Five years after retiring from the Alouettes, Paul Lambert, 40, suffering from acute pancreatitis and unaware he was a type 2 diabetic, was found unconscious in a Vaudreuil hotel room and was rushed to the Lakeshore Hospital two months ago.
His blood pressure was high, he developed pneumonia and was in and out of consciousness. Then the former Als guard’s heart stopped and he had to be revived with a defibrillator. He was hospitalized for close to a week, half of the time spent in the intensive care unit.
There were no white lights or any out-of-body experiences, but the Montreal native said he is well aware he flirted with death.
“I’d like to say not close, but who knows. I do think about it. That’s what keeps me focused on my new beginning,” he said this week during an interview at the West Island car dealership where he started as a sales and leasing consultant five weeks ago.
“To make myself important again is … the only thing keeping me going. My wife said you can’t love anyone until you love yourself,” Lambert revealed. “For a certain part of retirement I loved myself and my family, and things were awesome. But then there also was the opposite.”
Lambert spent 10 seasons in the Canadian Football League. A third-round draft choice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2000, he spent two years with that organization before signing with the Als as a free agent. A league all-star in 2004, Lambert was forced to retire because of a ruptured bicep — perhaps, he says in retrospect, before he was ready to walk away from the game.
Still, retirement should have been a smooth transition. He was hired by McGill to coach the Redmen offensive line and also worked with his father in the family printing business. But two jobs proved onerous and sales slowly started to lag at the business before the printing plant closed last April.
“To be honest, retirement has been good and bad. If you don’t plan for retirement, things can easily turn tragic,” said Lambert, whose highest football salary was a base of $110,000, plus incentives and playoff bonuses. “You go from making a decent living. However, there’s nothing left when you stop. I wish there was a better system to track former players.
“There has been the stress of trying to make ends meet … the stress of not having the same environment … and the stress of running a business. They all led to certain life-changing things.”
The stress and depression led Lambert to drink daily — as much as six beers and a bottle of wine. It’s not something he’s proud of and said it’s difficult to discuss. In his final season, Lambert, 6-foot-4, was listed at 295 pounds in the 2010 Als media guide, but admitted he was closer to 325. Through drinking, poor eating habits and lack of exercise, he developed acute pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition of the pancreas that is painful and, at times, can be deadly.
Lambert was advised by a doctor to follow a fat-free diet and eliminate alcohol. He adhered to the conditions for a while and was down to 275 pounds, but he started drinking again.
“It’s not like I was in a park, slugging them back,” Lambert said. “I wasn’t as heavy a drinker the second time, but it didn’t matter. The damage was already done.”
At the same time, the printing business was in acute financial jeopardy. He knew the plant was in trouble last December but turned a blind eye, hopeful fortunes would improve. The drinking was becoming more of a problem, which led to confrontations at home with his common-law wife, Pamela Ranger. When the business closed, Lambert was forced to rely on his family for financial aid.
“There was never any (family) violence, nothing like that. But instead of a glass of wine it would be a bottle. I wasn’t stumbling,” said Lambert, the father of two children. “It would help me to fall asleep and relax. Now I realize it didn’t do anything except harm me. I owe it to Pam and my family to get it back on track.”
Als offensive-tackle Jeff Perrett, who has battled his own alcohol demons — and ironically curbed his dependency with the assistance of Lambert, among others — said the problem of drinking among athletes isn’t prevalent, but can become an easy crutch.
“It’s a really easy way to self-medicate. It’s a short-term, short-sighted medication but, at least for that period of a few hours that it lasts, everything’s OK,” Perrett said. “There’s not a care in the world and you’re feeling fine. Everything else is someone else’s problem.
“Drinking’s not super-taboo. It’s not like you’re on crystal meth or something. It’s easily available and it’s a socially accepted kind of recreation … and it’s hard to stop it. Guys do it because it’s easy and it’s there and effective for the short term.”
Lambert’s story is well on its way to a potentially happy ending. His weight has dropped to 247. He eats breakfast now, limits his sugar intake and has seen his blood pressure decline to 116 over 74 where once, Lambert said, it was 190 over 130. His waist, once 46 inches, is down to 38 or 40. He’s working hard on his relationship, has been hired to do commentary on Als’ English-language radio broadcasts and is settling nicely into his new day job — his cubicle still slightly barren and devoid of much memorabilia, other than two photos of his football past.
Football, Lambert said, prepared him for the unexpected. And it prepared him to deal with different personalities. As he dealt with the constant stress and competition of a professional athlete, it’s as though his life has come full circle. Lambert earns a small salary, relying mostly on commission to survive. He sold two vehicles his first day, four in total and is close to finalizing the deal on a fifth — not bad considering it’ll take close to 18 months for him to build up clients.
“When you hit rock bottom and have no income or job and the family is helping, you realize what’s important,” Lambert said. “Now it’s about getting my life back on track. I didn’t take any positive action toward stopping the bleeding. It cost me my health. There was a lot of stress and it cost me financially.”