'If It Wasn't For Everton, I'm Not Sure I'd Be Here Now'

by Paul McNamara
@Everton

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John Brady appreciates the irony. His eyes sparkle as he recalls the roar which filled the University of Illinois swimming complex when he touched home in last position.

There would be no place on the podium. No medal.

No matter.

“I was terrible,” he laughs. Brady is detailing his 100m freestyle effort at the 2017 Warrior Games in Chicago.

“I think I nearly drowned but I got the biggest cheer,” he says.

“I didn’t get a medal. Again.

“But it was just such an honour to represent my country… and so powerful to see others getting medals and overcoming adversity; to see people who had emerged from a dark, dark place and might conceivably not be here anymore.”

Brady travelled that way, too. From dark to light.

There was a period when laughter didn’t come so easily.

A time when the absence of a medal on his chest was a cause for despair.

John Brady was a high-achieving infantry soldier before being discharged from the Army on medical grounds.

“I did not want to get out of bed,” he says of the empty aftermath of his release onto civvy street.

“I still had those thoughts: ‘I’m not good enough; am I going to be here tomorrow, am I going to go and do something stupid?’

“There was nothing motivating me to get out of bed. Nothing.”

Brady’s mental health started to deteriorate when he twice had the plug pulled on scheduled postings to Afghanistan.

He had written letters to every member of his family – “You want to leave nice messages, which is hard when you’re 18 or 19” – and even gone with friends to Tenerife for a week because “I wanted to make sure I had my first lads’ holiday”.

Brady was “terrified” and “excited” in equal measure. He was, though, sub-consciously constructing a pernicious belief system. So far as he was concerned, Brady would be defined by his service in Afghanistan.

When he didn’t get there, then, and witnessed friends returning, swelling with pride and armed with medals, the mental toll on the man who had stayed behind was extreme.

“Everyone else was coming back with their medals and I never had one – I did not feel I was in the same league as them anymore,” says Brady.

“I felt they were heroes and I was a little boy in a uniform, playing soldier… they were real soldiers.

“Not going to Afghanistan took away my purpose.

“I didn’t realise when it was happening but it was a big factor in my mental health starting to deteriorate.”

Brady’s mental health continued to spiral downwards for three years.

In 2016, inspired by a fleeting memory of football and barbecues at his barracks, Brady contacted Everton in the Community’s [EitC] Knowsley Veterans' Hub [KVH] and its project co-ordinator Dave Curtis.

This was the moment, says Brady, when he started to welcome colour back into his monochrome world. His first step on a climb whose diverse and significant staging posts have included Brady addressing army generals in Washington and handcuffing troublemakers on Hollyoaks.

“I was always proud when I saw the work EitC was doing,” says Brady, “but I never thought they’d be able to touch me.

“If it was not for Dave and Everton, I am not 100 per cent sure I would be here now. It was that bad… without that first connection with Dave I’d have stayed in bed.”

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everton

John Brady didn’t go through childhood dreaming of battlefields and forces life.

“Not at all,” he says. “I grew up on a council estate in Bootle. Everton was a massive part of my life, I was football mad.

“I had to start thinking about work at 16 or 17… there were a lot of adverts for the Army. It wasn’t something I had aspired to do but it suited my personality.

“I was disciplined and a nice lad, never any trouble. I didn’t have a criminal record and was very fit.

“I signed up to join in 2011 and started training in 2012.”

Brady excelled in training at Vimy Barracks, housed on Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire and “one of the hardest training camps in the world”.   

“I suited the life,” says Brady. “When I joined it was great, everyone was in the same boat, you had 50 civilians growing into soldiers together and forming a bond.

“I felt fulfilled.”

Three years later Brady was contemplating taking his own life.

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John Brady’s hand shot up. The soldiers in the room had been asked if they wanted to serve in Afghanistan. He was given a date and readied his parents for the prospect of their son flying to a war zone.

When he returned from his holiday to Tenerife – which followed a period of deployment in Estonia – he was informed his posting had been deferred.

As Brady’s revised departure date loomed, the young soldier’s equipment was scrupulously packed, his mind ordered and prepared.

“Then I was told we were pulling out and not sending more troops,” says Brady.

“I was given the option of going to Cyprus for three months on a decompression exercise, to help those returning from Afghanistan acclimatise before going home.

“I was devastated but wanted to get away from England so accepted that position. It meant seeing people I was originally going to be with in battalion when they had finished their tour.

“They were saying, ‘I have my medal, what have you got?’ They were only messing but I was devastated.

“People always want to know if you have been to Afghanistan or Iraq, if not it’s as if you weren’t a real soldier.

“But I was a frontline soldier, I was trained to go to war.”

