Brighton Mhlongo's new path will be lit by past experience with alcohol and loss

For former South Africa goalkeeper Brighton Mhlongo, there was no real rock bottom when it came to alcohol, and there was no single thing that made him go from a teetotal professional footballer to someone with a drinking problem.

The first was a series of spiralling realisations, ironically at the peak of his football career, and the second was a culmination of various instances of grief, from the death of his father in 2012 to the murder of close friend and national captain Senzo Meyiwa in 2014.

Now, a couple of years removed from first seeking help and two years without much football, the former Orlando Pirates stopper, now in the DStv Premiership with Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila [formerly Bidvest Wits], is dealing with a new loss.

After making his way back to the pitch this year, and just days after ESPN's interview with him in April, Mhlongo was struck by what he calls a 'point blank, full-blast' shot to the face in training, resulting in the functional loss of vision in his left eye.

While the logistics of his contract are still being determined, he says doctors have all but ruled his career over, and have restricted any kind of contact sport, and even limiting his time outdoors in the sun.

READ: ESPN's coverage of Mental Heath Awareness Week 2021

So his path, already filled with so much loss, winds in a new direction. But he is determined, he told ESPN this week in the wake of his injury news, to keep on the mentally healthy road that took him so long to find.

The descent

The descent into substance abuse for 30-year-old Mhlongo had no single trigger, nor was it quick. His drinking began in 2015/16 and ended nearly two years later when he sought help. But the catalyst was years prior, and further losses added up.

"During my second season [at Pirates, in 2012], I lost my dad to cancer. He was my biggest fan at that time and it hit home. He had been my supporter throughout the development years -- he'd always been there for me," Mhlongo told ESPN.

According to Mhlongo, his father died on the morning of a Soweto derby against arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs.

"He passed on when we were about to play Carling [Black Label] Cup, but my family decided not to tell me," he remembered.

"They told the team not to tell me, because it was my first camp -- the Soweto derby. They didn't want to disrupt me and pull me out of that camp.

"I remember before going to camp, I went to visit him in hospital, and when I told him the news, he was suddenly back to life again. I felt he was going to make it, pull through, and hopefully watch the game. When it didn't happen, they told me after we won the game, it was very heartbreaking.

"Here I am, thinking: 'My hero will be watching that very special moment that we've been dreaming about throughout,' only to find that he's no more and he couldn't even wait for that moment."

But his professionalism, and stoic nature, held out for years while he barely dealt with that loss, and Mhlongo now says that was his critical error, and that speaking about his grief could have saved him and his family the subsequent trauma.

He said: "I've always been that person who builds a wall [around myself]. I don't show the outside world if I'm going through a whole lot, especially in my line of duty.

"I'd go to training and just keep it professional and keep working hard irrespective of whatever I'm going through in that moment.

"I believe it [the alcohol abuse] was a build-up of a whole lot of things that I'd been keeping in and not speaking about to people who might be able to guide me."

Mhlongo felt pressured as he took on added responsibility at home following his father's passing. He then had to assume more responsibility two years later, as he had to take over from Meyiwa in goal immediately after his death.

The murder rocked the footballing community in South Africa, and drew massive media attention at home and worldwide, with the likes of Iker Casillas and Sepp Blatter, as well as then-SA president Jacob Zuma, paying tribute to the 'keeper, who had been shot in his home.

Mhlongo's star was on the rise when he joined Pirates in 2011, albeit as back up to Meyiwa. The two stoppers formed a strong bond as youths, and the latter's death [his alleged murderers' trial is still ongoing], had dramatic repercussions for Mhlongo.

He said of Meyiwa: "He was very instrumental in me being part of the first team. I knew him throughout the development years, and when I got to the senior teams, he helped me to settle in... I had to deal with a whole lot, I had to deal with the pressures and the grief, which I didn't deal with properly.

"A week after his funeral, I had to play a cup semi-final against SuperSport United. It was my first major game as a Pirates player. Everything was happening so fast. There was no time to settle in and there was no room for any weakness -- that was how I saw it.

"I thought [to myself]: 'You know what? No-one is going to pull you out of that hole. You need to raise your hand and just keep on thriving. You cannot sink.'"

Mhlongo initially did such an impressive job of focusing on his career at the exclusion of all else that he was singled out for praise by Eric Tinkler, the former Bafana Bafana international and then Orlando Pirates coach, in 2015.

