THIS is the heartbreaking and inspirational story of Jean-Pierre and Bernadette Adams. It is a story of love and devotion in the ‘House of the Beautiful Sleeping Athlete’, and also of football.

In March 1982, French international footballer Jean-Pierre Adams walked into a Lyon hospital. He was due to have surgery on a troublesome right knee. The tough-tackling central defender had completed a playing career that had seen him capped 22 times for his country and was preparing to move into coaching.

Adams had been born in Dakar, Senegal and was brought to France by his grandmother when he was 10 years old. He was enrolled in a local catholic school and adopted by a local couple in Montargis.

International Call-up

After playing for various youth teams (mostly as a striker) he joined RC Fontainebleau in 1967, switched to central defence and won the French Amateur championship twice. In 1970 he turned pro with Nimes Olympique and, whilst with the club, he made his first international appearance, in 1972 against the Soviet Union. As a mark of the esteem he was held in as a player, Argentina national captain Angel Marcos, then of Nantes, said; “I always dreaded the two annual confrontations with him.”

Adams spent the next nine years playing top-flight football moving on to OGC Nice, where he was part of the team that knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup and came close to title success. The team struggled at other times but Adams continued to perform well, earning a place in France Football’s Team of the Season in 1975-56. Next he moved on to Paris Saint Germain where injuries began to take their toll on a player whose approach on the pitch was always full-blooded.

‘La Garde Noir’

On a national team level, the partnership between Adams and Tresor was formidable (they became known as ‘La garde noir’, The `Black Guard’) leading none other than Franz Beckenbauer to claim they were ‘one of the best central defensive partnerships in all of Europe.’ International teammate Henri Michel, who played in his international debut said of him; “He was a force of nature, very strong physically and he had great determination and willingness.”  His ascent to the national team was said to have been the forerunner and inspiration to players such as Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira who also had their roots in the same part of West Africa.

His very nature and style of play left Adams prone to injury and in the late 70s it started to become clear that he could no longer perform at the highest level. He dropped down to the second division with Mulhouse in 1979 and eventually decided to hang up his boots in 1981.

The knee operation was considered a fairly routine procedure. It was to fix ligament problems which had troubled him for much of the later stages of his career and had recently worsened while he was on a coaching course. There was a strike in French hospitals at the time and the anaesthetist was said to be extremely busy, dealing with eight different patients including a child who required special care. The obvious course of action would have been to delay the operation. But Adams and his wife Bernadette were never given that option.

Left in the care of a trainee, who later admitted in court ‘I was not up to the task I was entrusted with’  a tube was left blocking the pathway to his lungs instead of ventilating them, therefore starving him of oxygen. Adams suffered catastrophic brain damage and had a massive cardiac arrest.

‘Come Here Now’

Wife Bernadette was at home and unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding. She called the hospital to see how things were progressing and finally got through on the third attempt. She was passed on to a Doctor who simply said; “Come here now.” She rushed to the hospital, leaving their two sons in the care of their grandparents, and was to remain there for five days, saying later. ‘I thought he was going to wake up so I needed to be there.”

Adams was in the hospital for 15 months. Then the recommendation was made that he be moved to a home for the elderly. “I didn’t think they would know how to look after him,” recalls his devoted wife who has no medical training. “So I said to myself ‘he will come home’ and I’ve looked after him ever since.”

Now, 35 years later, he is unable to walk, talk or move any of his limbs and is in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ and Bernadette who still cares for him every day.

The now 69-year-old spends most of his days in his own room, in a specially modified bed. He can breathe on his own, digest food, and open and close his eyes. And Bernadette and the family try to bring some normality into his life.

‘No one ever forgets to give Jean-Pierre presents, whether it’s his birthday, Christmas or Fathers Day,” Bernadette told CNN in a rare interview. “I’ll buy things so that he can have a nice room, such as pretty sheets, or some scent. He used to wear Paco Rabanne but his favourite one stopped so now I buy Sauvage by Dior.”

Bernadette is his full-time carer. She dresses, feeds and bathes him and claims that he knows when it isn’t her taking care of him. “He senses that it is not me feeding him and looking after him,” she says. “The nurses tell me he is not the same.

“I think he feels things. He must recognise the sound of my voice.”

Jean-Pierre was a larger-than-life character, who loved music, cigars and good clothes. “A smile was always bursting out,” Bernadette remembers. “He loved the good life and was loved by everybody as well.”

Now, every day, from 7am until 8pm when he might fall asleep, Bernadette cares for her husband in every way including ensuring (with specialist help) that his lungs are kept clean. Sometimes it isn’t 8pm when he falls asleep; there are times when Bernadette is awake caring for him all night.

‘The House of the Beautiful Sleeping Athlete’

The French league, French federation, the Variety Club of France and his former clubs have all helped with the financial difficulties that have come with the need to care for her husband full-time, and modify their home for his needs. And, in the home she now calls ‘The House of the Beautiful Sleeping Athlete’  Bernadette still clings to the faint hope that one day things might change.

“His condition does not get any worse, so who knows?” She says. “If one day medical science evolves, then why not? Will there be a day when they’ll know what to do with him? I don’t know.”

With their sons now fully grown and parents themselves Bernadette has much to occupy her. But her main role, as it has been for three and a half decades is to care for the man she loves.

In the mid 1990s a French court finally got around to ruling on the issue of mistreatment. The anaesthetist and trainee were found guilty on the charges brought against them. Both were fined a minimal amount and given one-month suspended prison sentences.

‘Time Stopped On 17 March 1982’

After 35 years, Bernadette Adams continues every day to prove her dedication to her husband. “I have the feeling that time stopped on 17 March 1982.” She said.

Bernadette refuses to allow pictures of her husband as he is now to be made public, rightly preferring that the public remember him how he was before tragedy struck.

The awful tragedy that struck Jean-Pierre Adams has seen him spend more than half of his life in a coma. It has also condemned his wife to her own life sentence, one few of us could imagine. That she continues to serve that sentence willingly is poignant testimony to her love for, and devotion to the stricken husband for whom she truly is a guardian angel.