Brady was sent on duty to the Falkland Islands in late 2014. He had met Natasha before leaving and the pair exchanged messages the whole while he was away.

Today, Natasha is expecting John’s second child. Son Taylor James is 14 months old, while Brady is also father to Natasha’s daughter Lily Rose, who turns seven this month.

“Natasha was with me when life was great in the Army, then through the very difficult time to where I am now,” says Brady.

“It has not been easy but she has stuck with me which has been brilliant.

“And she has given me a son which is the greatest gift in the world.”

The pair started to lock horns in 2015. Brady was injured while undergoing one of countless eyeballs-out physical training sessions designed to prepare him for a stint in stifling Kenya.

“I picked up an injury to my groin which kept me off work for the first time in my life,” says Brady.

“There was a big stigma surrounding that in the army – ‘You can’t be off sick as an infantry solider, you need to crack on’.

“I did not know what to do. None of my mates were getting in touch to see how I was getting on.

“I was probably spending too much time with Natasha so we were clashing. I chose to drink. And while I was drinking I was fighting and getting angry, which wasn’t me at all.

“I had been trained to be a soldier and the only way I knew how to express myself was to be angry.

“I wanted to drink and antagonise people so I would be beaten up.

“I wasn’t attacking people, I was being horrible so people would attack me.

“It was like I was punishing myself for not fulfilling my duty.” 

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swimming

Brady’s sense of duty today has assumed an entirely different complexion.

He mocks disgust when he remembers how it dawned on him that his battalion’s football match with Everton four years ago would be against a veterans' side; that the Blues’ first team would not be rocking up for an 11v11.

Munching on hot dogs during a post-game barbecue, Brady spoke with Dave Curtis – who pieced back together his own life with the aid of EitC after being discharged from the Army with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and now acts as the inspirational figurehead of KVH – and wondered aloud if he might one day get a runout for the vets team.

He did not envisage qualifying to play so soon. Even as his health was being assessed by his employers, Brady did not see an outcome which left him jobless.

“I didn’t have a missing leg, I’d had a time when I thought I was going to kill myself but I was feeling better,” says Brady.

“I was told I was going to be medically discharged which was soul destroying. I was thinking… 'I have worked so hard for this career, everyone is proud of me, what am I going to do?'”

Days once characterised by a training regime loaded with discipline and healthy fear and which started with a clean shave – “any stubble and you were fined but I was only 18 at the time so it wasn’t too bad” – gave way to vacant weeks and months.

“I would force myself back to sleep or watch movies,” says Brady. “I had nothing about me. I wasn’t the person Natasha had met, that fit and motivated soldier.

“She was urging me to get out and do something, anything to inject some purpose into my life.”

Brady found direction in EitC. And a kindred spirit in Curtis.

“He was someone who had been in my position, not in the sense we’d been through the same thing – but we’d both been medically discharged,” says Brady.

“It feels as if you are being brushed off.

“Dave is like a big brother to me, it was such a valuable thing for me to have someone who could understand and listen and have the courage to tell me his story.

“I realised it was okay to not be okay.”

Brady’s initial contact with Curtis following his discharge coincided with the launch of KVH. He has, then, been involved in the project’s weekly football sessions and coffee mornings from the outset and is now at its coalface.

“I get to be with a group of veterans every week which has made me feel part of a team again,” he says.

“They took me in as a brother.

“I feel more at home with Dave and his project than I ever did in the Army. And I want to say thank you to him for that.”

Brady volunteers for KVH. He accompanies Curtis in to prisons to talk to “veterans not as lucky as me”.

“We let them know, ‘You have done a bad thing but we are still here to support your transition back into civvy life,” he says.

It was only in the second half of this year, however, that Brady felt emboldened to speak out.

In August he joined six wounded veterans during their 1,000-mile trek from the west to east coast of America.

The ‘Walk of America’, supported by Prince Harry, was staged to raise awareness of mental health in the armed forces.

Brady spent 10 days on the road and covered 125 miles, hobbling along after his feet blistered on day one.

“At each stopping point we had an audience with high-ranking officers or military personnel,” says Brady.

“I stood in front of 300 new recruits – without a microphone – and spoke about wanting to take own life.

“I didn’t know any of them, so felt no pressure talking.

“I addressed four-star generals at the British Embassy in Washington and had them asking me how to detect if somebody was struggling.

“I told them, 'That is impossible, people will smile on the outside even if they are crying on the inside'.

“But I said, ‘What you can do is be approachable’. And I do think there is a will to listen now.

“If I had been asked to sit down for this interview a couple of months ago, there is no way I would have agreed.

“There will always be people who knock you, but forget them, they have not walked in your shoes. They cannot judge.”

What was the precise nature of the story Brady shared with those new recruits, then? It was the one he had related in an impassioned social media message on the eve of crossing the Atlantic for his own walk to freedom.

