NRL star Chris Caruana: From $400,000 NRL star to homeless addict

Chris Caruana was an unstoppable football star in the 1990s but turned to drugs after his retirement. After two suicide attempts, he is clean and starting his life anew, focusing on helping others.

Plunged into the depths of despair as he struggled to overcome his $3,000-a-week ice addiction, former NRL star Chris Caruana ran into the lane of a truck thundering down a busy road.

The former North Sydney and South Sydney glamor boy, who was making $400,000 a year at the peak of his career, suffered serious injuries but miraculously survived.

And it allowed the man who was once nicknamed “Smoke” to finally kick his ice cream habit and change his life.

His drug habit became so pervasive that Caruana once stayed up 12 days straight and didn’t eat for two weeks.

“I started lying and cheating to get the product because it took complete control of me, I didn’t respect anyone especially my family who just aren’t me,” Caruana admitted.

In a raw and confrontational interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Caruana has spoken candidly about how things got out of hand and how he set out on the path to redemption.

“If I start again, I’ll be back in the hole. I’m fed up, I want to see light, I want to see happiness. I don’t want to be a victim,” he said.

Caruana was an incredibly talented teenage footballer with the rugby league world at his feet.

At just 14, he received a five-year scholarship with the North Sydney Bears.

He played 108 first-grade games with the Bears between 1992 and 1997 before signing a three-year, $1.2 million contract with the Rabbitohs.

Caruana was also one of the young guns in rugby league, including Rooster Luke Ricketson, who starred with Tina Turner in the iconic 1993 TV commercial Simply The Best.

“You take it for granted, you think the money and the spotlight will always be there,” he said. “But it goes away pretty quickly.”

“When I retired I was about 29 to 30 years old and I realized I had nothing behind me and I fell into very, very deep depression and anxiety,” he said.

“And I got on drugs, you know what I mean?

“A very good friend brought this to my attention.”

It didn’t take long for Caruana to realize he was speeding down a very slippery slope.

“From[age]29 to 39, I tried everything except meth-amphetamine — heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, all kinds of sleeping pills,” he said.

His life took another sinister turn when an acquaintance introduced him to ice cream eight years ago.

“I got hooked right away and it took six or seven years,” Caruana said. “It’s the most powerful stimulant on the planet.”

Caruana was a painter and decorator and worked on the ice 14 to 15 hours a day without food to support his habit.

“I kept a diary and the longest I was awake was 12 days and the longest I didn’t eat was 14 days,” he said.

The drug took a terrible toll, dropping his weight from 92kg to just 71kg in 12 months.

“It’s a terrible drug and I’m trying to warn young kids today not to go there,” Caruana said.

Due to his drug addiction, Caruana lost everything, including an apartment, and was temporarily homeless.

“I’ve slept all over the coast,” he said. “I was so cold in the middle of winter and so hungry on the road.”

His possessions were a mattress, pillow, and blanket that he wrapped up each morning, along with a backpack containing his toiletries.

“When you start to get really down and depressed, you lose your hygiene and you forget to clean, your dignity is lost,” he said.

That’s in stark contrast to young Caruana, who once admitted to showering four times a day during his playing days.

“I’m back now and I shower twice a day,” he said, laughing.

Caruana said he was too proud to ask for help.

“I’ve been on copious amounts of narcotics to deal with it and it’s just getting worse and worse,” he said.

Those demons that Caruana had wrestled with for so long finally took control when he drove to Ballina for work just before Christmas 2020.

“I had a blackout or a small stroke and suddenly I hit a truck at 110 km/h,” he said.

Caruana said he lay under the truck for two and a half hours before being flown to Lismore Base Hospital with a fractured femur. The surgeon told him it was the worst fracture he had ever seen and that he would never walk again.

“My lung collapsed, I broke every rib in my body and I was in the hospital for six months,” he said.

After his release, it wasn’t long before Caruana found himself in a psychiatric hospital near the Gold Coast in late 2020. “I just lost hope,” he admitted.

What threw him over the edge was finding the man in the next room, a heroin addict, dead with a needle still stuck in his arm.

“I thought ‘there has to be more to life than that, I just don’t do things right’. So I went downstairs and stood in front of another truck on a main road,” he said.

“I fractured my femur again in the same right leg, fractured all my ribs again, fractured my cheekbone and I have scars on the frontal lobe of my brain and I have to be careful.

“My memory is a bit weird these days, and I need to work on that.”

