AGED 38 – 189CM | 96KG EX FOOTBALLER, FATHER, CAMPAIGNER
There is a ticking clock that hangs over the head of every athlete. Whatever their achievements in the sporting arena, however rigorous their preparation, their bodies will eventually stiffen, weaken, and ultimately let them down. It is the grim inevitability of sport: with the passing of the seasons, even the brightest stars must eventually flicker and fade into the endless canopy of night.
Rio Ferdinand was one such sporting star. In a footballing career spanning 19 years, he won 18 trophies, including six Premier League titles and a coveted Champions League. He remains one of the most- capped English players of all time, a football stylist worshipped by Manchester United fans and grudgingly respected by rival supporters. But in 2015 – aged 36, and a waning elder statesman of his sport – Ferdinand waved goodbye to the only life he’d ever known.
The physical slump was immediate. “For those first few months, I didn’t do anything. I just stopped,” he says, recalling the aftermath of his retirement, without training sessions to attend or coaches to impress. “You look at my old teammates and other former players, and few of them are in shape. They don’t entertain the gym. But you’ve got to understand most of them were in the gym for 25 years. Running, every day. I hate running, actually hate it. Any type of workout that involves breathing heavily, I hate it. Because that’s all I did for 25 years – run, run, run.” And so, in most cases, the paunch grows and the fitness goes.
Sat at the breakfast bar in the open-plan kitchen of his Kent home – the size and polish of which befit a recently retired professional footballer who twice broke the Premier League transfer fee record – Ferdinand looks nothing like the soft-stomached former colleagues to whom he’s referring. Dressed in black shorts over black gym tights, a grey T-shirt failing comically to contain his upper arms, he looks every bit as imposing as he did when he was marshalling the MU defence. Scrap that. He looks quantifiably more so.
“I had a bit of an awakening,” he says. “I ran for a train at Euston, about 400 yards. I got on and I was sweating like I’ve never known. I was in agony! Luckily it was a time of day when no one was on the train, because if they’d have seen me, they’d have thought this guy’s never been an athlete, never done any exercise. I’d never felt like that; it was embarrassing. The deterioration was so quick. That kicked me into getting back in shape.”
Ferdinand enlisted the help of professional rugby player-turned-pt Mel Deane, and began a programme built around lifting weights. Very heavy weights. He filled the glass-walled gym at the far end of his swimming pool with a squat rack, bench, TRX, dumbbells, kettlebells, Swiss balls and medicine balls – enough equipment to rival a small health club. With Deane barking instructions, Ferdinand would work out, as he still does, four times a week, often more. He became devoted to this new style of training. But what began as a purely physical endeavour soon took on an unexpected therapeutic quality – offering brief moments of solace during a period of intense, emotional pain.
In May 2015, when Ferdinand was preparing to retire and planning the ventures with which he would occupy his newfound free time, his wife Rebecca, the mother of his three young children, died very suddenly. She had previously received treatment for – and seemingly overcome – breast cancer. But the cancer returned. Only 10 short weeks later, Rebecca passed away.
As a professional athlete playing at the highest level, and with a loving wife at home, Ferdinand had barely needed to take responsibility for his life outside football. Suddenly, he became responsible for the care of, not just himself, but three kids under the age of 10. The grief was overwhelming – a feeling of anguish he dealt with by distracting himself with work, his children, and of course, with training.
Just how significant a role did training play as a coping mechanism? “Huge, yeah. Just huge,” he says emphatically. “It enabled me to free my mind. You’ve got to remember, when I played football, when I’d step onto the pitch, there was nothing I thought about but football. It was a clear space, a little release time. Without the gym, I don’t know where I would’ve had that release time – that time just to think about nothing, or to think about something other than what was going on in my life. The gym really played a part in that, and that’s why I’ve clung onto it. For me it’s a place where your mind gets to take a break for a bit.”
