By Marc Weber
VANCOUVER — When German goalkeeper Robert Enke, battling depression and haunted by the death of his two-year-old daughter, threw himself in front of a train almost two weeks ago, shock and sadness filled the soccer world.
Wesley Charles felt those emotions. He also felt blessed.
“Hearing that,” said Charles, “I’m thinking, Gee, I’m lucky I didn’t get that far. I’m really grateful to a lot of people.”
Three months have passed since the Vancouver Whitecaps released Charles, the hulking defender from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines who helped them to a United Soccer Leagues First Division title in 2008.
The story at the time — the only one that could be told — was that Charles was out of control and the club could not abide his behaviour.
On June 13, in front of a packed Swangard Stadium, Charles charged at teammate Charles Gbeke, the two clashing over a missed chance at goal. They were fined and suspended two games.
When Charles swung a wild elbow at teammate Jeff Parke during a heated practice drill on July 22, he left his employer little wiggle room.
But there was a big-picture view to the club’s decision that went way beyond discipline. Back at training this week — though without a contract — Charles gave new perspective to the summer’s events.
Early in the season, Charles had a child die mere hours after birth.
“I never suffered from depression before and I never knew the signs,” said Charles, who twice during the season took leaves to be with his family in Ireland, but denied after the skirmishes that anything was weighing on him.
“My child dying, I kind of tried to forget about it but it was tough. With the results not going our way, I was trying to push myself and push the guys in training and it wasn’t happening. Things wasn’t going right. Frustration took me over.”
Being back at practice, around the guys, trying to enjoy soccer again, is part of the healing process.
Charles said daily calls of encouragement from the team’s sport psychologist Dr. David Cox and former assistant coach Todd Wawrousek helped him immensely over the three months. He named almost everyone at the club when listing people he’s grateful towards.
“If they didn’t offer me the treatment they did, I probably would have walked away and who knows what would have happened,” said Charles. “Maybe down the line, something worse.”
Talking about such a deeply personal matter is important, too, he said. He wants the Whitecaps fans to know the truth. At his best, he’s a leader. An imposing, intimidating, barking presence in central defence. But he’s no raging, uncontrollable fire.
“It’s only right that the fans know what was going on,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that I’m this horrible person because that’s not really me.”
Teammates have welcomed Charles back — the fact Gbeke and Parke are no longer with the club perhaps making things easier. Many never wanted to see Charles released, though they understand it was for the best.
“Even seeing him towards the end of last season, coming to home games, his spirit was so much better,” said goalkeeper Jay Nolly. “I think he’s going to be a better person and player from it. I’m happy he’s here and training and I’m sure he’ll fit in. It’s up to us to embrace him.”
A physical embrace is tougher these days. Charles, usually carrying 220 pounds on his six-foot-three frame, put on 20 more in the three months since his release. Wind sprints on Wednesday revealed a long road back for the 34-year-old.
While head coach Teitur Thordarson has a big heart, and a soft spot for Charles, he wants to see him back at his 2008 form before offering a contract.
“That is where the measurement stick is,” said Thordarson, who always felt Charles’s personal tragedy was responsible for his aggressive behaviour. “We know what Wes can bring if he is fit and healthy and I will not hesitate to bring him back if he can get to that level.”
And if he can’t, Charles can live with that.
“I’m just thankful for everything,” he said. “To still be a part of this team, even if it’s just for this month. I’m looking forward to the next year, wherever it takes me.”
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