Every week in our early teens my twin brother and I would buy our weekly copy of Shoot magazine, a homage to all things English football. And within an hour the latest poster with the biggest star would be sticky-taped onto our bedroom wall. There was nary an inch of paint to be seen eventually.
One poster sticks in my memory. A powerful black man shifting weight from one leg to the other on the pitch, his legs like tree trunks, his face intense. You would not want to run into this man. And now, in an era in which sport has moved to the next level physically, his 1980s physique would still stand out among today’s greats. In a game of giant personalities, West Bromich Albion’s Cyrille Regis was a superstar.
He was one of the first black footballers to truly star in English football’s top echelons. He blazed a trail for hundreds of other young black men in sport, especially if the Twitter comments from the likes of fellow football greats Andy Cole and Dion Dublin, and cricket’s Brian Lara is any indication.
He, along with two other black WBA players, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, braved the banana throwers, the spitters, the monkey-howlers and the racist left-backs from other teams, and forged a path in English football. And they all, especially Regis, did it with a smile and huge dollops of grace.
But privately, things were not so special. His fame and money and talent would not make up for the lies and adulteries and pain he brought to his wife and family. Everyone wants to get their hands on a superstar, and he was only too willing to oblige, especially after an away game.
When he and Cunningham rolled their car in an accident in Spain, where Cunningham had been signed to the mighty Real Madrid, it felt like a lucky escape.
But when Cunningham crashed his car again two years later there were no second chances. One of the best footballers of his generation was dead. Regis was devastated.
He started to ask questions. What if I’d died? Where is Laurie now? Regis said this in a recent interview:
There were so many questions in my heart. One of the biggest things that sank into my thinking was, here was me and Laurie; fame, money, influence, power, cars, adulation, and Laurie took nothing with him. And I’m thinking, so what’s life all about?
By this time with his marriage over due to his adulteries, Regis went looking for something outside of football. He found someone: Jesus. Cyrille Regis, superstar, starts reading the Bible. He said:
As I’m reading this book, the penny drops. It really sinks in that Christ loves me. He died for me and He rose again from the dead and this awesome sense of peace comes over me.
When Regis was converted everything changed. Not the struggle he had to go through when his wife still decided to divorce him, but his whole outlook on life and what it was about. The man who was in control of everything realised that in losing control God was finally in control. The fame and fortune were seen for what they are; fleeting and transitory.
Football is a game of two halves, and life can be too. Jesus transformed Cyrille Regis’s life. He dedicated much of that second half to helping charity organisations, being a mentor and agent for other players, especially young black players, and becoming one of the trustees of Christians in Sport. In 2008 he was made an MBE.
On Sunday evening this past week, after attending church that morning, the great Cyrille Regis, still fit and active, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 59. Tributes have poured in from around the world. Fans at the clubs he played for have wept outside the gates of their grounds. Newspapers in the UK, indeed across the world including the football-averse USA have posted glowing tributes about his ability, his grace under racist pressure, his philanthropy, his good deeds, and his goals – oh his glorious goals from 30 yards out!
Here’s where the hope and comfort is. When Laurie Cunningham rolled that car and died, he took nothing with him. His best was behind him. But not so for Cyrille Regis. His equally sudden death has ushered him into the presence of the truly great One, from whom he will hear “Well done good and faithful servant.” Everything good is ahead of him.
And I’m convinced that all the adulation in the world, all the fame and fortune, doesn’t hold a candle to that.
Have a listen to the full interview with Cyrille Regis here.