By Vince Cooper
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 saw him capped 22 times for his adopted country and he was now 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 couple in Montargis.
After playing for various youth teams (mostly as a striker) he joined RC Fontainebleau in 1967, switched to central defence and helped his team to the runners-up spot 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 1975-76. Next he moved on to Paris Saint Germain where injuries began to take their toll, payback to a player whose approach on the pitch was always full-blooded.
Jean-Pierre (right) with teammate Marius Tresor
‘La Garde Noir’
On a national team level, the partnership between Adams and Marius 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 Adams; “He was a force of nature, very strong physically and he had great determination and willingness.” His ascent to the national team can be seen as 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 and enjoyed great success across Europe and with France.
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.
Jean-Pierre with his son
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.”
Throughout the rest of his life Jean-Pierre was unable to walk, talk or move any of his limbs and was in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ and Bernadette cared for him every single day.
He spent most of his days in his own room, in a specially modified bed. He could breathe on his own, digest food, and open and close his eyes. And Bernadette and the family continued trying 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 was his full-time carer. She dressed, fed and bathed him and claimed that he knew when it wasn’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.”
After the tragic operation, every day, from 7am until usually 8pm when he would fall asleep, Bernadette cared 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 all helped with the financial difficulties that came with the need to care for her husband full-time, and modify their home for his needs. And, in the home she came to call ‘The House of the Beautiful Sleeping Athlete’ Bernadette clung to the faint hope that one day things might change.
“His condition does not get any worse, so who knows?” She said once. “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 had much to occupy her. But her main role for al most four decades was 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’
For an incredible 39 years Bernadette Adams continued every day to prove her dedication to her husband. “I have the feeling that time stopped on 17 March 1982.” She said. Jean-Pierre passed away on 6 September 2021 aged 73.
Bernadette refused to allow pictures of her husband whilst in his coma to be made public, rightly preferring that the public remember him how he was before tragedy struck.
The awful fate that befell Jean-Pierre Adams saw him spend more of his life in a coma than out of it. It also condemned his wife to her own life sentence, one few of us could imagine. That she continued to serve that sentence willingly until his passing is poignant testimony to her love for, and devotion to the stricken husband for whom she truly was a guardian angel.
After his passing the players of France and Finland honoured Jean-Pierre with a minute’s applause before their World Cup qualifier in Lyon. I am sure he would have been happy to share that honour with Bernadette, the woman who spent most of her life caring for her ‘Beautiful Sleeping Athlete’.