Rio Ferdinand was only 11 when he discovered what it is to be idolised. Nicknamed Pelé by a youth team coach, he showed the kind of promise on the pitch that made grown men lose their heads.
Adored by Manchester United and England fans, despised by rival supporters, Ferdinand has always known how it feels to command respect, fear, envy, loathing and fanatical love. Up until the age of 36, the one feeling he had never known was the sympathy of others.
“Sympathy’s a hard thing to accept,” he says. “You don’t want people feeling sorry for you. In the macho changing room culture that I was in, when someone’s felt sorry for, that means they’re weak. And you don’t want to have people like that in the changing room, because that’s a weak link. If I thought someone was looking for a bit of sympathy, I’d be like, ‘Get him out. Don’t want him in there.’ I couldn’t be around people like that. I hated it. I didn’t respect them at all.”
Away from the game, too, he would never let anyone see his emotions. “Anyone who knows me would always say, ‘You’re a cold person. You’re like a closed book. You’ve got no emotion.’ I’ve got mates who used to cry at films and I’d just go, ‘You idiot, what are you doing?’” No one ever saw Ferdinand cry; in fact, he wouldn’t even let them see his joy. When he signed for Man United at 24, and became the most expensive British footballer in history at the world’s biggest club, his new manager turned to his assistant and asked: “Is he actually happy about this or not?” Ferdinand allows a faint smile. “I didn’t like showing my cards.”
Ferdinand celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Swansea City in 2013
But now, for the first time in his life, he has put all his cards on the table. This week we will see Ferdinand in a painfully intimate documentary, Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, breaking down on camera and weeping tears so excruciatingly raw that at moments you want to look away. The screening I attended was filled with hard-nosed journalists and footballing professionals, and half the room was in tears.
In 2015, Ferdinand was preparing to retire and enjoy family life with his wife Rebecca, their two sons, Lorenz and Tate, then nine and six, and daughter Tia, four. Rebecca had been treated for breast cancer, but the family imagined it was behind them. “The kids thought of cancer as a cold; she’d had it, and now she was over it. Out of sight, out of mind.”
No one was prepared for the speed or aggression of the cancer’s return. The couple didn’t even have time to prepare their children; the doctors confirmed a terminal prognosis only the day before her death. Ferdinand was still reeling when he broke the news to his children that their mother had died, aged just 34. “It was just – bang. No one can prepare you for that.”
Rio Ferdinand and his wife, Rebecca
On the way out of the hospital, one of his sons noticed a wall covered in greetings cards. “He said, ‘What’s that Dad?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s some of the thank you cards patients and families have left for the doctors and the nurses on the ward, for helping their mum and dad or whoever they’ve had up there.’ He went, ‘Well, they didn’t help my mum,’ and he just walked off.” Ferdinand took his family home to Kent, a single father, with not a clue what to do.
The practicalities of domestic life were bewildering and overwhelming. “There’s all this organisation and structure within a family home that men don’t see. Women are thinking constantly what needs doing; I used to wake up, get dressed, have some breakfast with them, and then I’d take them, drop them off and get out and go to training, and think I was doing my bit.
“But that’s the easy bit. Rebecca would fill in all the blanks that I wasn’t involved with, but now it’s a totally different scenario. Where are their shoes? Where are their clothes? Where are their bags? Then you get in the school playground and you’ve got parents coming up to you, ‘Can we take him to a play date? Would you have so-and- so?’ And your kid’s saying, ‘Can I bring so-and-so home?’ And you’re just sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, this is mental’.”
He’d never had to take responsibility for professional practicalities as a footballer either. “In football you don’t lift a finger until you go over the white line to play. Everything is done for you. When you sit down, your kit’s in your locker. When you finish getting changed, you throw your kit on the floor. Someone comes in and picks all that up. Your boots, they’re muddy, someone comes in and gets them, cleans them, ‘Are they all right for you?’ ‘No, they’re not clean enough. Can you take them back please?’ When you get to an airport you don’t even look at a sign, you just follow feet. Then at home we’d go on holiday, for instance, and all I had to do was pack my own bag because Rebecca packed.”
Ferdinand with Rebecca and their three children, Lorenz, Tate and Tia
Now, suddenly, he was retired and widowed, and responsible for everything. “It was even, like, ‘How do I go to the doctor’s?’ I’d only ever seen the club doctor. I didn’t have a clue.” At bedtime he didn’t know the little rituals Rebecca used to have. “She used to fix their beds a certain way, and when they’d tell me it almost felt like a slight. I’d think, ‘Whatever I do isn’t going to be good enough.’”
