In 1982, Jean-Pierre Adams was given anaesthetic before knee surgery. He hasn’t woken up
On 17 March 1982, the former France international footballer Jean-Pierre Adams, at the age of 34, was admitted to a Lyon hospital to undergo a routine knee operation. He was given anaesthetic that should have knocked him out for a few hours but, more than 30 years later, he has yet to wake.
Adams is a figure who drifts in and out of the consciousness of the French public but who is largely forgotten outside his homeland, despite being a highly-regarded figure in his generation and a pioneer for French-African footballers. With 22 caps to his credit, he turned out more regularly for les Bleus than more celebrated figures such as David Ginola, Ludovic Giuly and even Just Fontaine, carrying himself with a humble spirit and a ceaseless smile.
His story begins in Dakar, Senegal, where he was born on 10 March 1948, the oldest of a large family based in the European district of the country’s capital. Although football was in young Jean-Pierre’s blood — his uncle Alexandre Diadhiou played for the celebrated Jeanne d’Arc club — education was made the priority in his life by his devoutly Catholic family and he was not allowed to play the sport he loved unless his grades in school were of a sufficient standard.
With this in mind, the nine-year-old Adams was sent alone to continue his schooling in France, where he was ultimately fostered by the Jourdain family in Loiret, a department a little south of Paris. “I was like a little lost puppy without a collar,” Adams would later reflect, yet his malleability meant that he was not scarred by what must have been a traumatic experience.
Football proved to be a vital release for the adolescent Adams, who made his first true friends when he played at Under-13 level for the Cepoy club, where he would stay for three seasons before becoming a prolific centre-forward for Bellegarde. It also provided him with an environment in which to socialise in what was still a white-dominated society as he swiftly gained respect for his physical prowess and his endearing personality. He would very quickly become popular at Collège Saint-Louis, where he was affectionately known as the ‘White Wolf’.
Away from the pitch, Adams completed his initial schooling but elected to drop out of a course studying shorthand as it did not interest him. Instead, he worked in a factory as his game progressed to Montagris, where he was coached by Louis Gabrillagues, a former professional with the Sète side that had won the first Coupe de France-Championnat de France double.
However, there was a hint of problems to come as he suffered a serious knee injury that could have ended his dreams of becoming a professional footballer. Thankfully, this time, it was just another hurdle he was able to overcome.
As if the fragility of his potential career was not already clear, Adams’ life would be touched by the tragedies of his Montagris teammates. Michel Slota was seriously injured after being hit by a car while riding his bike and would never fully recover, while Alain Guerton died suddenly after contracting a virus on a trip to Asia.
Even after moving to l’Entente Bagneaux-Fontainebleau-Nemours (EBFN) misfortune continued to follow the young hopeful. Adams was involved in a serious car crash, and though he escaped with only cuts, one of which left a scar above his right eye, his close friend Guy Beaudot was killed.
To have been touched by such troubles at the age of 19, it was little surprise that Adams’ appetite for the game was briefly diminished, leading to a rare fallow spell in his form.
Military service, however, proved to be a turning point. Adams had always been a physically imposing specimen with tremendous stamina but his time in the army meant his talents started to become recognised in a broader sphere. He was selected to play for the French Military squad, from which he would be recommended to Nîmes by, among others, future France teammate Michel Mézy.
Adams’s desire to become a professional had been further fired by his marriage to Bernadette, who to this day provides a rock of support for the sleeping footballer. Even this had been no straightforward pathway, though, as his blonde bride’s mother had initially refused to give her daughter’s hand to the young African.
At this point, Adams’s career took a path similar to that of Lilian Thuram, who rose through the French amateur ranks to become one of the game’s most celebrated players. Thuram also turned out for the latter-day version of EBFN, yet it was during the era of Adams that the club became prominent in the nation’s amateur game.
In three successive years, with the broad-shouldered 5ft 10in Adams their driving force, they would lose the Championnat de France Amateurs final, before earning the right to play in an expanded Division 2 in 1970. Although EBFN were coming up short as a team on the big occasion, their young protégé’s career was on the verge of taking off. The strides he made during his military service persuaded the legendary Nîmes trainer Kader Firoud to offer Adams a trial match in Rouen. Bernadette drove Jean-Pierre north for the friendly in which her 22-year-old husband impressed sufficiently to earn his first professional contract.
