Memoir: boxing champ George Chuvalo describes his family’s heartbreaking battle with heroin

Memoir: boxing champ George Chuvalo describes his family’s heartbreaking battle with heroin

When I was a heavyweight champ, I was on top of the world. I had no idea my sons were shooting heroin in the basement

Memoir: When I was a heavyweight champ, I was on top of the world. I had no idea my sons were shooting heroin in the basement

As a professional boxer, I held the national championship title three times. I fought Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In 23 years and 97 fights, I was never knocked off my feet. In my personal life, I’ve been defeated time and time again.

My wife, Lynne, and I raised our five children, four boys and a girl, in a nice house in Mount Dennis. When my youngest son, Jesse, was a teen, he was always in trouble with the law. He tried heroin for the first time at a party when he was 20—ostensibly to relieve pain from an injury he’d sustained in a motorcycle accident. Soon he was hooked. Jesse introduced two of his brothers, Steven and Georgie Lee, to the drug. Before I even realized I had one heroin addict under my roof, I had three.

Sometimes, my sons would meet their dealer at the bar of the Parkdale Hotel, just west of the train tracks. They’d literally soil themselves with excitement at the sight of the white stuff. The boys would amble into the bathroom, heat the heroin in a teaspoon, roll up their sleeves and shoot it into their veins before cleaning up. When they ran out of smack, they’d hold up drugstores with hatchets and butcher knives, forcing terrorized clerks to fill gym bags with prescription drugs.

In February 1985, a year after Jesse started using, he lodged a .22-calibre rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger while the rest of us were on our way home from dinner at a neighbourhood steakhouse. The loss was overwhelming. By then, I knew Jesse was an addict, but it never occurred to me that he’d kill himself. I was convinced that my boys were tough enough to quit on their own. I’ll never forgive myself for that.

Jesse’s death affected his brothers profoundly. Over the course of two months, Steven overdosed 15 times. I convinced Georgie Lee to enter rehab, but he only lasted a couple of weeks. The boys’ drugstore heists became increasingly violent, and a few years after they lost their brother, they wound up in prison for robbing a pharmacy in Etobicoke.

Georgie Lee struggled in prison. Once, he slit his wrists and throat. Even after he survived that suicide attempt, he kept talking about deliberately overdosing so he could be with his brother in heaven. Less than a week after his release, he made good on his threat: he was found dead at a flophouse in Parkdale with a syringe in his arm.

Four days later, Lynne overdosed on drugs our sons had stolen in a robbery. When I arrived home that afternoon, she was lying on her back, clutching a Bible and the urn that held Jesse’s ashes. She wrote a suicide note on the back of a grocery list: “I looked for love and couldn’t find any.”

I don’t remember anything from the weeks after Lynne and Georgie Lee died, but Steven said I didn’t get out of bed for a month. For him, it was even worse. The guilt and pain of life without his brothers and mother caused him to spiral further out of control. He arrived at Lynne’s funeral high on heroin. He robbed three drugstores in 45 minutes. He even tried to steal raccoon tranquilizers from an animal hospital. Within the year, he was back behind bars for another robbery.

In jail, Steven tried to turn his life around. He entered rehab, earned his GED and began pursuing a BA in Russian literature from a Queen’s correspondence program—he was enthralled with the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. He was only six months away from his degree when he was released in 1995. I joked about asking the warden to hold him back until he finished. By the time he got out, he was healthy and focused. For the first time, I thought my son had a shot.

On the outside, though, Steven couldn’t put his life back together. He slipped into old habits. In August 1996, while I was out of town, my daughter, Vanessa, found Steven dead in her apartment, slumped over a desk with a syringe in his arm—just like Georgie Lee. When I landed at Pearson, my second wife, Joanne, met me at the gate and broke the news. I went insane right there in the airport, wailing in agony.

After Steven died, I was barely able to function. I felt like I was suffocating every time I went to sleep in the dark. I blamed myself for my sons’ deaths—for letting them quit high school, for not putting them in rehab earlier. For years, I was as lifeless as they were.

I now visit high schools to talk about the dangers of drug addiction. I play a video of Steven that The Fifth Estate shot a few weeks before he was released from prison. In the clip, he looks happy and handsome. I also show the students old photos of my kids, smiling and laughing when they were young. They gasp when they hear what happened to my family.

I’m still damaged goods, but I’m finally able to enjoy my life again. Before they died, my boys gave me six grandchildren, and I turn to mush when I see them. I’m closest with Steven’s son, also named Jesse, who’s 26 and works for a moving company. We go to the gym together several times a week. When I’m with Jesse, I feel like I have my sons back. He never hangs up the phone without telling me he loves me.

George Chuvalo is a retired heavyweight boxer living in Toronto. He recently published a memoir, Chuvalo: A Fighter’s Life.

Email submissions to [email protected]