England star Denny Solomona lays bare his mental struggles

‘I’m not proud that I was out sniffing coke – but people need to know that you don’t have to suffer like I did’: England star Denny Solomona bravely lays bare his silent struggle with mental health that pushed him to the brink

  • England’s Denny Solomona has opened up on his struggle with mental health
  • Solomona decided to share his story after Joe Marler revealed his difficulties 
  • As his career skyrocketed, his alcohol intake went up and matters got worse
  • He was taking cocaine regularly and drinking before turning up to games
  • He gained a reputation as a bad boy and was left on the brink of suicide 

The medal from Monday night’s Premiership Cup final is still in Denny Solomona’s kitbag in the utility room. 

He drove straight home from the match, ditched his gear and cuddled up on the sofa with his partner, Holly, and their three-month-old daughter, Roux. It was a significant moment for him. No booze. No drugs. No hangover. No comedown. No urge to slip back into old and dangerous ways.

‘In the past, I would have been out on a three-day bender,’ he says. ‘I would have got blind drunk until I blacked out. Guaranteed. I would have been drinking ’til Wednesday. That used to be my autopilot response to anything, before I got help. This week, instead, I just wanted to come home and kiss my family. I didn’t have that urge to do anything else. For me, that was a win. A big win.’

England star Denny Solomona has opened up on his silent struggle with mental health

Solomona said he was taking cocaine regularly and drinking before turning up to games 

As Solomona’s career skyrocketed, his alcohol intake went up and matters got worse

Solomona is in a good place now, but his journey here has been dark and lonely. He read Joe Marler’s interview about mental health in last week’s Mail on Sunday and subsequently decided to share his own story. ‘It’s nerve-racking,’ he says, preparing to open up about his years of suffering in silence. For a long time, he was too afraid to address his state of mind, even though help was just a phone call away.

‘I was so happy to see Joe Marler being so honest because it’s something we shy away from in rugby,’ he says. ‘I’ve been on an England tour with Joe, but I didn’t know he was suffering from depression. I had no idea because he’s just the macho Lions player, England player, prop forward, cauliflower ears, tough as nails… isn’t he?

‘What male would sit there in a group of other males and speak about their feelings? In our sport, we’re all alphas. It’s that we-don’t-cry mentality. If you show any emotion other than anger or brute force, are you even a rugby player? Is Marler less of an alpha for being in touch with his feelings? Not in my book. He’s even more of a man to me. He’s the toughest bloke I know.

‘People need to speak out to change things and that’s why I was so keen to share my story. It’s raw and I don’t know how the public will perceive me afterwards, but if it helps one guy then it’s served its purpose. I’m not as good with my words as Joe. I’m a bit more black and white. I was suicidal… drinking, drugs, everything.’

He comes from a Samoan culture where men are told they should suppress their feelings 

Solomona’s story starts back home in New Zealand. It is a classic case of the schoolboy superstar. His first professional contract arrived in the post at the age of 15. The sporting world was at his feet. What could possibly go wrong?

‘I signed that contract because other people wanted me to be a rugby player,’ he says. ‘There was a lot of pressure on me and, from the age of five, rugby was all I’d ever known. It was the only identity I’d had but I never really had a love for it. From an early age, I thought, “If I stopped playing rugby, who am I? Who is Denny?” I didn’t even have any hobbies.

‘Unfortunately, I come from a Samoan culture and a background where you suppress your feelings. Men aren’t supposed to cry or tell their dad how they feel. That’s how I was raised. If I’d had the courage back then to say how I was feeling, things might have been different. Instead, I was this 16-year-old, living at home with mum and dad, drinking like a 20-year-old. Things were already spiralling out of control.’

As his career skyrocketed, so did his alcohol intake. The family relocated to Australia when Solomona signed a contract with Melbourne Storm rugby league team but he was already losing his grip on life. ‘I had a brand new Jeep Wrangler at the age of 18,’ he says. ‘What 18-year-old has a brand new Jeep Wrangler? I had everything, materialistically, that you could want. I was pretty oblivious to the world around me but I was just in this dark, repetitive cycle.

