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SHOULDER DOWN: "My entire reality was destroyed..."

June 11, 2024

The story behind what is driving Masters athlete Todd Payette to the NABBA world title

ON Saturday frontdouble.com published the first of its serialisation of Todd Payette's book 'Shoulder Down'. Canadian Payette, 55, is now just four days out from the NABBA World Championships in Linz, Austria. Shoulder Down is like no other. Charting his life from a boy aged five, when he found his dad dead in the car, through a brutal upbringing and his current success.

Here, frontdouble.com continues its serialisation of Shoulder Down, after Saturday's instalment when we learned how a five-year-old Payette had found his dad one morning, slumped over the steering wheel of their Pontiac, having killed himself overnight.

"You see, you do have a dad..."

"I suppose in the long run knowing the truth is better than living your life with false realities. In this case, finding out the truth about my dad only confused me further about who I was.

"It was probably not much more than a year after my dad took his life that my mother started "seeing" someone. I still remember meeting "Neil" for the first time at my mum's pre-game meeting she held with us before he arrived. We were not to bug him and so on and that we better listen to her while he was visiting.

"Enter Neil. He was a big man, close to six feet tall and a solid 190lbs. Compared to my dad, he was massive. Andy [my dad] was only about five foot nine and 150lbs at the very most and that's being generous. Neil had a deep voice and I was pretty much in awe of him right away. Being kids and curious, we asked all kinds of questions of him. I'm pretty sure I was the biggest pain and asked the most.

"His answers were never serious. When I asked him where he lived, his answer was "in a treehouse" and so forth. Never a straight answer.

I will never forget that backhand...

"Neil never spent the night, ever, nor did he make any effort to connect with any of us. Any conversations we had were pretty brief. He was pretty intimidating, not mean or anything. He just didn't pay much attention to us. The pattern of Neil visiting went on for years and he became part of the routine of our household. Only once did I cross him in any way. I was arguing with my mum about something stupid and he gave me a warning to listen. I don't know what got into me other than I was pretty mad and didn't have much respect for him as he had never acted like he gave a damn about any of us. So I told him I didn't have to listen to him.

"The backhand across the head told me otherwise and it sent me sailing. "Don't ever talk back to me, boy," was all he said. I would never forget that backhand.

"Not long after that incident, my mum said she wanted to talk to me. I was 11 years old at the time. She asked me to sit down, took a deep breath and said: "Todd, what do you think of Neil?

"I wasn't sure what she meant. He had barely acknowledged my existence. What was I supposed to think of him? "He's OK I guess," was all I could come up with.

"She continued: "I have to tell you something about your dad. Andy was not your father. Neil is your biological father. I had an affair and I became pregnant as a result with you. After you were born, Andy and I tried to work things out. We stayed together and Tina [younger sister] was born. So you have a dad. Neil is your dad.

"Stunned does not even come close to describing what I felt at that moment. Then I felt the anger welling up. I started screaming at my mum for the first time in my life. I didn't care if she beat me.

"This knowledge did one thing for me at that point in my life. It destroyed my reality.

"For the next little while, when Neil would visit, I tried to bond with him. I tried calling him dad. My mum had told him I knew the truth. This did not bring him any closer to me on any level. He was there to see my mum. He did not have any interest in me whatsoever.

I blame myself for my dad's death

As I tried to process everything, I came to my conclusions. I now blamed myself for Andy's death, feeling that me being the son of another man must have torn him apart. I was his only "son", after all, born on his birthday and I wasn't really his. Yet he treated me amazingly.

"It did not make sense. In my mind, it was the main reason he killed himself. I'm sure I played a part. I figured I must be pretty useless. My own father that I saw every week, would barely talk to me. He never did anything with me, never tried to be a dad, despite my constant asking to spend time with him. I had started to think that mum hated me as well; after all, I was an accident, a bastard. I wasn't supposed to even be there. This newfound knowledge that I was supposed to be happy about made me feel worse than ever."

"How much do you think you are worth?"

AS much as the black and white world of athletics made sense to me, in my personal life, the real world was a complete and total disaster. Many who knew me from the age of 13 to 20 may have described me as arrogant and possibly conceited. What I actually was is as far away from arrogant as you could be. Anything I showed on the outside was complete and total self-preservation. As I stated earlier, my mum is a hero to me, dealing with everything she did as well as she did.

"That being said, after the age of 12, she had no idea what to do with me. Much of that was me being male. I think she harboured a certain distrust for all males on some level. My mum was simply at a loss with me. She could not understand how my mind functioned and why boys did the stupid things they did.

"Add in that I was starting to rebel, had all kinds of anger issues and started to test her. This was a recipe for disaster. I started to steal from her and sometimes from my older sister. To this day I am ashamed of this. My mum was running out of options with me.

"She went to her doctor and told him everything that was going on with me and how she didn't think she could handle me any more. I remember a few weeks earlier, there had been a fight between us. We were screaming at each other, not sure over what. The doctor asked how old I was [16] and offered her a solution. That evening when I came home from school, my mum called me from her bedroom.

"She said: "You can't live here any more. You're 16 now and that means, legally, I do not have to look after you. You have to leave.

"Stunned best describes my feeling upon hearing those words and I felt a new low. I figured I had been right all along. My own mother hated me.

"She then asked me the worst question I have ever been asked in my life. "I'm going to give you some money. How much do you think you are worth?"

I didn't want to leave... I was fighting back anger and tears

"It took me a lot of years to forgive her for that moment. I'm not even sure she knows why she asked it. Why was she being so cruel? Maybe it was easier for her that way. She was making her only son leave after all because her doctor said it was a good idea. I told her I didn't want to leave. I was fighting back the anger and tears all at once.

"When do I have to go," I asked. "Tonight," she replied.

"She asked again, how much do you think you are worth. It hurt worse hearing it the second time. My answer gives a pretty good indication of where I was emotionally and what I thought of myself.

"Quietly I mumbled, "I don't know, 50 bucks?" I remember thinking, she will never give me 50 bucks.

"He response shocked me. "I am giving you two thousand dollars. It is everything I was saving to help you with college one day. So now pack your bag and go. Make the best of it."

"No 'goodbye' or 'I wish you luck'. Certainly no 'I love you'."

Follow frontdouble.com this coming week for more excerpts from Payette's brilliant book Shoulder Down, as we chart his epic journey to the NABBA world championship in Austria.

SHOULDER DOWN can be purchased by clicking HERE.

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