Caruana will be eternally grateful that none of the truck drivers were physically injured.

He has tried unsuccessfully to contact both of them.

“From the bottom of my heart I wanted to apologize for what happened and I won’t do it again,” he said.

This second suicide attempt was a defining moment for Caruana.

“When I was at Gold Coast University Hospital I had many revelations. I woke up with nightmares about what’s important in life — and the most important thing was family and friendships,” he said.

“I had to make a decision about which path I wanted to take, and I think you really only have two choices in life — you can choose to be a loser and let yourself down with all your demons, or you can choose the other one Strike a path and be a winner.

“I don’t give a shit how much money people have, I just want to take care of my family and friends.”

Mum Dawn was a tower of strength.

“She was my rock, she’s seen so many ups and downs in my life and I think she’s pretty happy today that I saw the light and that I won’t do the undesirable again,” he said.

“My family really dug deep and said, ‘We’re not letting this guy go,'”

His daughter Erinn and son Kyle also stand by him. And in difficult conversations he explained to them the truth about how mentally ill he was.

Now he’s a grandfather to Erinn’s two daughters, Tully and Sienna, which has given him another great motivation to stay on the right track.

After Caruana was admitted to Gold Coast Hospital, he received the third call from former North Sydney teammate Greg Florimo.

“He said, ‘It’s going to be fine, we’re with you, hang in there,'” Caruana said.

Calls followed from other Norths alumni, including Mark Soden and Josh Stuart.

When he turned 50 in July last year, Caruana was in rehab in Coffs Harbour.

He was given a six-hour vacation pass to attend a family birthday party organized by his sister Bridget at the local surf club.

He got the surprise of his life when old bears Florimo, Stuart and Michael Buettner entered the room.

“It was just amazing that they took the time to come up, there were tears of joy and happiness,” he said.

And they gave him a video of words of encouragement from 14 former Norths players.

After everything he’s been through, Caruana looks in much better shape and has a regained positivity.

But he knows the fight is far from over.

“The next step is to stay clean,” he said. “It was hard, there were so many times that I wanted to use a lot of triggers again.”

He receives support as a regular member of Narcotics Anonymous and attends five meetings a week, sometimes two in a day. He is on the fourth and fifth stages of his 12-stage recovery, which may take three years.

Caruana has replaced his former drug addiction with pastimes like swimming in the ocean.

He will never walk again and still has a large plate in his thigh but if that gets out he hopes he can surf again.

Christmas 2022 was the first time in four years that Caruana was not in a mental health ward or rehabilitation facility, and it was precious to spend it surrounded by his devoted family.

“I’m just grateful and humbled to be alive today and to give hope to the little kids out there who are trying to think about narcotics and meth-amphetamine use,” he said.

“Every day I wake up I just want to help one person. Today, by staying clean, I can show love, support, and encouragement to other people.”

He is awaiting a place to begin a Certificate IV in Mental Health.

“This will basically allow me to work in any private and public rehabilitation and psychiatric facility,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I lived through that experience, but I learned a lot from it.

“I want people with this darkness to have a little bit of hope that there’s something else out there.”

Caruana has also started volunteering at Freedom Foodbank Queensland, which takes donated items such as packaged food, clothing, toiletries and toys and delivers them to the homeless and those most in need.

And for the first time in four years, he has a real home, a unit near Surfers Paradise.

“It’s incredible, I pay the rent, I have the keys to it, it’s my home,” he said.

North Sydney legend Florimo has always tried to help and support Caruana through the difficult times.

“He’s a mate, we’re pretty close,” former Kangaroo Florimo said.

“After football we tried to get together but he drifted off and I kept hearing stories of him doing this and that.

“From where he was, it was great to see him again with a little twinkle in his eye.

“Now if he’s found that there’s something that works for him, it’s about maintaining the strength and resilience that got him to this point – and that can be just as tough as the struggle he’s faced so far was.”

Big-hearted former Bears enforcer Stuart did everything he could to support Caruana and looks fondly on the personality who played with him at Norths.

“As we moved up to his 50th, the amount of emotion he showed was just preposterous. It was beautiful to see and we had a lot of fun,” he said

“I think he’s doing a lot better … but time will tell.”

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Suicide Callback: 1300 659 467

Originally published as Chris Caruana’s journey from $400,000/year NRL star to homeless drug addict – and his fight back NRL star Chris Caruana: From $400,000 NRL star to homeless addict

Ryan Sederquist

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