The one which told of how he was erroneously summoned for guard duty when on sick leave with his damaged groin, of how during his 24-hour watch he dissolved into tears and contemplated ending his life.

Brady is at a loss to explain what dissuaded him from that course of action, he knows only that he’s so happy an instinct lodged deep within overpowered his urge.

“I was suffering in silence… but didn't know how to ask for help,” he says. “I couldn't speak because I was a man. Not just a man, a fully-trained infantry soldier.

“That 24 hours completely changed my life.”

Two of Brady’s friends and former service colleagues have taken their own lives in recent months.

“I kind of blamed myself at the time – ‘Why didn’t I message them, or notice?’” he says. “But, unfortunately, sometimes you just can’t.

“The only way I can honour their memories is to talk about my mental health.

“If I can help one person who looks at me and says, ‘He struggled but has gone and done alright with his life… so can I’, that would be great.” 

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coronation

Brady was staying in Phoenix House, a recovery centre overseen by Help for Heroes, when he met Anthony Cotton, the Coronation Street actor who is an ambassador for the charity.

“The man is a saint,” says Brady.

“He helped me realise I was more than the Army and made me feel empowered again.

“He still checks up on me and is such a lovely guy – he has done so much for me alone, so I can only imagine how much he has helped others.”

Cotton introduced Brady to a casting agency in Manchester, opening a door in to uncharted territory for his friend.

“I have worked in Roy’s Rolls, been on the Street and in the Rovers Return, sitting in a booth with a pint and pretending to be on a date,” he relates with an endearing air of nonchalance.

There have been extras roles in Peaky Blinders and Hollyoaks, too.

“I love it, it is not work – it is a joy,” says Brady. 

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goodison

Brady is a “mad Evertonian”, a Howard Kendall Gwladys Street End Season Ticket Member.

When Natasha, a fellow Blue, went into labour with Taylor James, she requested commentary of the day’s Everton match to accompany her giving birth.

The Blues lost 3-0 to Tottenham Hotspur. “But,” Brady interjects quickly, “Liverpool lost 5-0 on that day [to Manchester City], which was quite cool.”

He has stored the screenshot of Everton sending its best wishes to Natasha and Taylor James on his son’s birthdate: September 9, 2017.

Brady was involved in a world-record 31-hour five-a-side football match in 2010, an event supported by Leighton Baines and Jamie Carragher from either side of the city’s footballing divide.

Two years later, Brady participated in a 30-hour touch rugby game, another global best.

He is applying his iron will today to an attempt to qualify for next year’s Invictus Games, a multi-sport event for wounded, sick and injured Service personnel – and the brainchild of Prince Harry, who was moved by a visit to the Warrior Games in 2013 to create something similar for British veterans.

Brady is swerving the swimming this time, in favour of his stronger suits of sprinting and weightlifting.

As he compiles an exacting training programme, Brady can call on his military background as a force for good, even if elements of his army mindset remain deeply ingrained.

“I am going to be in the gym at 6am on Wednesday after my night shift,” he explains. “I will be in there one hour, then in to the steam room and sauna for 30 minutes.

“I will be home for eight when the kids are up for school, then in to bed for eight hours and up at four.

“I do miss the discipline – and the fear, having to be on time and dressed in a certain way.

“And the buzz when you had done something well and were looking forward to coming home.”

Brady tells a lovely story about the KVH football team, recently crowned champions of its five-a-side league after a six-month, 24-match season. Brady struck more than 70 goals to finish second in the competition’s scoring charts.

“EitC was located in a tin shed near the Park End at Goodison before the People’s Hub was built,” he says.

“There was loads of trophies in there and I asked Dave which ones were his.

“He said, ‘None, they are all Johnnie’s [Garside, the charity’s health and well-being manager].

“Johnnie was smiling – I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get Dave one’.

“And I said to Johnnie last week, ‘See, I told you I’d bring Dave a trophy’.

“It was a nice thing for me to give back to him – and that was how it felt: that I was giving Dave something after everything he had done for me.”

There is a presentation night on December 7. Brady will receive a medal.

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Where Brady was uncommunicative and dormant at his lowest ebb, his voice today is rich with verve and meaning.

He is working again, as a production operative in a warehouse, but already scanning the boundless possibilities which exist for a 25-year-old who is brimming with motivation and a refreshed zest for life. A future working for Everton – in any capacity – is one of numerous ambitions.

Everton in the Community has been the gentle hand on Brady’s shoulder, leading him along his path towards the light.

As he glows in its reflection, you can’t help but think of Natasha, of the small bump forming in her stomach, of Lily Rose and Taylor James.

And wonder at the power of a charity which, in its way, contributed to this family being able to welcome home the real John Brady.

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