“You have great potential but you also need to work hard to reach it,” Firoud told Adams on signing him. “You already have all the qualities of a young wolf, and if you are not afraid to work you will become a true crocodile [the nickname of Nîmes].”
Fortunately, Adams was indeed an industrious young man. Firoud would work him hard in training and began his transformation into first a midfielder then a defender as the Nîmes squad was already full of fine strikers. This proved pivotal as Adams could make full use of his physical capabilities, although he was forced to hone his technique and tactical sense with the reserves for a period. Initially he found the switch difficult and at one point he needed to be talked out of quitting. His diligence on the training ground, however, would eventually be rewarded by his first-team debut. Once involved with the Nîmes first team, he remained a regular.
Firoud would be one of the key influences on Adams’ career. He was a terrific motivator, although some of his training methods were unorthodox. The young midfielder’s first session at Nîmes, for example, involved a sight-seeing tour of the Roman town, including its famous Maison Carrée.
“You are ambassadors for this city,” Firoud reminded his players, pointing at the historical grandeur of their surroundings.
However unconventional the coach, his methods were highly effective. Only the Auxerre legend Guy Roux has overseen more top division matches than Firoud’s 782, and in 1971 he was named France Football’s Coach of the Year. Crucially for Adams, he was particularly effective at bringing through unknown quantities from the youth ranks.
After debuting in a new No. 4 role against Reims in September 1970, Adams would become a permanent fixture in the team. “In half a season, Jean-Pierre Adams has become an important pillar in Firoud’s side,” France Football reported. “Adams does not hate mundane work and, from time to time, is capable of acting out a dramatic fantasy.”
It was no mean achievement to become established so readily in such a team. Nîmes’s side at the time was one of the best in the club’s 80-year history and Adams was a fulcrum as les Crocodiles qualified for Europe for the first time. He was even decisive in the club’s first Uefa Cup win, though Nîmes lost the tie on away goals to Vitória Setúbal of Portugal.
Such a narrow defeat was the prelude to a frustrating second season in which the club finished as runners up to Olympique de Marseille in le Championnat. Ultimately Nîmes paid for a poor spring run that saw them win one of seven league matches and rendered futile their eight wins from nine at the campaign’s conclusion.
On a collective level, Adams’s third and final season at the club was disappointing as les Crocos finished only seventh, yet But noted that their midfielder remained “in international form”. “In the rugged defence of Nimes, there is a pillar, a kind of force of nature, a colossus of uncommon athletic power: Jean-Pierre Adams,” said the former Argentina captain Ángel Marcos, who played for Nantes. I rarely suffered against a direct opponent. I always dreaded the two annual confrontations [with Adams] as they were a real challenge and I tried, every time, to detach myself from my merciless ‘bodyguard’.”
When Adams moved to Nice in the summer of 1973, Marcos didn’t have life any easier. By then a France international, Adams was at the peak of his powers, capable of making regular powerful surges of 50 or 60 metres with the ball at his feet deep into games. Nice at the time were highly ambitious and ready to spend. An ambitious bid to sign Jairzinho failed narrowly as they attempted to re-establish themselves as a major force in France after dropping out of the elite in 1969.
Despite their spending, their return was marked with a disappointing 14th-place finish but, by the time Adams arrived, Nice were rueing a failure to win the title the previous season, having thrown away a five-point lead to allow Marcos’s Nantes to overhaul them.
Life for the 25-year-old Adams on the Côte d’Azur started with some promise as two goals from Marc Molitor and another from Dick van Dijk helped Nice secure a 3-2 win over Rinus Michel’s Barcelona in the Uefa Cup. By the time the Stade du Ray outfit’s European run was emphatically ended with a 4-1 aggregate defeat to Köln — a tie played without Adams, who had been suspended after a red card against Fenerbahçe in the previous round — the head coach Jean Snella found his position becoming increasingly uneasy. League results were not good and after a fifth-place finish he was dismissed.
His replacement was Vlatko Marković, an ill-fated appointment. Marković , who went on to become an outspoken president of the Croatian football federation, was never popular among the Nice fans. “If spectators want a spectacle, they should go to Marineland,” he said following criticism of his dour playing style.
