Health

Football pundit Chris Kamara: My commentating became ‘car crash TV’ after speech disorder

Chris Kamara became so worried about his speech, he ended up losing sleep (Zac Goodwin/PA)
Chris Kamara became so worried about his speech, he ended up losing sleep (Zac Goodwin/PA) Chris Kamara became so worried about his speech, he ended up losing sleep (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Football pundit Chris ‘Kammy’ Kamara, whose enthusiastic commentary, legendary gaffes and riotous laughter has endeared him to millions, is reflecting on how his life has changed since developing apraxia of speech, a rare neurological disorder that slows down his speech and thought processes.

Today, the affable commentator and former professional footballer and manager, who left Soccer Saturday in 2022 after 24 years with Sky Sports, speaks slowly, working to find the words that once came so naturally, becoming emotional when he recalls descending into the depths of despair as he became unable to engage in his trademark quick-fire banter and enthusiastic football chat with fellow presenters.

“In the beginning I hardly slept, I was so worried about my speech. Tomorrow, would I be able to talk, would I be able to have some quick wit, off the top of my head? Slowly but surely that went away. I couldn’t perform. I couldn’t speak with spontaneity, tell jokes and have a laugh, be my own self,” he recalls.

“It was so hard for me to do a report on something that had come naturally. The excitement, the enjoyment of watching a football match and relaying that to the public all of a sudden became car crash TV.

“People were looking at me thinking, ‘Oh my God, Kammy, have you been drinking, have you had a stroke?’”

He admits he was in denial for 18 months before his diagnosis two years ago, even though he was clearly having problems at work, and his family – wife Anne and sons Ben and Jack – had noticed a change.

“I was stupidly ashamed of my condition,” he says candidly. “So I would like to apologise to every single person who has a speech problem, or neurological problem. These things happen randomly and I didn’t handle it well in the first place. But now I want to put the record straight and raise as much awareness as I can.”

Last year he made a documentary, Lost For Words, exploring the condition, and has now written his memoir, Kammy, charting the speech deterioration that he felt sounded the death knell to the life he loved, and left him with dark thoughts.

But the book is also full of tales that show just how much people love him and his infectious enthusiasm, his hilarious on-air blunders and that big, wide Kammy grin. You sense he’s grateful for everything, despite everything.

“My life had been fabulous, fantastic, one good thing after the next. To have this hit me and realise I’m not the same person anymore, that I possibly had dementia or Alzheimer’s, the worry about being a burden, had taken over my thoughts.”

He tried a number of treatments – hypnotherapy, exercises, diet change. “I felt so good in myself, but it didn’t improve my voice in any way, shape or form.”

However, after appearing on Good Morning Britain, presenter Kate Garraway told him about the experimental treatment her husband Derek had undergone in Mexico, for long Covid.

With nothing to lose, Kamara and Anne flew to the NeuroCytonix clinic in Monterrey, Mexico, where he had treatment for over a month in what he calls the ‘wonder’ machine – similar to an MRI scanner, but without the noise – which transmits radio frequency and magnetic fields into the body, to halt and even reverse the condition.

“It’s been great. It’s three months since I’ve been there and now the thought process goes straight through to the mouth. It’s incredible. The speed of my voice isn’t up to scratch at the moment, but it’s getting there.”

This is some progress, given that prior to the treatment, on a bad day, he would hardly be able to converse at all, he remembers.

“I would be stuttering and stammering, looking for words in my brain to try to speak to you, whereas now it’s natural. It’s something I couldn’t have imagined before I went there. Every month it’s improving.”

Kamara, 65, says he wouldn’t return to Soccer Saturday, but hopes to get back to reporting on football in the New Year and has continued to present programmes and podcasts including Ninja Warrior UK and Cash In The Attic.

“The more confidence I get, the better I get, I think, ‘I’d love to do that again’.”

The treatment in Mexico has made him more positive about the future.

“I’ve got so much to look forward to. Now, I realise what an idiot I was in the first place for being ashamed of my condition. Five per cent of children in the world are born with speech conditions and they need somebody like me to look up to, not someone who’s looking for sympathy.

“They need me to be a beacon of light for them and that’s why I’m trying to raise awareness, to know what can be achieved if you carry on.”

His resilience is explained in some part by his upbringing. His father Albert, from Sierra Leone, served in the Navy when the country was part of the British Empire, and after the war, his ship docked in Liverpool in 1949 and he settled in Middlesbrough, securing a job in a factory.

Racism was rife and Kammy encountered his fair share of it growing up and throughout his football career. People stared and spat abuse when he went to matches at Leeds, he was refused entry in pubs when going for a pint with his teammates, there were monkey chants and a banana was hurled at him at Millwall.

But those were different times, he reflects.

“In the Sixties and early Seventies, this country was a different place. People might say today, ‘We’re still suffering the same abuse’. Unfortunately racism is still around, but it’s like chalk and cheese compared to what it was then, when people said the ‘N’ word to your face, not on social media.

“It gave me a steely determination and nothing surprised me.”

Apraxia has given him another huge hurdle to jump. Although he reckons he’s 80 per cent back to the old Kammy, at times, he has doubts and is fervently aware that he is not fully cured. There are still days when he can’t find the words.

“I’ll never be completely satisfied until I get the old Kammy back.”

His TV friends – Ben Shephard (who writes the foreword to the book), Steph McGovern, with whom he guest appeared on Steph’s Packed Lunch, and fellow commentator Jeff Stelling – have been incredibly supportive, he reflects.

His family, too – he lives with Anne on a smallholding in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and his two sons live nearby – have also been amazing, he adds.

“I couldn’t have done it without them. The grandchildren (he has four) don’t care if I can’t talk properly. When my apraxia was at its worst they didn’t know anything about it. They still loved Grandad as much as ever. My children, Ben and Jack, and my wife couldn’t have been any more supportive.”

These days, he still goes to football, watching Leeds and Middlesbrough as he did as a child, but doesn’t mingle with the crowds on the terraces, he says, because in the nicest possible way, he wouldn’t get any peace.

He’s stopped all the time when he’s out and about, which he considers a privilege, and he has had a huge raft of support from fans regarding his condition. His life, he says, has returned to some semblance of normality.

“I’m getting some offers of work, but I can pick and choose them. People who are asking me to do that work know that my voice isn’t 100 miles an hour, like it was before, so they know exactly what they are getting. I don’t have to pretend anymore.”

Kammy: My Unbelievable Life by Chris Kamara is published by Macmillan, priced £22. Available now.