In the beginning, the gym served as an escape valve, a tool for exorcising pent-up feelings of anger and torment. But it soon became a form of physically induced meditation. “I’m simply happier when I’m in the gym and working out, and I think everything else flows better when I’m doing that,” he says. “It invigorates me and calms me at the same time.”
Earlier this year, after months of keeping his feelings locked up, Ferdinand filmed a documentary, Rio Ferdinand:
“The gym is the place where my mind gets to take a break for a while”
Being Mum and Dad, in which he opened up about the acute emotional pain that he suffered following his wife’s death. In particular, he reveals his early inability to discuss it with anyone, be they friends, family or a therapist. The film is by turns honest, raw and devastatingly sad.
It’s important, says Ferdinand, for men to drop the tough guy exterior, and be comfortable discussing their emotional afflictions as readily as they might their physical ones. “There’s this machismo that comes out. Feelings and emotions are not seen as something that’s macho enough to talk about,” he says. “There’s a taboo there and that was a part of the documentary that we wanted to explore and break down a bit. Men need to learn how to speak and to open themselves up. It’s OK to feel vulnerable at times.” He hopes that his documentary, as well as the work undertaken by the Heads Together campaign fronted by Princes William and Harry, will help us to reach a tipping point where men feel free to express themselves without shame or fear of stigma.
Ferdinand is keen to point out that he isn’t claiming to be an expert on the subject of bereavement. Moreover, he says that two years on from Rebecca’s passing, it is still very much something he is learning to process. But he knows that his sessions in the gym have been vital in enabling him to make it this far. “I think you’ve got to find something in your life that can help you take your mind off the stresses that hold you back. Fitness has been that something [for me].”
It is hard, as an outsider, to see quite how much Ferdinand’s physical regimen has helped him to develop emotionally. What is evident, however, is the effect it has had on his body. On set, as Deane puts Ferdinand through his paces, the veins on his unrecognisable forearms practically pop out of his skin. When the photographer asks him to remove his T-shirt, the full extent of his bodybuilder chest and diamond- cut torso is revealed. A classic footballer’s physique – retired or otherwise – his is not.
“I’m about 11kg heavier than when I retired,” he says. “My playing weight was about 85kg; I’m now 96kg.” That’s 11kg – roughly the weight of a French bulldog – in pure, lean muscle. As a centre-back, Ferdinand explains, he had to be strong to cope with some of the tougher strikers in Europe, but stay slim – slimmer even than he’d have liked – in order to keep up with nimbler opponents. He’d always planned on adding bulk to his slender frame after retirement, but initially had no idea where to start. “People assume that an elite athlete knows exactly how to fine-tune their body, any way they want.” He pauses, conspiratorially leaning forward on his stool. “Well, we don’t. Most of us haven’t got a clue. We just do what we’re told.”
Having brought Deane on board to replicate the player- coach relationship, he then decided to consult a nutritionist. It was when these two disciplines combined that he began to achieve real results. Ferdinand is now keen to pass on his knowledge to others. He’s cagey about the details, but plans are well underway, he says, to release a paid-for programme, available to anyone wanting to follow in his fast-bulking footsteps. “I’d like to help others get to the place where I am. Where I think: ‘ This is great, this is my lifestyle now,’” he explains. “It isn’t a chore. It isn’t about watching a gram of protein here or a gram of fat there. And you don’t have to have a ready-made gym in your house. I want it to be something that’s really smooth and fits into your lifestyle.”
When Ferdinand’s time as one of the greatest defenders of his generation came to an end, training for a different kind of goal helped give him a new focus at a stage when many others lose theirs. But perhaps more importantly, in doing so he discovered a strategy to help him through the most distressing period of his life. “Until you start working out regularly, you don’t understand it,” he says. “You don’t understand that sometimes that hour, or even that brief 20 minutes you snatch as and when, can be the most chilled out hour or 20 minutes of your day. So why would you miss out on that?”
FRAME OF MIND STAYING ACTIVE PROVED PIVOTAL IN HELPING FERDINAND COPE WITH THE LOSS OF HIS WIFE