But worst of all by far, he didn’t know how to help his children – or himself – to grieve. When he tried to talk to them about their loss, “they’d just walk off. And you just feel lost. You sit there looking at the ceiling going, ‘What do I say now then?’ I didn’t know how to even start a conversation.” Friends assured him that he’d find it easy to talk in the car, or at the table. “But I’m thinking, ‘I sit in the car every day with them, and I sit at the breakfast table every day, and I don’t get anything. When am I going to get this?’ You sit there just frustrated, frustrated.”
He thought he should be able to cope. “I thought, ‘I ain’t going to see a shrink, someone who thinks he can help me, someone who’s never been through the situation, just learnt it through books. What can they tell me?’” To sit with his feelings or thoughts was literally unbearable, so in the daytime he’d cram his diary with work and appointments. But in the middle of the night he would find himself alone downstairs, drinking. He’d always thought of suicidal feelings as unforgivably selfish. He didn’t any more.
Realising he couldn’t be the only man hopelessly ill-equipped to grieve, Ferdinand decided to allow BBC cameras to follow him as he sought advice from professionals and charities about how to cope with Rebecca’s death. He visited a centre for bereaved children, consulted therapists, met the golfer Darren Clarke, who also lost his wife to cancer, observed a weekend get-together for children who’d lost a parent, and attended a support group for widowers.
He was stunned to see that some of them had removed their wedding rings. “Before, if someone had said that to me, I’d say, ‘Well obviously, you didn’t love your missus’. But that’s the way I thought about a lot of things. Someone’s killed themselves because they lost their wife? That’s a selfish, weak individual.
“Even relationships. One of the guys got into a new relationship after a few months. Well me and Rebecca, we’d have been sitting there going, ‘He didn’t even love [his wife], I bet you.’ But then you sit here in the shoes you’re in now and you think, ‘If he went out the day after I couldn’t judge him. If he feels it’s right, it’s right, because that’s just the way it is.’”
Slowly but unmistakably, we see Ferdinand start to piece himself and his family back together. The single most powerful turning point was a suggestion to give his children a “memory jar” – a big pot in which they could store memories of their mother on little bits of paper. “When the memory jar came it triggered so much... I could hear the joy in their voices, I could hear they wanted to speak about it. So off the back of that there’s been more conversations. We can talk about Rebecca now. That memory jar has changed absolutely everything. Everything at home feels different now, because of it.”
Ferdinand grew up on a notoriously rough south London council estate, the son of a divorced Irish mother and St Lucian father. The contrast between his childhood and his luxury designer family home today in leafy, affluent Kent could not be more stark. He used to marvel at the privileges he’s able to give his children, but says now, “Their childhood is tougher than mine. I’ve heard people say, ‘Your kids will never have an upbringing like yours’ and I think they either don’t know what’s happened, or they’re just being ignorant to it. Because your sense of security, it comes from your mum. And you can’t buy that.”
Does he, I ask, ever feel guilty for being the parent who is alive? He pauses for 11 agonisingly silent seconds, as his eyes fill up. “Yes, probably, yes. Because mums are different.” He has bought bottles of the perfume Rebecca used to wear. “And I go home and I can smell it sometimes, they’ve sprayed it on their pillows or on something that they sleep with, so they’re never going to forget.”
Does he believe he will ever recover the happiness he knew when he was playing football and Rebecca was alive? “I would have said 100 per cent no, no chance. I used to think to myself, ‘I might end up being happy, but I’ll always be dragged down again when I look at my kids and they ain’t got a mum.’
“That’s how I thought before I went on this journey in the documentary, meeting Darren Clarke, meeting the widowers. From listening to their stories it gives you a bit of hope and that’s when I started to kind of smile a bit more and think maybe there is a chance I’m going to be happy one day again.” Clarke has remarried, “and he said, ‘Listen, I was sat in your shoes, but I am happy now. I’m unbelievably happy. I never thought I’d be here, but I’m so happy, and you will find that’.”
In recent weeks the tabloids have reported that Ferdinand is now in a relationship with Kate Wright, a cast member on The Only Way Is Essex. “I’ve never, ever spoken about relationships. I didn’t do it with Rebecca, and I’m not going to do it now. But I also understand that going into relationships is natural. I’ll know when it’s the right time, and I’m comfortable with that.”
Does he think Rebecca would have approved of the documentary? He smiles. “She would definitely be happy, because she would want it to help others. That’s the type of person she was. That’s why the film was so poignant for me.”
Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad is on Tuesday 28 March at 9pm on BBC1