Tinkler, seemingly in the dark about the problems Mhlongo was dealing with, told Goal as the 'keeper recovered from an injury: "He is a disciplined [player]. He doesn't drink or smoke and that has helped him work hard on his healing and rehabilitation."

Although this was true at the time, drink and depression would soon turn Mhlongo into an unrecognisable version of himself.

"I was in a very dark place, but here I was, smiling out there -- the same Brighton who would be lively and bubbly and make sure everyone was good. Deep down inside, it [the pain of losing loved ones] was tearing me apart to a point that I didn't even recognise myself anymore," Mhlongo recalled.

"When I was alone, I felt like: 'Ok, what do I need to do to take away this pain or to take away the feeling that I'm feeling right now?' It simply resulted in one thing -- just going out [drinking] with people [to] forget about all the stresses I was facing."

Despite all this, Mhlongo was ironically playing excellent football at Pirates, so much so that he made his international debut against Ghana in 2016. It would be his only appearance, as the alcohol secretly began to dominate his life.

He said: "When I was drinking, there were moments where I got home not knowing how I did it. There were times when I escaped a few [car] accidents."

Then came the passing of former Orlando Pirates goalkeeping coach Alexandre Revoredo on 31 August 2017 -- another man who was close to Mhlongo's heart. By this time, he had neared breaking point and moved to Chippa United on loan, where he would go on to make just a handful of appearances.

But the Buccaneers, who still held his contract, were the ones he turned to for help in late 2017, nearly two years after his descent began.

"Alcohol misuse forms part of the mental health spectrum. There is not much that has been done at all competitive levels of football to raise awareness about the negative impact of alcohol -- and, actually, the overall mental well-being of footballers." Dr. Koketjo Tsebe, sports psychologist

Starting recovery, in his own words

"Most people don't know that I'm the one who actually spoke to the chairman [Dr. Irvin Khoza] and requested help.

"There was a guy called Andre Volsteedt, who was [Orlando Pirates'] fitness conditioner at the time... He was a very supportive man of God -- we'd pray together and have sessions where he'd try to support me and be there for me.

"He introduced me to a guy called Julian de la Hunt, who is based in Pretoria, who is a life coach. I remember at that time, I didn't think I was ready to have a sit-down with somebody who I didn't feel comfortable with, who I didn't even know.

"I remember even saying: 'No matter where you can take me, if I'm not ready to go down that route, it's not going to help. Because all that's going to happen is that I'm going to hear what you say to me and I'm going to say all the things you want to hear, but my actions are not going to reciprocate everything that we're trying to work towards.'

"When that happened, I felt like the first thing that I needed to do was just accept... take the responsibility without blaming anything or anyone. I felt like I needed to look at myself in the mirror and say: 'Is this really you? What's going on? Do you want to do this or not? Do you really need help or no?'

"I felt like I couldn't [find the right answers and act on them] when I was still in that scene at Orlando Pirates. A whole lot was going on.

"I believe that as a team, we were transitioning as well, because we went through a lot in that period: we lost so many cup finals that we should have won, we let ourselves, our supporters and the chairman down. It was a very stressful period and no-one [outside the team] could understand."

A helping hand with a familiar face

Three games into the 2017/18 season with Chippa, Mhlongo was reunited with a familiar face. Teboho Moloi, a former Orlando Pirates player and assistant coach who knew Mhlongo from his time coaching within the Buccaneers' development structures, was placed in temporary charge of the team following the sacking of Dan Malesela.

Moloi preferred Nigeria international Daniel Akpeyi in goal to Mhlongo, but nevertheless noticed a new maturity in his backup shot-stopper after his family arrived in Gqeberha [then known as Port Elizabeth].

Moloi told ESPN: "I made sure he brought his wife [to Port Elizabeth]. By then, Brighton was married and I knew [he needed his wife] for him to have a stable life and start focusing on his career.

"Sometimes, I would take all these players and their wives or girlfriends and try to educate them and say: 'If you want to have a longer career in football, you need to have someone that is a good partner.'

"When his wife arrived, you could see that he was on the straight and narrow -- he was focused, he was working hard.

"He knew that after training, he had to go home. [He would think to himself]: 'My wife is in Port Elizabeth. She doesn't have friends [here] -- I'm her only friend. I can't be going to clubs.'

