 18-year-old when he fell into his parents' bedroom in the early hours one cold November morning, foaming at the mouth from a drugs overdose.
The Newtownards teenager then suffered three heart attacks and was left mostly blind, with a badly impaired short-term memory. Now 30, the only drugs Mark has taken since then are anti-depressants for his continuing mood swings. That depression was threatening to engulf him before he met fitness coach Bill Laverty, through the Reconnect training and rehabilitation centre for adults with brain injury.
Bill taught Mark how to box and to believe in himself and, for the last two years, the pair have been on a mission to bring Mark's story to P6 and P7 schoolchildren, in an admirable attempt to deter them from ever taking drugs. The witty duo go under the title of The FEDs, as in Force, Energy and Direction, which is at the heart of the presentation they're bringing to primary schools.
They make a compelling team when we meet over a coffee at Belvoir Activity Centre in Belfast. Bill is a font of knowledge and wisdom, while Mark is the perfect poster-boy for drugs awareness.
His speech is halting at times, a bit like Breaking Bad's Walter Junior (who has mild cerebral palsy), but Mark is also every bit as good looking and tall as that young actor (RJ Witte). Dark and muscular, he's articulate and quick-witted, constantly poking fun at the shorter Bill, former salesman, boxer, and Gaelic and soccer footballer, who works with Castlereagh council – and gives boxing lessons to anyone from the disabled to solicitors.
Both are passionate about FEDs and show me emails from parents and teachers praising their inventive initiative. They don't make an issue of it, but they're from different religious backgrounds – something which Bill's keen to point out that doesn't come into boxing. From the first moment he got Mark in a boxing ring, he knew there was something special about him, and hopes one day to write a book about their journey. In the meantime, here are their stories so far.
'I'd three heart attacks and was dead for 40 minutes... doctors said there was no hope'
Mark McClure lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the same Newtownards estate as his parents David, a former taxi driver, and Janet, a Tesco assistant. He has a younger brother, Scott, and older sister Stephanie, who helps with the administration for FEDs. He says:
Every week when it reached pay day from my job at Technical Metals, that was my excuse to go out and get drunk. After a while it became clear that it wasn't just alcohol some people were doing at weekends.
Believe it or not I was pretty smart and a good worker. I always loved working at the local farms, too, but I fell in with the wrong crowd at weekends. I was young and weak – and thought I had to do drugs to be in the gang. I did dope (cannabis), ecstasy, cocaine and speed. No heroin, fortunately. When I started smoking dope, I thought it was harmless. I didn't know about the side effects then and I didn't really care.
After a while I discovered ecstasy – the first time I took an 'e', the buzz was fantastic. I felt brilliant, really confident, and I was everyone's friend, a Jack The Lad party man. It was a false euphoria, but that was the way my weekends went for a load of months. I didn't realise that you only get that amazing feeling once – then you have to take more and more to try to get it again. It's called 'chasing the ace' and it doesn't work. I started getting into debt, getting drugs from the dealers until the next time I got paid, owing money to people you don't want to be owing money to.
So one night when I was 18 – it was in November, 2002 – I was out with my mate Billy; we were driving about and I was drinking, and I decided to get some drugs and make a night of it.
I had a cocktail of stuff – 'e', coke, speed and prescription beta-blockers (heart and blood-pressure medication). I went to meet up with my girlfriend at the time, Sharon.
What happened after that is a blur. I was trying to get back that first-time kick, which you can never do. I don't remember any of this, but I was told I came home very disorientated and not knowing where I was, but I must have known something wasn't right because I went upstairs to my parents' room at about 4.45am and fell through their door. I was foaming at the mouth and couldn't talk.
My parents phoned the ambulance and I had three heart attacks in the Ulster Hospital. I was technically dead for 40 minutes. My body had given up and if it weren't for the insistence of one nurse working on me to get my heart beating again, I would have died. I was put on life support for three weeks. The doctors advised my parents that there was no hope because my organs were starting to fail, and that they should switch off the machines.
My mum wasn't prepared to do that and thankfully she was right, as my body started to respond. Apparently the first words I whispered when I came round were 'Santa ... Santa' – it was Christmas and there was one going around for the patients. I was taken off the life support and transferred to a ward and then on to the Royal.
After coming back to the Ulster, I had no real idea what had happened. I couldn't walk, talk, eat, drink or do anything for myself really. I was totally dependent on everyone for everything. I was in a wheelchair and looked like a skeleton.
Through a lot of excruciating hard work and physio, I had to learn how to talk and walk and feed myself, like a baby has to. It took a long time and it was very hard for my family to watch their fun-loving son and brother making such slow progress in baby-steps. If I hadn't been as fit from working on the farms, I mightn't have made it.
You should have seen me trying to brush my teeth – the toothbrush would be in my hair and all over my face, and shaving was a massacre every morning!