Solomona revealed he was drink-driving ‘all the time’ and would often have suicidal thoughts

‘I was drink-driving all the time. I was sat there in this Jeep Wrangler thinking, “Oh man, I would really love to just wrap this around a tree”. I would have those suicidal thoughts constantly. Why? I didn’t have those answers at the time.’

Solomona eventually moved to the UK. He broke try-scoring records in Super League but his problems stalked him. The taboos of opening up about his feelings were waiting for him at every corner. Type his name into Google and the winger’s public profile is not defined by his sporting achievements. The results instead paint a picture of a ‘bad boy’ caught up in parties, high-profile break-ups and court battles. It is a far cry from the man sat here on the sofa, talking about his feelings.

‘In the papers, I was this bad boy that loves drinking,’ he says. ‘You start to believe you are the person you’re made out to be and you live up to it. I was fired from London Broncos because I was going out too much. Drinking in the week, drinking on the weekends. I’d be turning up to games half cut because I’d been out on the p***.

‘It was a cycle of drinking, partying, girls. I’d drink a bottle of wine at home by myself, every night. That’s not me. I used up all my energy doing stupid things and it made me even lower. I’d just get so black-out drunk and fall asleep. One time I woke up in Spain by myself. How does that happen?

‘Everything was tumbling, one brick at a time. There were some dark times and some very deep lows. I’m not ashamed to say it… I was sniffing cocaine on week nights, drinking on week nights and then turning up to games. I was risking my career every week. Instead of sending money home to my family, I was spending it on drinks and drugs. There were no boundaries.

Joe Marler’s decision to open up on his mental health struggles encouraged Solomona

‘Luckily, I was still playing all right and I kept getting contracts. My stats on the pitch spoke for themselves. I had the world at my feet, but for some reason I wanted to sabotage it and get fired. I wanted an excuse not to be a rugby player. Why? Every kid out there was wanting to be a rugby player, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t understand who I was. I thought, “I’ve got no one… I’m 24 hours around the world from my family.” I felt like “If I died, would anyone really care?”

‘I’m just a number in this business. A cow going along the conveyor belt to slaughter. I had good mates here, but it wasn’t a subject I could speak about. I just bottled it all up and that would manifest itself in horrible ways. That’s why hearing someone of Marler’s stature speaking out was a really big thing for me. That’s why I really wanted to sit down and speak to you.’

It took eight years for Solomona to build up the courage to talk. He found close and trusted confidants but now he is comfortable sharing his story with the world.

‘It was about a year and a half ago that I reached out for help,’ he says. ‘My career had taken me from London to Castleford to Sale. I stopped the drugs when I moved over to rugby union but I kept on drinking. I was playing really well, scoring tries and making my England debut. My career was at an all-time high but I just felt empty. 

Solomona, pictured with his daughter Roux, says talking about how you feel should be normalised

‘I didn’t love the game, so why should the game love me? I didn’t know why I was feeling the way I was feeling. I hadn’t identified who I was as a person. Who was I? The rugby bad boy? To most people I was just that guy who went on a bender with Manu Tuilagi and got kicked off the England squad.

‘I sabotaged my relationship by cheating on my ex-wife. I went on the South Africa tour in 2018 and cheated on her. Throughout it, I was taking diazepam, painkillers, sleepers. I was eating crap. My body couldn’t keep up with the demands of England training because I was sneaking off to eat chocolate. I knew it was wrong, but it was a ping-pong table of collateral damage.

‘I was a human wrecking ball. I came back from that tour and my wife found out what had happened. That relationship turned toxic, things hit rock bottom and we got a divorce. 

‘One of my best mates pulled me aside and said, “Mate, you need to have a decent look at yourself, because this isn’t good”. He was absolutely right. It took great courage from him to do that because he didn’t know how I would react. That’s when I got involved with groups like Saviour World and LooseHeadz and got in touch with my feelings.

‘I cried every day for six weeks, mourning my marriage. Crying, crying, crying, but for some reason it made me feel good. It was a release. I became in tune with my feelings. It’s just a way of releasing years of pent-up energy.’