"He knew that drinking was not good for the family because they had a son. He was becoming family-orientated."

Moloi, now 52, is better-placed than most to comment on the history of drinking within South African football, given that his father Percy was an iconic player for Orlando Pirates himself.

Indeed, when Moloi Snr. went for trials at Leeds United in 1968, he was assisted by Albert Johanneson -- the first player of African descent to feature in an FA Cup final. Johanneson saw his life destroyed by alcohol addiction, and unfortunately, the same fate has befallen a number of South African players who followed in his footsteps.

Former Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Mbulelo "OJ" Mabizela was the highest-profile example of a South African footballer whose career was ruined by alcohol. However, local icons such as Jabu Mahlangu, Junior Khanye, and Lerato Chabangu have admitted to dealing with it during the course of their careers.

"People don't understand how being isolated from the rest of the world [during apartheid] has affected us in terms of our lifestyle," Moloi Jnr. told ESPN.

"When we were growing up, some of the guys we looked up to after the game would get together and have fun. It was an open thing. There was beer, alcohol and ladies. The money was good.

"Then you come to our generation, when we were exposed to a little bit of money... After games, there was a slogan: 'After action, satisfaction'...

"At that time, we were not even professional -- we were still semi-professional. If you played on a Sunday, maybe your training was on a Tuesday afternoon, so you can get home on a Tuesday morning and relax. It was not controlled compared to now."

According to Moloi, a culture of discipline needs to be introduced among youngsters to eliminate the idea that after big matches, players can indulge in whatever temptations they wish without consequence.

The too-slow growth of mental health education

Recognising that South African footballers need to work on their mental health is one step in the right direction, but creating adequate support structures for them to do so from a young age is another task entirely.

Bafana Bafana brought psychologist Dr. Martin Scheepers into their camp in 2017 as the South African Football Association [SAFA] acknowledged that the team was ill-prepared to perform under pressure. However, by senior level, an intervention could be too little, too late.

According to sports psychologist Dr. Koketjo Tsebe, South African football lags behind at raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse, which makes Mhlongo's openness about his struggles a rarity.

"Alcohol misuse forms part of the mental health spectrum. There is not much that has been done at all competitive levels of football to raise awareness about the negative impact of alcohol -- and, actually, the overall mental well-being of footballers," Dr. Tsebe told ESPN.

"There are general comments [about sports psychology within football], but I think in terms of implementing programmes, sports science is focused on the physical aspect, whereas with the mental health -- I am not sure if it's a lack of awareness or understanding of the role of a psychologist -- but it's not growing.

"I believe if there's a strong awareness of mental health in sports, it will have an impact [on alcohol abuse within South African football]... Start from grassroots and implement each and every phase."

The second, and hopefully third, rise of Brighton Mhlongo

As for Mhlongo, who had a three-game spell at Bidvest Wits before the club was sold and its name changed to Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila in 2020, achieving on the field is no longer of paramount importance, especially in light of his newest setback.

Rather, he has learned to cherish sobriety, improved relationships, and a second shot at life. But what's next for him, now that his playing days seem to be over, unless a medical miracle can be found?

Like many South African athletes, who have to have a number of irons in the fire as they head towards retirement, he has outside business interests, like a construction and mining equipment company with his brother, and he's on the brink of launching the Brighton Mhlongo Foundation.

He said of the latter: "I want it to be mainly about substance abuse and gender-based violence -- all these issues which we as a country are dealing with on a daily basis. That's what I'll be dealing with -- fighting poverty and all of those things.

"Sport will just be the cherry on top -- the main priority for the foundation will be social development skills."

As for his mental health, and staying sober, he has a plan in place that has worked for him so far, as he deals with his eye injury.

He told ESPN: "Right now, I think the most important thing for me is to just take it one day at a time and just relax a bit and do me -- spend time with my family, gather my strength back and then plan ahead.

"I haven't seen [life coach] Julian de la Hunt in a long time now and I've been doing well on my own. Whenever I'm feeling like I'm out of it or anything, I just meditate and pray about things. I think that's what I'm going to continue to do for now -- pray about it and meditate.

"I know the signs when I'm heading towards that depression phase, so as soon as I feel like it's getting heavy, that's when I'm going to start seeking help. For now, I feel like it's still ok."