Former Sale midfielder Mark Jennings can inspiringly talk for England these days. Ask him a deeply personal question and the chances are the answer will be both lengthy and insightful, a far cry from how it used to be. For most of his life, the 27-year-old bottled everything up, taking refuge in alcohol and drugs and spiralling into a depression that he has only finally escaped in recent months.
It was February last year when he was arrested for assaulting a police officer during a booze-fuelled rampage sparked by finding out that he was conceived when his birth mum was raped in Namibia. Three days later Jennings was placed on ‘sabbatical’ by the Sharks and that was that – his professional level rugby career, which had started when he signed for Sale on his 16th birthday – was over not long after he had overdosed on drugs and then relapsed post-rehab in Cape Town.
Even after his arrest, rock bottom was still a while away. Jennings’ run-in with the law ended with a fine, 80 hours community service and a 12-month community order, but there was still quite a rocky road to travel before he finally got his head around his various addictions and destructive emotions borne from a lonely upbringing that saw him adopted in South Africa and arriving in England at the age of four with his adopted mother.
Gradually finding his feet last winter, exorcising his demons around the same time that Brian Kennedy’s Neubria supplement company took a gamble on him, he last month started up his own podcast and wasn’t shy telling his story during mental health awareness week.
It was a risk, putting it all out there publicly and leaving himself vulnerable to negativity, but it has been the best thing Jennings feels he has ever done, the positive feedback driving the former Sale player on further in a recovery he spent the guts of 40 minutes discussing with RugbyPass.
“It has just been overwhelming the feedback I have had of people getting in touch with me directly, telling me about their issues, and I reply back to every single message I get,” he enthused. “When I started all this wanting to make a change I just wanted to be honest. By opening up and having every single thing you have done out on the table is empowering as you know everything is out there.
“I do feel judged by what I’m doing and everything I have had back has been positive. It keeps me on the track I want to go down. I want to help other people and I feel like I’m doing that on a daily basis. From being a professional rugby player and all that, being in the limelight to going right to the bottom, being addicted to drugs and overdosing and having nothing in the bank, I have been able to turn my life around when it was at its darkest.
“I’ve had all these things that happened to me for such a long time and over the last six months I have overcome them, dealt with them and I really wanted a platform to be able to speak to people. I made the MJ podcast and was really lucky James O’Connor came on for the first episode (Jennings and the Australian were teammates at Sale).
“It initially started there and the feedback was outstanding… the standout point is I was so raw with everything that I just said it out how it happened. You can go to the psychiatrist and the psychologist to get the help but at the end of the day, they have not gone through these situations, they have not lived through the situations.
“Opening the mouth and actually talking about what happened was a breath of fresh air in terms of not getting the generic stuff that would usually happen. There is a lot of mental health awareness campaigns saying ‘speak up’, but they are not really doing a lot internally in terms of people actually coming out and talking about their individual stories, what happened to them, how they overcame it, opening their arms out and getting people to join them.”
One topic was especially hard for Jennings to articulate, though. “Around my dad, that he raped my mum and that was how I was born, that was the most difficult thing for me. Over the 26 years before that, when I didn’t know about it, I would never ever have thought in a million years that was who my dad was. That was the biggest thing, the hardest thing for me to get off my chest and talk about. After I have spoken about it, it is a load off my back and has helped me have peace with the situation.”
Rugby makes a big deal of mental health awareness, providing services and contacts for players who feel they need assistance. But there’s the rub – all this support is useless unless a player is willing to take the necessary first step and reach out, something which Jennings never felt able do at Sale until it was too late.
“As an individual I never asked for help, never opened up to teammates, never said I had these demons. I’d always be just the drunkest person and that was it. Corporations like the RPA, who helped me after I overdosed, were always there. But if you’re not willing as an individual to open your mouth and say you have these issues and need help because you’re struggling, then you’re not going to get the help.