Not only did he rile his own support, he irritated opposing teams, too. Ahead of a January 1976 derby with Monaco, he declared, “Pff! [Delio] Onnis? Vlatko would not even want him in our team!”
Four Onnis goals in 4-1 defeat later, he was eating his words.
Despite the coaching sideshow, Adams remained a consistently strong performer and was named in France Football’s elite team of the season. “Adams remains without a rival in his role, where his extraordinary athletic qualities can match the best,” the magazine gushed.
In the subsequent campaign, Nice finished second in Division 1 behind Saint-Étienne, a series of injuries to their best players probably robbing them of the title. Adams was one of the men who suffered most and those issues would mark the end of his personal peak as he prepared to depart the Mediterranean coast after dropping out of the national team.
Adams’ introduction to les Bleus had come five years earlier during the Taça Independência, a competition played in Brazil to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the nation’s independence from Portugal. Fittingly, the 24-year-old’s debut came against an Africa select team, as he arrived off the bench to replace Marius Trésor, the man with whom he would form the fabled ‘Garde Noire’ in years to come.
Five days later he was handed his first start in an encounter against Colombia. It began inauspiciously as Adams conceded a penalty from which the South Americans took the lead but he showed his characteristic resilience to play a stoical match thereafter.
The coach Georges Boulogne was sufficiently impressed to pair Adams with Trésor in defence for a decisive encounter with Argentina that would decide which country progressed to the Taça’s second round. A scoreless draw meant disappointment for France, who were eliminated on goal difference. They were compensated with the birth of ‘la Garde Noire’.
Like all good double acts, Trésor and Adams complimented each other. The former was regarded as the technical defender while Adams was still noted primarily for his athleticism.
While Trésor was born in Guadeloupe, Adams’s sub-Saharan roots were something of a novelty in the France team of the time. Of course, France had seen other such ‘foreigners’ turn out for its national team previously; the great ball juggler Larbi Ben Barek hailed from Morocco but won 17 caps for les Bleus either side of the Second World War, while Xercès Louis (12 caps in the mid-50s) and the renowned tackler Daniel Charles-Alfred (four caps in the mid-60s) were both born in Martinique. And of course there were Just Fontaine, Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustaoha Zitouni, who came originally from North Africa.
Adams, however, was laying a pathway from west Africa to France for the likes of Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira to follow. His contribution to the national side was immediately praised. “Of all the players we have seen make their entry to ‘Club France’ in recent years, Jean-Pierre Adams is without doubt the one who has taken it with the most relaxed attitude,” the journalist Philippe Tournon commented.
France may have been welcomed back from Brazil warmly after an encouraging trip but it was not until they met the USSR in a World Cup qualifying match — the first les Bleus played at the newly renovated Parc des Princes — that their new central defensive pairing really came of age. The Parisian venue had been something of a bête noire for Adams in the past. He had lost two previous CFA finals at the ground, leading the local press to dub it his ‘Stade du Désespoir’ —Stadium of Despair.
A thunderous free-kick from Georges Bereta proved decisive for France but it was the intelligent, vivacious performance from the centre-backs that was truly match winning. Franz Beckenbauer, no less, held the duo in particularly high regard, remarking to Onze, “Adams and Trésor have formed one of the best centre-back pairings in all of Europe.”
Once again, however, injuries had a telling impact on Adams. His persistent troubles saw his partnership with Trésor broken up in 1975 and, although he received a call up for a friendly against Denmark in which a young Michel Platini scored, Adams never again turned out in France’s blue.
Adams soon moved back north to the familiar surrounds of the Paris region. The ambitious PSG president Daniel Hechter had been seduced by him amid the club’s first period of big spending. Known for his fashion design — Hechter was the mastermind behind the iconic blue, white and red PSG strips — he was also a very astute businessman and played a key role in the early development of the club, lifting them from the amateur ranks to overtake Paris FC as the capital’s primary power. Among the other signings in that 1977-78 season were Jean-Michel Larqué and Carlos Bianchi.