Solomona was distraught after his divorce but he met Holly and guided himself out of darkness

Shortly after seeking help, Solomona met Holly. He developed a support network that guided him out of the darkness. What are his goals now? ‘My family,’ he says.

What about rugby? Does he still harness England ambitions or have those bridges been burnt? ‘One of my big motivations is to give back to Steve Diamond and Sale what Steve gave to me,’ he says. ‘I can’t thank Steve enough. He knew I was troubled and he made sure I didn’t do a single interview in my first year at Sale. He made sure I was OK.

‘If I ever get another opportunity to represent England, I won’t take it for granted. I won’t let the country down again. Back then, I was too unstable, mentally, to deal with the pressure of having the whole nation behind you. My autopilot to release pressure was to drink and that got me kicked off. If you don’t deal with that inner struggle, you’ll constantly repeat the cycle of sabotaging your life.

‘I’m proud that I have five caps and I’d love to have a few more, but if it doesn’t come, then I’m OK. I’m capable of handling setbacks now.’

On Monday he will return to Sale training with a weight lifted off his shoulders. He will have one eye on the club’s push for the top four and the other on life’s bigger picture.

On Monday Solomona will return to Sale training with a weight lifted off his shoulders

Solomona says that if he ever gets to represent England again he won’t take it for granted

He says: ‘As soon as I figured out that rugby wasn’t my identity, I learned to love it and enjoy life. All of a sudden it didn’t feel like a personal attack if somebody was trolling me on Twitter saying I’d had a bad game. I couldn’t give two rats what they think.

‘Rugby was my life at a young age and I’d tell any youngsters to find other passions in life and find a hobby. Who am I? I’m a caring father, a caring partner, a caring son, a caring brother, a caring friend. I’m not Denny the Bad Boy.

MORE RUGBY PLAYERS ARE LOOKING FOR HELP 

Denny Solomon said players are good at ‘bottling up’ their feelings but more and more are now looking for help, according to the Rugby Players Association. 

More than 60 players have this year accessed the RPA’s confidential helpline. 

RPA members can find help on their website at therpa.co.uk/lift-theweight and they can also access round-the-clock confidential counselling by contacting mental health charity Cognacity on 01373 858 080. 

Anyone else experiencing difficulties can get help 24/7 from the Samaritans on 116 123 or, if it is more comfortable, email [email protected] There is also a wealth of help from the charity Mind, which can be found at www.mind.org.uk

‘We’re good at bottling things up and drinking it away, but the mantra doesn’t always have to be to get on the p*** and drown your sorrows. Talking about how you feel needs to become normalised and hearing guys like Joe speaking out is hopefully one step towards that. We’re programmed to beat people up but it’s vital for our sport that we learn that it’s OK to speak.

‘It took me eight years to realise that, but with better knowledge maybe I would have nipped it in the bud earlier. I’m not proud of the fact I was sniffing coke on a Wednesday evening — and I want people to realise you don’t have to go through that. It’s a sad and lonely time, but you can nip it in the bud.

‘Rugby player, office worker, bin man… whoever you are. I still have my ups and downs. Sometimes I still bottle things up but I know turning to drink isn’t the solution. Life throws you all sorts of s***. It’s just about learning to deal with it.’

And as for the winners’ medal? ‘When we move house it will go up on the wall in my man cave with my England shirt, my Samoan shirt, my Castleford shirt, my Broncos shirt. Everything,’ he says. ‘All the memories to look back on where I’ve come from and what I’ve gone through, to where I’ve come out at the other end.

‘I want to show them to my kids and break that cycle, so they don’t have to suppress their feelings around me. I want them to wholeheartedly speak their mind without any consequences. I want them to know their home is a safe place, because that’s how it should be.’

Denny is an ambassador and proud supporter of LooseHeadz and their campaign to #TackleTheStigma of mental health. Through the sales of their leisure and training wear, they are funding initiatives to get players talking, and improve their mental wellbeing. Looseheadz.co.uk 




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