"I'm lucky to be here now" - Mathieu Bastareaud on making up for lost time

Mathieu Bastareaud left the field in his final game at the Stade Felix Mayol bathing in the adulation of the Toulon fans. Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images

Editor's note: This story includes graphic descriptions of a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the Samaritans at 116 123 or at www.samaritans.org.

TOULON, France -- Ahead of meeting Mathieu Bastareaud, the image you manifest is one of heavy footsteps approaching before you see him; the stomp of a man who has ripped apart defences through his 17-year professional career as one of the most destructive ball-carriers in the game.

Instead, you hear a deep laugh from upstairs in the Toulon offices, then the light pit-patter of his feet as he dances down the stairs to greet you with a beaming smile and a warm embrace before heading off to the new cafe at the training ground.

He is five months into his post-rugby life as team manager at Top 14 side Toulon, having retired last summer. "I was a bit nervous at first, I told the club I didn't want players calling me asking me to fix their broken toilet," Bastareaud tells ESPN. But through all the admin of working out when players will fulfill commercial obligations, what time the bus will leave for matches and handling any other player issues, he's never been happier. He's found career fulfillment in retirement that escaped him for most of his playing career.

He's got scars all over his body from his playing career, but it's the mental scars he wants to talk about. "I'm lucky to be here now," Bastareaud says. "I'm lucky to be here because I fought against a lot of things just to be happy."

For all the time he was winning rugby's biggest trophies and playing in front of sold-out crowds, he wants to talk about the other moments earlier in his life, back when he closed the curtains on his apartment, sat in the dark, and wondered what the point of it all was. Even in retirement, he wants to help others. That's what he wants his rugby legacy to be.

It's mid-morning in Toulon. Bastareaud's already had a couple of morning meetings, and will meet his wife Aurelie for lunch. She's pregnant with their third child, a new addition to their family with their four-year-old son Lymah, one-year-old daughter Maelie and English bulldog Lofi.

He walks remarkably freely given the attritional style of his play. There's no heavy exhale as he stands up like you get with some other pros, but his body is pockmarked with memories from his career.

We're sat in the club's new cafe overlooking one of the training pitches. This is the club where he found his second home back in 2011 when he moved away from Paris and Stade Francais to start a new life on the Cote d'Azur.

When Bastareaud broke through into professional rugby back in 2006, he saw the world like a "Care Bear" as he puts it. "Just every time we went away I was like, "whoa" as I saw new stadiums."

Bastareaud was born in Creteil, a commune in the south-east of Paris, and was a well-known young prospect in local rugby circles. He was picked up by Massy in 2006, and then joined Paris-based Stade Francais in 2007. He became famous, and once he made his France debut in 2009, was propelled onto the world stage.

He struggled with the transition. The reality and brutality of the sport tainted his young optimism. As he became an established international, and his fame grew, he found criticism hard to take.

"I lost my trust on people in rugby," Bastareaud says. "So I felt lonely. Lonely. And sometimes my head was up and down and nobody helped me.

"Now you can talk openly if you have a problem, if you don't feel comfortable, if you are in divorce and you don't feel good, but before it wasn't like that. When you played rugby, you were supposed to be strong. You don't cry. You have a good life because they pay you for that and you can't complain. I remember when I was my trouble, they're like, 'oh, I think he's just crazy.' And when they think you are crazy, they just push you aside."

One unfortunate incident in 2009 changed his life. He was in New Zealand playing for France and on the night after a defeat to the All Blacks in Wellington, he went out drinking. He got back to the team hotel at 5 a.m., and as he took off his jeans, he got his leg caught, fell, and his head smashed through a table. The cut above his left cheek bled all over his room. He panicked, ashamed, and made up a story to the doctor that he had been assaulted by five men en route back to his hotel. The story dominated press the world over, and led to a public apology from John Key, then New Zealand prime minister. But then CCTV footage came to light that disproved Bastareaud's story, and he was hounded by the press.

By early July of 2009 there were reports his depression had plummeted to the extent he had attempted suicide. The first time he told the actual events was in his 2015 autobiography "Head High: Confessions of a Terrible Child of Rugby". In that he recounts how he was reading an internet forum and saw several negative posts about him. His friends found him on the kitchen floor, bleeding from self-inflicted cuts to his wrist, took him to hospital, where he received psychiatric help.

In that book he also spoke with admirable candour about his battles with bulimia and depression. It was written with the goal of helping others learn and find comfort. He wanted people to know they weren't alone.

"Sometimes I remember during some training I'm like, why am I here? I don't want to be here," he says now looking back on those few years of his life. "I just want to be at home and do nothing. Do nothing. ...