We were dealt a further blow, when everyone thought I was well on the way to recovery, when we found out I was brain damaged and wouldn't get my peripheral vision back, as a result of my brain having been starved of oxygen.
I was s**t scared; I still only have tunnel vision. It was a devastating time, but I had the love and support of my family. We all had to get used to it pretty quickly. They're always there for me and I'd be lost without them. I got a wild craving for drugs again as time wore on, but I've never touched one since.
What happened killed my relationship with my girlfriend. We're friends now, but the whole thing taught me a lesson not to fall in love again. I don't want kids either; I don't even have the patience for a dog.
I've done business courses in the Tech, but I can't retain the information. It has been a long and hard 12 years to get to where I am now. My life has changed 100% and will never be the same again. I need my cane to get round and I've to cope with my short-term memory loss as well.
I'm happy at the moment – working with Bill has enriched my life. We're like the Two Ronnies – he's the short one. What Bill and I want to show through FEDs is that there is more to life than following everyone else.
We want kids to reject peer pressure to take drugs, and to realise there will always be consequences, no matter what anyone says. I'm proof of that.
'When he walks in with his white cane, the place goes quiet'
Bill Laverty lives in Sunnyside Street on Belfast's Ormeau Road, with his wife Ann. A grandfather of eight, he is a former champion amateur boxer and works closely with special needs groups all over Belfast. He says:
I could see the fight was in Mark the first time I had him in a ring, but he was in a very dark place at the time; very depressed. I thought he was a nasty big devil! He was very aggressive, from sheer frustration at not being able to work and so on.
I knew fitness training would help him and I thought to myself 'I'm going to build a relationship with that fella'.
I remember him saying to me, early on, 'I'll stick one on you', and me saying, 'Sure, you can't see me'. That really broke the ice.
He was a handful sometimes and he's a very hard guy to get to know, but we had good banter between us from the start. The brain damage didn't affect his sense of humour, as you can see, and that really helps when we are talking to schoolkids.
He's very strong physically and mentally now, but he's a big softie underneath and the girls run after him. They'll say to me at the gym, 'Who's that big lad?'
On the downside, he knows he could have had a much more splendid life, but will just have to jump one hurdle at a time. He's fantastic – I'm just his back-up guy. He thinks if we can help even one kid stay away from drugs, it's worth it.
Eyesight is the most important gift in life and Mark lost most of his through drugs. He was walking up the middle of the road in his estate the other day with cars flying past him – he can't see out the sides of his eyes.
He can't work and has to survive on disability benefit, which they're threatening to cut, even with all this good awareness raising he's doing with me. It's frustrating when people don't latch on to it – it's essential to get the message to kids when they're young, so they learn how to cope with peer pressure later and say no to drugs.
We bring a clinical psychiatrist to schools and activity centres with us to explain brain injury to the schoolchildren, with the help of an artificial one which can be disassembled.
Mark's old school at Movilla welcomed us with open arms, of course, but it's very hard to get into some primary schools with our presentation.
There's so much red tape, especially with the Catholic ones. They have to go through all these committees for something so simple; what we're trying to do is to get kids not to take drugs.
We play games and award a Best Pupil trophy, and we use cards and humour. Our motto is 'Never give up; there's no such thing as can't; keep trying'.
Kids need encouragement and, through sport, they can be strong physically as well as mentally. All they need to do is take a look at Mark. When he walks into a classroom or gym with his white walking cane, the place goes quiet. The kids listen.
We just need to get the powers-that-be to do the same, so we can help save lives from being ruined by drugs."
To book a FEDs drugs awareness session, contact Bill on: 07531 804707. For further information on Reconnect's work on improving the employment prospects of those who have suffered a serious brain injury, visit: www.reconnect-abi-com. Reconnect Ltd, 1 Lisnabreeny Road East, Belfast, BT6 9SS, tel: 028 9079 0551
One fatality here every four days
- Statistics released earlier this year revealed an average of one drug-related death every four days in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2012
- The research by experts at St George's University of London stated that there were 372 drug-related deaths in the province during that four-year period
- However, the figures from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (NPSAD) revealed drugs-related deaths here were mostly linked to prescription drugs, whereas the vast majority of drug-related deaths in the rest of the UK were usually linked to opiates such as heroin and morphine
- Opiates and opioid analgesics (pain killers) were implicated either alone or in combination in 45 deaths, with hypnotics and sedatives – such as sleeping pills – in 41 cases, anti-depressants in 31, heroin or morphine in 12 cases
- Anti-psychotics were implicated in 10 deaths, anti-epileptics in four deaths, and the heroin substitute methadone in three
- Ecstasy-type drugs were only implicated in two cases, cannabis in one and cocaine in one
- The report also revealed how deaths linked to so-called legal highs across the UK as a whole have surged
- The number of cases in which "novel psychoactive substances" – better known as legal highs – were identified as the cause of death was 10 cases in 2009. In 2012 it rocketed to 68 UK deaths