“My sons would want me to let you know just how god-awful it is to be a heroin addict.”
By Art Babych
In the 21 years that he was the reigning Canadian Heavyweight Boxing Champion, George Chuvalo went fist-to-fist with the best – Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrel, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and many others.
He never won the world boxing title but none of Chuvalo’s opponents in 97 professional fights could knock him to the canvas. He retired in 1979 as the undisputed Canadian champion.
Although he went the distance with the best fighters of the century, it was outside the ring that the Toronto boxer faced his most formidable foe – substance abuse. It ravaged his family over an 11-year period and snuffed out the lives of three of his sons and his wife. It left him bleeding and broken in mind and in spirit. But he has refused to go down for the count.
Chuvalo gives his talk to high school students across the country who listen as if in a trance, absorbed in his tragic story delivered without notes and filled with anecdotes as blunt as his legendary left jab.
“On February 18, 1985, my son Jesse – just nine months after becoming a heroin addict – took out a .22 caliber rifle, put it in his mouth and sealed not only his own fate but the fate of his oldest brothers and his mother.”
Dressed in a suit without tie and looking every bit the champion that many of his fans remember, Chuvalo, now 65, sits in a cushioned chair on a small platform and speaks softly and unemotionally into a microphone he holds close to his mouth. His voice has rhythm, as if sparring with his audience. Occasionally he rocks from side to side like a boxer dodging an opponent’s blows while contemplating his next jab. His image is projected onto a large screen on the gymnasium wall behind him so all can see.
Jesse started using prescription drugs in 1984 to ease the pain of a leg injury and went on to inject heroin. By the time he killed himself a few months later his brothers, Georgie and Steven, were already heroin addicts, as Chuvalo was to discover. “Before I found out that I had a heroin addict for a son, I had three heroin addicts for sons,” he says.
Already retired as a professional boxer, Chuvalo had plenty of time to immerse himself not only in the role of father but also that of guardian angel, trying desperately to get his sons off heroin and into treatment. “My dad spent quite a few years chasing me and my brothers – Georgie particularly – around the city and dragging us out of drug houses and heroin houses, and trying to keep us alive,” Steven says in a CBC video nine months before his death and played to the students this day.
“I didn’t grow up in a perfect family, but we were never abused,” Steven says. “We always knew we were loved.”
Chuvalo recalls when Georgie and Steven borrowed his car and returned 45 minutes later having robbed three drug stores. “None of my (three) sons could beat drugs,” he says. Their craving for heroin was so strong they would defecate in their clothing at the sight of heroin powder in a dealer’s hands “within the flash of the first single second,” he adds.
“With feces still streaming down their legs they’d make the necessary exchange — $65, $70, $75 for the smack … my handsome sons, shooting heroin into their veins with excrement still lumped into their pants.”
“It hurts me to talk about my sons that way,” he says. “They can’t defend themselves. But I think my sons would want me to let you know just how god-awful it is to be a heroin addict.”
Both Georgie and Steven spent several years in prison for theft and armed robbery while trying to get money for drugs. Georgie went back to using heroin only days after his release from prison in 1993 and was found dead of a heroin overdose in a shabby hotel room. Just four days after his funeral, Lynn, the ex-boxer’s wife and mother of his children, “feeling the pain only a mother can, took her own life,” Chuvalo says. “She took the pills from them (the boys) and put them in her hope chest for the day when she had no hope – when she lost our second son.”
Steven, handsome and intelligent, showed up at his mother’s funeral stoned on heroin. In one two-month period he was taken to hospital with a heroin overdose 15 times, his father says.
Steven, 35, died of a heroin overdose in 1996. “They found my son clad only in a pair of under shorts, his body slumped in a chair, syringe sticking out of his left arm and an unlit cigarette between the first two fingers of his right hand,” says Chuvalo. “Before he could light the cigarette he was dead.”
The former boxer finds it difficult to talk about his sons defecating at the sight of heroin or being carried ashen-faced into hospital emergency wards to get their stomachs pumped out, and he usually leaves the room whenever the video is being shown to an audience.
But if that’s what it takes to others avoid substance abuse, it’s worth it, he believes. “If my sons were here today just for a minute they would say to you that taking drugs is insane. It is awful being a drug addict, it’s awful being a parent of a drug addict. It’s awful to watch young people waste away their lives.”
Chuvalo’s talk ends with an appeal to the students to avoid lifestyle choices that can lead to substance abuse, including smoking, drinking and the use of “soft” drugs. As well, he tells them, “Education is the single most important determinant as to how successful you’ll be in life.”
He also talks to them about love, “Love makes you feel strong, love makes you feel tender, love makes you feel secure, loves make you feel appreciated.”
And then he makes a request: “When you go home today put your arms around your parents, hold them and kiss them and tell them that you love them … and maybe they’ll do the same to you.”
Dealt a hand in life that most people cannot even imagine, Chuvalo – his life shattered by the deaths of three sons and his first wife – is playing it out like the champion he is. And what’s more, he’s still standing.