"Every time I was down I put on weight, I wasn't fit. It wasn't good for me and for the boys because it felt like you were cheating the boys" he says of his teammates. "And for me, when you play in the team sport, it's the worst feeling when you cheat the boys. It's the worst."

Bastareaud says he faked being fine in front of others: "It was very, very, very difficult because you won't talk as you are afraid about judgment, so you say nothing. You keep all and it's not easy. It's not easy."

Criticism of his performances in the media also deeply affected him. "When I was in that mood where I felt they didn't love me, I was like, OK, I will show them, it gives me motivation," he said.

"But at the time, every time I did something, maybe I play a game, I felt I played well, but every time, it was like 'oh he miss one tackle'. But it was never, oh he played well, it was always one thing, another thing, another thing. And I don't understand why.

"I wanted to protect myself. Every time I saw something written about me, I took that as an attack against me."

Looking back on that time, Bastareaud sat there in the Toulon sun in October, twirling a toothpick between his fingers, is resolute and content. There was no eureka moment where things aligned for him, but seeing a therapist certainly helped, as did the Toulon environment he found in 2011 -- "it's where I felt at home"-- and so too meeting his now wife Aurelie in 2018.

The eight seasons at Toulon from 2011 to 2019 defined him on the pitch. He was one of the most destructive centres in world rugby and the anchor of the Toulon side that swept all before them in northern hemisphere rugby. They had a team of superstars. Bastareaud was lining up next to icons of the sport: Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau and Juan Smith were just a handful of box office players on the Cote d'Azur.

That Toulon team won three European Champions Cup titles (2013, 2014 and 2015) and the 2014 Top 14 championship, under the ownership of comic book mogul and billionaire Mourad Boudjellal.

"We had a great unity on the team, Bastareaud said. "And for me, you couldn't win all the trophies we won if we didn't love each other. It's impossible. Tell me which team can win a lot of trophy without solidarity, love and passion between the player. I don't know."

He was shy at the start when the superstars first arriving in town. "Through time I understood. For me, being in the shadow of Jonny, Matt, Bryan [Habana], Drew [Mitchell] all these legends. For me it was normal. It was normal.

"My memories are not the time I dropped the ball, my memories are when I saw Jonny, and like his speech before the final against the Saracens. It was crazy, it was the first time I saw him like that. And when you have a man, a player talk to you like that, you want to give your life for him on the pitch. I think people didn't realise the power of this team."

But the Toulon trophy that means the most to him came after this dynasty, long after those teammates had retired.

"I got a lot of trophies, but there's one which is special," he says. Bastareaud is referring to the European Challenge Cup Toulon won in May 2023. From the outside it's a strange trophy to hold in such high regard. Yes, it was in his final season, but it's the second-tier European trophy behind the three Champions Cups he had already won. But then he explains how it brought together the two ends of his life.

Bastareaud had two spells at Toulon. He first left the club at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, with both sides agreeing not to renew his contract. That summer he had retired from international rugby after failing to make the 2019 World Cup squad and he had agreed to a move to America to play for New York in Major League Rugby on a two-year deal. After COVID-19 cut that stay short, in April 2020 he agreed to a return to France and signed for Top 14 side Lyon on a two-year deal. By that point he transitioned from the backs to the forwards, using his physicality off the back of the scrum.

The first 2020-21 season at Lyon was disrupted by a serious knee injury. Then in his second pre-season with the club, he suffered a broken hand; the lingering scar bisects a scorpion tattoo on his hand. It ruled him out until November.

As chance had it, the scheduling meant his comeback match for Lyon was at his old club Toulon. Wife Aurelie and son Lymah were in the crowd watching him on that night in November 2021.

Four minutes into the match, he carried the ball into the Toulon defence, but as he approached the tackler, his legs buckled, and he collapsed to the ground in agony. He ruptured the quadriceps in both his knees, and when announcing the severity of the injury on social media said he would take time to reflect on what was next.

"After my big injury, I could stop because I had nothing to prove to anyone. I'd won everything and achieved my childhood dreams: French title, European title, Six Nations.

"But for me, the day when I get injured, it was the first time my son had come to the stadium. It was the first day, and he saw me go off with emergency. And every time we watch some football game, rugby game on the TV he said, 'oh daddy, daddy, this is a field where you were hurt'. He was traumatised. And when I decided to come back, it was for him. I wanted my son to watch me play again, and finish on both legs, and at Toulon."

That would be his final match for Lyon, and despite the lengthy layoff, Toulon re-signed him. His recovery was a gruelling process, and there were times where he struggled for motivation. But each time, he would look to his son, and get back on the bike, back to physio with that goal of playing again.