— Mark Jennings (@MarkyJ13) May 22, 2020
“This is a big thing now in society, if you open up and just say I have got these issues, I need help, I’m really struggling here, you’re not putting everything under the carpet like I was doing for such a long time.
“You just need to be able to open your mouth and if you want to get better as a person and want to further yourself in your career, then that is the place to start because such a big amount of people deliver such a low percentage of what they are capable of because they are not able to open their mouth and get stuff out from under the rug and be able to move forward with it.”
Too much idle time due to the way the rugby life is structured very differently from other careers didn’t help Jennings at Sale. Neither did the frequent injuries which created even more downtime, enabling his vices to take hold. “As long as I can remember I just bottled up every single emotion I had. The different addictions, abuse, alcohol, drugs, painkillers. Since a young age, I have never been in contact with my own emotions because it was always masked up for so long.
“For such a long time I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what my likes were, didn’t know what my dislikes were. I literally just masked everything up from a young age. I happened to be quite good at rugby and then that managed to mask it up more for another eight years because I had something else to take my mind off it every now and again.
“When I was playing in the 80 minutes on the field my mind would be engaged and when I was training with the lads my mind would be engaged, but going home after that I would have such a crash, such a low and that is when I would get depressed again, thinking about my childhood and everything in the past.
“When I was 19 and playing the last Six Nations game for England U20s, I tore my bicep. That was the first significant injury and I was out for seven, eight months. The severity of the situation sank in then because I knew I wasn’t going to cope.
“I already had these issues around alcohol and drugs. The times when I was playing I had managed to cool it down a little bit because I was, ‘Oh, I have got a game on Friday or Saturday, I need to try my hardest to stay off the drugs, stay off the alcohol’. But when I was out as long as that and it was just me in the gym three, four times a week things got a lot worse.”
A desperate promise to finally be honest with himself eventually flicked the switch in his head. “About six months ago it was just bringing up every single emotion and getting to the root of what I felt. I’m at peace with every situation now. There is always still going to be bad days, but when you have gone through these bad situations and got over them, not put them under the carpet because they are always going to be there, you learn to grow from that situation instead of using them as a negative.
— Mark Jennings (@MarkyJ13) March 1, 2020
“I was about to become homeless, my bank balance was in minus, I was at the lowest I had ever been,” he continued, reflecting on last winter’s epiphany. “I had this conversation in my head I need to stop this, I have been like this for so many years, I’m such a bad person, I’m a liar, I’m a cheat, I’m all these things.
“With all these things I had done over the years, I got these pieces of paper and just wrote down everything I needed to change about myself. My weight was massive, I’d finished professional rugby for twelve months, I didn’t work, didn’t do anything. I just sat in the house and did drugs and alcohol.
“I put on 20 kilos so I needed to change my weight, needed to get a job. Around addiction, alcohol and drugs, I needed to completely wipe these things out so I just wrote down about my drugs and alcohol, all the expense, all the relationships lost, all the times I hadn’t seen my daughter. I just wrote these down and went over them in my mind a lot.
“Whatever you do with the mind, the body will follow. When I decided to lose this weight I was struggling walking a kilometre, I was sweating, started smoking. I said to myself I’m not going to start exercising to make myself look good externally, I’m not doing this to get abs or anything like that, I want to do it just to clear my mind.
— Mark Jennings (@MarkyJ13) May 2, 2020
“It took a while to lose the weight but I did it the right way. I’m around 89kgs now, I was hitting 112 before. I have been doing a lot of charity stuff, a 100km run, five marathons in five days, doing stuff that pushes my body and gives back to various different causes.
“A huge thing as well was just the help of the Kennedys, Brian, Jonny and Danny, who came in and gave me a combination (of some work) and somewhere to live. Brian signed me when I was 16 for Sale and getting a job at Neubria with Jonny, having a routine and having a 9-to-5, having these foundations was huge,” continued Jennings.
