Tonight it’s warm. My windows are open to a breeze that comes across the Gulf Stream and coral reefs of the Florida Keys. My dog Blake lies asleep at my feet. Every half-hour or so he looks up at me, making sure I’m still with him. He might wonder what I’m doing, why he doesn’t hear the keyboard clicking away, as usual. I’ve written three books and hundreds of stories, essays, and articles. Writer’s Block isn’t real; it’s an excuse for dilettantes. But I’m not getting much work done tonight, because I’m trying to write about Robert Enke.
Instead of writing, I’m watching clips of Robert on YouTube. There is one save in particular, an absurd piece of feline agility to turn a low, curling shot around the post, that prompts the opposition manager and entire bench to cover their faces in disbelief. Robert himself simply stands up, adjusts his jersey, and prepares for the corner. There are compilations of Robert, tributes to Robert set against questionable music (Nickelback? Really?), and then there is his memorial service in Hannover 96’s stadium, his teammates carrying his coffin, thousands weeping openly.
Like everyone else, I was shocked when Robert Enke took his own life in November of 2009. The particulars are well known, thanks to Ronald Reng’s award-winning book ‘A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke.’
We know he suffered mightily with depression for several months in 2003, before emerging into an extended remission. We know his little daughter Lara, born with a heart defect, lived only two years. We know his depression returned in 2009, malevolent and ravenous, and that this time there would be no recovery.
Robert with his daughter, Lara
Robert’s death was universally affecting because so many different types of people could identify with him — particularly people struggling with depression and parents who had lost children. For me, and readers of this magazine, the connection was goalkeeping. We all know it’s a job that comes with stress. Robert tried to play through the final phase of his depression at the highest level, competing for his country’s number one shirt in the run-in to the 2010 World Cup. It’s a testament to his will and strength that nobody but a select few friends knew how sick he was. It was never reflected on the pitch.
Blake is sleeping more soundly now. Whether I write or not isn’t important to him, only that I’m here. He was abandoned as a tiny puppy and doesn’t like to be alone. My then-girlfriend and I rescued him from a shelter. A pit bull, he would have been put down if we hadn’t intervened. We got him just before my birthday in 2009, so I think of my birthday as his birthday, too: August 24. And the strange thing I learned earlier tonight, that I somehow had never known, is that Robert Enke was also born on August 24.
It’s just a coincidence, of course, a superficial detail. I discovered it when looking up the exact date of his death, and it gave me a palpable jolt. I never had the opportunity to meet Robert, but a shared birthday? It’s human nature to seek connection, especially with someone we admire. Robert was easy to admire. Not only was he a brilliant goalkeeper, a model pro who did his job with little fanfare, but he was a man of dignity and principle. Robert used his visibility as a platform for causes he believed in. He and his wife were staunch defenders of animal rights, so he served as a spokesman for PETA. He befriended and encouraged the young goalkeepers at his clubs, gave away gloves to those without endorsement deals, and once called a rookie Bundesliga keeper he’d never met after seeing the youngster’s manager criticize him on live TV after a game. Robert Enke makes you feel better just for being a goalkeeper.
I think this sort of radiant benevolence is central to goalkeeping. For all the attention given to the occasional feud — Khan v. Lehmann being the most prominent — the Goalkeepers’ Union is no mere cliché. We support each other because only we know what it’s like to stand there, alone, nerves jangling, the unknowns of the game ahead of us. We’re independent contractors in a team sport, there to provide a service that needs doing but which most people, frankly, don’t want to do. If that sounds self-important, just ask for volunteers to go in goal at your next game, say you fancy playing on the wing for a change. You’ll get nervous laughter, but not many will take you up on the offer. That’s because what you do is special, and takes a special person.
It’s hard to write about Robert Enke. With tragedy comes the desire for easy answers, but there are none. We are still in the infancy of understanding and treating depression. If you don’t suffer from it yourself, you probably know someone who does — even if you aren’t aware of it. Societal pressures force many to fight their battle in isolation, afraid of being thought “weird” or “depressing”. So if you want some solace from Robert’s story, consider this: somewhere there were people who realised, “He’s just like me.” And not just because they shared a birthday, but an illness. Depression doesn’t care if you’re strong and athletically brilliant and famous. Maybe seeing Robert’s illness play out in public helped a few secret sufferers share their pain and seek help.
This is the thought that comforts me as I watch again a video of Robert performing miracles in goal. It’s late and I need to write, but this is easier. The night air has cooled a little. Blake looks up to check on me as I hit ‘replay’ over and over, watch Robert turn the ball around the post time after time, watch the ball spin away to safety, forever.
This article was written by Justin Bryant.