Global shines spotlight on boxer's dark days
The first reaction to news that Global was doing a documentary on former boxer Shawn O'Sullivan was: Why?
Everybody knows that one of the Canadian darlings of the 1984 Olympics has fallen on hard times, that brain damage suffered in the ring has left him with slurred speech as well as memory and vision problems. Why drag this sad story into the spotlight once again?
The reporter who did the story, Mary Garofalo, has a quick answer to that question.
``It sets the record straight," says Garofalo, whose poignant story will run Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on her series 16:9 The Bigger Picture. ``There are a lot of nasty rumours out there and this has given him a chance to say, `I'm not a janitor any more. I'm not an alcoholic. I have brain damage, but I'm still standing' "
The story wasn't available for screening, so it's hard to judge its quality. But Garofalo is good at this kind of thing and it certainly sounds like a moving story. It certainly moved Garofalo, who made a rare trip into the world of sports.
You may remember her as a Citytv news anchor 20 years ago. She left Canada to replace Rudy Giuliani's wife at New York's WPIX and then moved on to Fox. But Toronto was always in her heart -- ``I wanted my kids to grow up the way I did," she says -- so when Global came calling in 2008, she answered.
While sports isn't her forte, she did have a connection with O'Sullivan. She did a story on him for City 25 years ago and wondered what had happened to him. That's when she heard the rumours of despair, drinking problems, maybe even drugs.
``He was this all-Canadian guy with such a perfect image in such an imperfect sport," she says. ``I couldn't believe the rumours, so decided to check it out."
When O'Sullivan answered the phone, she wondered if the rumours were true. His speech was slurred and she had a lot of trouble understanding him. But that Irish charm quickly emerged and it didn't take her long to realize the speech problems weren't caused by drugs or alcohol but by the wear and tear of taking too many hits to the head.
She met him at his small apartment in Belleville, where he lives with his dog. He's estranged from his wife and five children and makes a modest living coaching dragon boat racers. But he still has his pride, she says.
``I think that's one reason why he prefers to stay out of the limelight," Garofalo says. ``He said many times that he doesn't want pity."
There are some shocking revelations in the show. O'Sullivan recalls the time he woke up while training for a fight and couldn't see. A trip to a specialist showed that damage suffered during his brief pro career had left him with serious cataracts -- and he was still in his 20s.
So he had an operation and, incredibly, went right back to boxing. But that ended when he was beaten badly in bout he should have won. After a neurologist examined him, his boxing licence was pulled. O'Sullivan told her he thanked the doctor and said, ``Now I don't have to do this any more."
Since then, life hasn't been great. ``The lows in my life have been a lot lower than the highs ever were," he told her. But Garofalo says it hasn't left him bitter.
``He won't criticize boxing," Garofalo says. ``He told me, `I'm not going to say anything bad about the sport because it gave me a lot in the first half of my life.' " In fact, he said that if his son told him he wanted to be a boxer, he'd encourage him."
Hearing that, Garofalo took him to his old Cabbagetown boxing club. She says she was impressed with how he related to the young boxers.
``Kids who weren't even born when he was boxing knew who he was," she says. ``They loved him and I think that was the happiest he's been in a long time."
Garofalo hopes that seeing the story on television might benefit O'Sullivan in other ways.
``I'm hoping the story might be a little bit of a wakeup call for him," she says. ``He's got it in him to be a great motivator, especially with kids."