“They took a punt giving me a job and now I have been given the opportunity to create a product, a sports brand which is going to be non-addictive, natural ingredients. Being involved in a brain health supplement, everything has gone full circle from Brian signing me at 16 and now giving me his opportunity.
“Another huge thing as well in getting away from addiction to alcohol was changing my friendship groups. I’d been involved in these friendship groups as well for years, taking drugs and alcohol, so just getting away for that and starting being around people who were more driven was huge.
??Myself and the Neubria team have been working tirelessly to create these booster boxes for families who are in need. If you, or anyone you know is in need during this time, please please click on the link and we will get you a booster box. https://t.co/bmD44v3OZi??RT RT RT. pic.twitter.com/IoX0k9vPHr
— Mark Jennings (@MarkyJ13) May 13, 2020
“When you start changing your lifestyle, you start being more positive and you stay away from the things that hindered you in the past. Self-discipline was something I’d never even heard of, so just finding that self-discipline, having goals on a daily basis and being accountable for everything, for every single situation I’m in every single day, it’s just overwhelming how far I have come in the six months, where I am now from where I was then.
“I have learned to harden my mind so much that I have dug up every single aspect of the past, put it out there and learned to use it as a positive. If you learn to channel all that pain and adversity you have from such a young age, masking it up and turning to the bottle or the drugs, once you channel that in a positive way and use that as grit between your teeth you become such a powerful and strong person.
“I’m a completely different person. I like to think I’m someone who is honest now, someone who is driven, open. I just try and help other people now. Before I was just selfish and depressed, in my own low. All I cared about was myself. I didn’t care about my daughter or other people.
“I’d rather go out and do drugs and alcohol and feel angry at the world than build a relationship with my daughter. I have learned to switch the focus, to help other people and just become a person I’m proud to be, that my daughter is proud of as well.”
— Restart (@RestartRugby) June 4, 2020
His family situation is now happily much improved. “I see my daughter all the time, I’ve got a really good relationship with my ex-partner which I didn’t have before,” stated Jennings, going on to explain the life adjustment in having a job outside rugby and away from Sale.
“Initially being in a Monday-to-Friday job was something quite alien, the routine was a bit of a shock, and then just the personalities and the characters you meet. There is such a diverse range of characters you meet in a normal 9-to-5 job… and just people skills as well, doing a lot of phone calls with different people, using a pen which is something I didn’t really use when I was playing rugby.”
Mention of rugby, after all the candid talk about deeply personal issues, Sale is something Jennings won’t get into. “I don’t have any contact with the club now,” he said, explaining he was player/coach at grassroots Wilmslow last season and will do a small amount of coaching again next term.
“I’m completely retired from professional rugby. Last season when I had no money and needed to find a job and couldn’t find anything substantial, a local rugby team offered me a lifeline in terms of paying me to be a player-coach, so I played and had a successful season.
“I had a quiet few calls from around the Championship reaching out, wanting to sign me for next season and if I wanted to take them up on their offer, there was a pathway there to get back into full-time professional rugby. But I have had these issues in my life for such a long time, I’ve made that decision to get away from professional rugby and my life turned around completely since I have done that.
“I had never given professional rugby a full crack,” he added, reflecting on his long stint in the game. “I never made that decision to say, ‘Look, I have been signed as a professional at 16, I have got such a good platform to be able to become something amazing in my life’ – all the darkness and all the demons I had would continuously drag me down and that is reflected in the stats from games.
“I played just under 100 games for Sale over eight years and was injured most seasons because I didn’t give it a fair crack. You can say that I managed to get quite far, which I did – I became a professional rugby player. But the stuff I’m doing now is the biggest achievement that is close to my heart.”
Really enjoyed hand (social distanced) delivering the winner of my auctioned shirt Mike for @RestartRugby @theRPA. Mike has been a Sale Sharks season ticket holder for over 20 years and had a great chat. pic.twitter.com/HLGN5nO0M8
— Mark Jennings (@MarkyJ13) June 9, 2020
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