When rugby sensation Zac Guildford boarded a plane to France to play for the Clermont Auvergne five years ago, he breathed a sigh of relief. It was another incredible opportunity after an abrupt end to his All Blacks and Crusaders careers, and it boasted a hefty pay cheque.
But less than a year into his contract with the French rugby union club, Zac's management turned up at his apartment with a doctor. They wanted him to do a drug test.
In that moment, amid the thick of depression and escalating drug dependence, the talented winger admitted defeat. He was caught with cocaine in his system and his contract was terminated.
The boy from the Wairarapa – one of Aotearoa's best rugby players – was hit by the harsh consequences of a secret thousand-dollar-a-week drug habit.
Watch: Why Zac Guildford was hesitant to be back in the public eye. Article continues below.
"Drugs played a massive role throughout my professional career and I was never telling the full truth," admits Hamilton- based Zac, 30, who is speaking openly for the first time about the extent of his mental health and substance abuse, in the hope his story will help others.
"I was doing prescription drugs and anything I could get my hands on. I was in full sabotage mode because my mind was going crazy."
The quietly spoken sportsman – who helped the All Blacks win the 2011 Rugby World Cup – says until this year, he didn't know how to talk about his emotions. It's now part of his healing.
He explains, "Drugs and alcohol were plasters, and once you take them off and start being vulnerable, it just comes oozing out."
Growing up in Greytown, Zac's electrician dad Robert and typesetter mum Deborah were supportive and hard-working.
"But Dad was your typical Kiwi bloke who didn't really talk, which was a bit hard," recalls Zac, who has a younger brother Victor, 29. "Not having anyone mentioning feelings from the male side of things made me grow up not talking."
When the blue-eyed speedster started playing rugby at five, it was to be like his father, who played for local clubs.
"The thing is, Dad wouldn't really tell us how proud he was, even when we made good rugby teams," tells Zac, who moved to Hawke's Bay at 10.
"I was always striving to reach new levels in rugby and life, but never quite felt good enough. I don't think it's anyone else's fault, but I was quite an angry kid."
While his anger worked well on the rugby field, as a teen he started numbing his feelings with alcohol. "I had no tools for dealing with my emotions, so I kept them bottled up. But when I was drinking, it all came out."
The tipping point occurred in 2009, moments after the final whistle blew for his winning under-20s Rugby World Cup final in Tokyo. At 20 – five months before he'd make the All Blacks squad – Zac's beloved father had a heart attack in the stands watching his game.
"I saw Mum waving me over and I knew something was wrong, so I ran up and Dad was lying there helpless," he shares.
"I knew it wasn't good because I'd never seen him like that, so weak. They found a pulse, but it ended up just being a bit of adrenaline, and that was it."
Robert – a winger and midfielder like his lookalike son – sadly passed away at 44.
"That's the first time I experienced such shitty emptiness," recalls Zac. "I was the next big thing coming through rugby and it came crashing down. It's taken me a long time to get through that."
Just over a week later, following his dad's tangi at their family marae in Greytown, Zac was straight back into rugby.
"It was some of the best rugby I've played in my life and probably because I wasn't thinking too much upstairs, just playing on instinct and emotion," he admits.
"But all the anger started coming out and I was drinking copious amounts of alcohol." Around that time, he was introduced to recreational drugs.
Zac still hadn't processed his father's death by the time the Rugby World Cup rolled around in 2011.
"I was quite depressed and remember we had to meet up as a squad, and I was thinking up all these excuses so I could ring Graham Henry and the coaches to say I wasn't ready. But I made it," tells Zac.
"I was struggling with the pressure and demands of the All Blacks camp, and didn't talk about it because it wasn't cool. Most people adapt to the environment after a year or two, but then a lot of those people didn't have the shit I had going through my head."
A few weeks after his World Cup victory, Zac's infamous bar incident in Rarotonga hit the headlines.
"I don't remember a lot of it, but we went to Rarotonga for a mate's wedding and I was 23 with lots of money, so the goal was to get smashed."
The rugby star ended up stripping naked, swimming and starting a fight. He was arrested and stitched up in hospital, waking the next morning in a police cell. "It absolutely stunk and I thought, 'This has to be rock bottom.It has to be the end.'"
Regardless of being put on a drinking ban, he continued using alcohol to escape. "If the boys were out, I'd find a way and instead of beer I'd drink vodka water," tells Zac, who went on to play for the Canterbury Crusaders, before his contract was canned.
A year later, in 2015, he was in France with the super league team.
"When I was caught doing drugs, management had obviously been tipped off," shrugs Zac, who played 21 games for the team. "Any time I felt bad, I'd find a way of getting prescription drugs like sleeping pills and Valium."
He's surprised it didn't affect his fitness. "I'd train my guts out and always be up there emptying the tank and doing extras. Rugby was always my 80 minutes of release."
He admits he'd do things differently now, explaining, "I was so depressed, I didn't care if my contract ended."
Despite the support of his Aussie teammates, Zac knew he desperately needed to change. He says, "You can have all the money in the world but if you're not happy, it doesn't matter."
He returned to NZ and spent three months off rugby, staying with his mum in Napier. At the same time, the Celebrity Treasure Island star was trying to salvage a rocky long-term relationship. Then an opportunity to play at Nevers in central France emerged late last year, and he jumped at it.
"I thought I'd resurrect my professional career and iron out all the stuff I'd done wrong in the past," he says. "But the pressure was too much. I was having suicidal thoughts. I knew if I didn't leave the country then and get home to my support, I wouldn't be here anymore."
Zac chose to leave early for his mental health – returning home to stay in Hamilton with Andrew and Debbie Walker – his "second family" he met through a Hamilton rugby club. They helped get him back on his feet.
"Life hasn't been perfect since I've been home, but it's been a lot better and I'm finally feeling happy," he smiles. "Part of that is realising I'm super-grateful to have people who support me."
After returning from Celebrity Treasure Island as a contestant earlier in June, Zac's relationship ended.
He tells, "You can't rely on another person for happiness and a big part of my healing is learning to fill my own cup."
Friends introduced him to men's support group Man Up, which he attends weekly.
"I'm learning to control my emotions so they don't rule my life, and I've seen there are way better avenues like talking to people," explains Zac, who is working as a teacher aide for teens with intellectual disabilities.
Part of his progress has meant simplifying life. "I like going to school each day with these kids and then coming home to this family," he enthuses. "Rugby isn't everything to me like it used to be and I'm at peace with drawing a line through my professional career now."
Along with regular exercise, good mates help.
"It's having friends who are there rather than the ones saying, 'Here bro, have another line,'" says Zac, who is currently recovering from hamstring surgery.
Among his good pals are fellow Celebrity Treasure Island castaways Shane Cameron, Karl Burnett and Lily McManus.
"I got on with Shane because our personalities are alike and he's down to earth, and I share a similar mental health story with Karl," tells Zac, who laughs off speculation of romance with his blonde fellow castaway. "Of course we're just friends! But Lily's a good chick."
The gentle-natured athlete says he's in a good head-space and drugs are in the past.
"I don't like the old Zac and I'm scared to ever become that again, which is why I left France because I know how fast it can spiral," he says.
"I had to get used to talking or it would end up being a pretty lonely sort of life. I don't have anything to hide behind anymore."
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