He was out for 10 months, but eventually passed fit to make his second debut for Toulon against Clermont on September 18, 2022. In international and club rugby, on the eve of a match, there's the captain's run. It's a player-led training session, on low load, where they run through a few moves, but it's a comfortable lift.

He starts the story by saying, "Not a lot of people know this." He remembers bending down to catch a bouncing ball, but it connected with his little finger awkwardly. "The skin was open and I can see my bones and my finger was here." He gestures that the top of his finger was at right-angles to the rest of it. He went for surgery and was told under no circumstances could he play.

"Of course I played. I'd waited for that moment, when I was in my wheelchair because I couldn't walk, I had to play in the Mayol again in front of my family. So I played and I was man of the match."

Bastareaud ended up playing 20 times for Toulon in that final season. On May 28, 2023, he walked off the pitch for the final time having scored a try against Bordeaux. The Stade Felix Mayol rose as one to salute a favourite son. That he finished his career on his own terms was a remarkable feat.

He has fresh perspective on those dark days but empathises with his younger self.

"I think I missed a lot of things in my career because I was on the defensive. I think it's one of my big regrets. I should be more proud of my career and I consider a lot of situations. It's why now I can talk openly about it because I think it's important for the next generation, for the future."

As he talks about retirement, a lifetime away from those dark days, it leads us to that question of whether he feels appreciated for what he achieved in the sport.

When he played, he felt nobody appreciated him. But now as he watches matches in the stands, he has people shaking his hand, thanking him for what he did for club and country.

"I think rugby is the same as society now, it's all appearances. People love when it's beautiful, and me, my rugby wasn't like that. In time you have to accept being in the shadow and not the light."

But he's no longer Bastareaud the France rugby player; he's Mathieu the husband, father, son, mental health advocate and Basta -- the Toulon team manager, at the club he calls his second home even though he no longer plays.

"I was just a bit afraid because when you retire, a little bit of you dies," Bastareaud says.

He started coaching young players in the academy, but it wasn't quite the right fit. The club then asked him if he would like to become team manager.

He found the first two weeks tough. "The players and staff were very kind to me, they gave me the time to be comfortable."

He keeps an eye on the players, looking for any signs they may be struggling: "I know I have experiences about mental health so I can help there. I'm not a doctor, but I can help some players."

There have been times he's missed playing. "At home, I love the atmosphere, the fans and the walk to the stadium where you get off the bus, and there are flares everywhere," he said. "Then you're in the dressing room, and you're thinking, maybe one more season, but my body can't.

"I remember when I watched the first training, it was a preseason, they do some fitness and I hate that." He starts laughing, waving his hands in front of his face. "So I say off, I leave this to them."

He doesn't think Lymah will follow him into rugby: "I think he don't like rugby, because of my injury. He loves basketball, maybe in 16 years, he'll be number one for the draft like [Victor] Wembanyama."

He has watched some of the World Cup with his son, but sees the sport through a different lens now that he's a father. We talked about Antoine Dupont's decision to play three weeks after breaking his cheekbone.

It prompts another memory of another trip to the surgeon "I broke here," he says, gesturing to his top lip and gum. He was hit by a high tackle from Sekou Macalou. It took out a couple of teeth, and one was left barely connected to his gum. So he tore it out, with his lips ripped. It was the single and last time he played without a mouthguard. He went to the dentist, had 11 stitches, had new teeth fitted (it removed the gap between his front two incisors, which was caused by sucking his thumb as a child) and played the following week.

So when it comes to the question of Dupont, he gets it: "As a player, you play; as a father, you don't play. It changes you a lot because you can't be focused only on you. When you have kids, it's a great reason to change your habits."

And on that note, it's time for lunch. He's off to meet Aurelie, taking a break from being team manager and back into the role of husband and father. He's still talking as walks over to his car: "I passed my driving lesson because I had to pass because my wife was pregnant and I can't put the baby and my wife on the scooter. It was easy. It was easy!"

For years he'd be physically present, but his mind would be elsewhere. Now mind, heart and body are in sync, and he's learnt the beauty of cherishing these moments. "Mental health is so important, it's why we have to take it more seriously," he says. "For me, when my mind was good, I was the best. I felt good, I felt happy, I trained hard.

"I have no regrets when I stopped, I'm happy I came back and played one more season at the place I love: Toulon.

"So I try to enjoy the time I lost. You can't change the past like a movie but I know I lost a lot of time and I don't want to lose more. Life is very short.

"So when I wake up in the morning, I just think: enjoy the day. Not anymore is it: it's going to be tough, it's going to be hard. No, just enjoy your day. When you enjoy your day, even if you have something hard to do or something you don't like to do, life is easier if you are positive. I'm happy."