That smile looks at home on Donaire, but it wasn’t always so. He suffered through a dark childhood, and there were days, he said, he didn’t want to trudge on. He did, and look where he is now. THAT is a role model. (Chris Farina-Top Rank)
When he dropped the bombshell on me back in October 2011, I was in awe of the guy, how far he’d come, and thought he could and should be celebrated–outside of the narrow world of the boxing racket–as a potent symbol of how you can come back from the depths.
However, when Nonito Donaire in an NYC hotel room a few days before he was to fight Omar Narvaez at the MSG Theater admitted that he was so depressed as a kid he thought about offing himself, I confess I felt almost uncomfortable.
That info was too raw, seemingly out of place outside of a therapy session. But I felt honored that the boxer had chosen to share such emotionally intensive material with me. Yes, from that moment on, I of course had a new level of respect for Nonito Donaire, the Filipino Flash, who is now in the process of taking the reins over, as the Phillipines boxing standard bearer, from Manny Pacquiao.
I filed a story for a publication and the story fell in between the cracks, as new editors took control. The impact didn’t hit them as much as it hit me, and I vehemently disagreed, as I’d never heard about such a prominent athlete having the courage to reveal that dark place they’d resided in as a child. But I didn’t battle excessively, as I don’t assume my judgment is the be-all end-all anywhere, at home or in the work world.
The story sat, and I was happy when I saw that SI’s Chris Mannix had spoken to Donaire, who he named 2012 Fighter of the Year, and Donaire went there. He talked about trying to kill himself to Mannix. “One by one he tied the shirts and pants together, creating a makeshift rope from a pile of dirty laundry….At ten-years old, Nonito Donaire attempted suicide.”
Here is an excerpt of my dusty-in-the-archives never-ran piece:
Growing up in General Santos City, in the same area as Manny Pacquiao, Donaire
wasn’t known as “The Filipino Flash.” Teasing classmates called him “Dumbo Ears” and “Snotface.”
“I was tiny, sickly, always picked on,” he says. “I had big beaver teeth. And I never believed in myself.”
His parents were in the US, laying the groundwork for Nonito, big brother Glenn (also a pro boxer, with a 17-4-1 record) and their older sis to go to America. They lived with their mother’s parents, and Nonito remembers a harsh atmosphere.
Donaire detailed some of the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of an older relative, and described a system of discipline in that region, in that era, which rendered hitting an acceptable child rearing mechanism.
Little Nonito would pray to get hit by a bus, but the bus didn’t arrive, so he inched towards doing the job himself. Sometimes he’d creep into his room, tie a shirt around his neck, because he wondered what it would feel like to hang. He’d stop choking himself right before he passed out. So what kept him from committing suicide? “I always believed in God, and I felt if I do take my life everything I believe in would crumble around me and hell would be my destination.”
As Donaire spoke, he’d break into a smile, when, frankly, I thought maybe I’d see a teardrop fall. I wondered, is this guy all the way back? Could he have healed to that extent? He seems to be scar free; is that possible? It looked and felt like he had the love of his life there in the room with him, his wife Rachel, someone who accepted all sides of him, someone he could lay off grief and suffering to, without fear of misuse of information, so I believed. But I asked anyway.
Is that little boy who prayed to die still in you?
“Rachel can answer that,” he said in October 2011, and laughed, while turning to look at her. She stayed quiet, let him continue. “I think I still have it in me, that little boy. But everything turned out to be great. If you just believe in it, one thing I learned in life, no matter how good or bad I’m always thankful, just breathing, for just living. I always smile. That little kid, I never regret him being bullied or being hurt,” Donaire said. “I’ve learned a lot. It made me the character who I am now.”
That’s a role model, I thought to myself as I left the hotel room in NYC, and for days, and months, and now well over a year later, and every time I’d watch Donaire, now one of the top three pugilists in the world, do his thing. That’s someone who a little kid who was bullied or beaten and so hammered down by circumstances that they contemplate an early ending can look to, and look up to, and see the future.
I’m so damned pleased that this portion of Nonito’s journey is out there, because now I can see one or two little kids with big ears, or a leaky nose or a runty physique or a single mama who can’t afford the cool gear knowing his arc, taking pause, instead of taking their life.
He was where I am now, hating life, dreading my existence, maybe they say. Maybe I will choose life, maybe I can fight through this and end up with my hand raised, with a smile that can light up an arena. Nonito did it, maybe I can to.
Happy New Year, and thank you, to the number one role model in the sport, who has done something more impactful than winning another title in another weight division. Happy New Year to Nonito Donaire who I dare say may be saving a life, or two, or more, by sharing a painful past with the world, and allowing those similarly suffering to see past the darkness, past a self-imposed early exit, to a future where maybe you can always smile.
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