As the 29 year old’s experience at Nice had shown, though, big spending did not necessarily equate to big rewards and Adams’ time in Paris was subdued, with two mid-table finishes before he was released from his contract, ending his time at the top level.
A brief and unsuccessful stay at Mulhouse followed before Adams took the decision to step into coaching. He took up a player-coach role with the amateur side FC Chalon, who helped him set up a sports shop that he ran along with wife Bernadette in the centre of the town. On and off the field, life was going well. The attraction of being able to see a former international footballer ensured that the shop was busy, while Chalon’s promotion to Division 4 in Adams’s first season in charge underlined his potential as a manager. In March 1982, Chalon were on course for another promotion as they led the division going into the final throes of the season.
Adams had elected to take the first stage of his coaching degree in Dijon, which meant going on a week-long course in the Bourguignon town during the spring. On the third day, however, he suffered a knee problem and the following morning quit the course for a hospital in Lyon. An initial scan showed damage to a tendon at the back of the knee but a chance meeting with a Lyon-supporting surgeon en route to the exit proved critical. After a discussion between the pair, it was decided that the best course of action would be to operate as soon as possible. Adams agreed to an operation a matter of days later on March 17.
“It’s all fine, I’m in great shape,” were his parting words to Bernadette as he left the family home on the morning of the operation.
His wife, however, was worried and only more so when it took three calls to the hospital before she was passed onto a doctor. “Come here now,” she was told gravely.
Unable to travel alone in her emotional state, Bernadette was accompanied to Lyon by two Chalon officials, where they found that Adams had slipped into a coma. Bernadette remained by his bedside for five days and five nights hoping for a change in his condition while the couple’s two young boys, Laurent and Frédéric, were at home with their grandparents.
Later it would emerge that there had been a problem with Adams’ supply of anaesthetic, which was exacerbated by the fact the anaesthetist was overseeing eight operations at once, including one particularly delicate procedure involving a child that got much of his attention. To complicate matters further, Adams was not on the correct type of bed, the drug used was known to be problematic and the operation was overseen by a trainee.
Adams has never woken.
It would be November before the former international was moved north to Chalon, where Bernadette was by his side on a daily basis. That did not prevent Adams from being neglected by the staff at his new institution, where he lost 11kg in the space of a month. After finding an infected bed sore, Bernadette exploded with rage and, after her husband had undergone another operation as the infection had reached his bones, she sat with him continuously, still holding out hope he one day might wake.
When the hospital said they could no longer look after Adams, he was moved home. For Bernadette this was a great undertaking. She would sleep in the same room as her husband and get up in the middle of the night to turn him. Blood was taken from him every week in order to check his vitamin levels, while various miracle cures were tried over an extended period of time, including acupuncture and submerging the former professional athlete in a swimming pool.
Bernadette had a house custom-built in Rodilhan, near Nîmes, which she named ‘Mas du bel athléte dormant’ — the House of the Beautiful Sleeping Athlete. It had been a struggle to get a loan in place, however, as she had fallen into difficult financial circumstances.
Various bodies came forward to help her, with Nîmes and PSG both offering FF15,000, while the French football federation gave her FF6,000 per week after an initial contribution of FF25,000 in December 1982.
In addition, Adams’s former clubs played charity matches in support of him. The Variétés Club de France, a charitable organisation still running today and backed by such luminaries as Platini, Zinédine Zidane and Jean-Pierre Papin with which Adams had been closely involved during his playing days, played a fixture in the comatose player’s honour against a group of his footballing friends.
The media, meanwhile, kept his memory alive with glowing testimonies. “[Adams] was the prototype of a modern day midfielder,” wrote the journalist Victor Sinet. “He was always available, omnipresent and just as effective going forward as he was defending. We like his good heart, generosity and his Parisian verve. He was appreciated for his human qualities.”
Jean-Pierre Rougelet wrote a similarly impassioned piece in which he described Adams as “someone who could make things happen on the pitch but also in life, in which he cultivated a team spirit”.
Meanwhile, the courts deliberated upon the case in a sluggish manner.
Pierre Huth, Adams’s former doctor at PSG, led the case, which went on for seven years before the Seventh Chamber of Correctional Tribunal in Lyon found the doctors guilt of involuntary injury. It was only at that point that the family’s dues could be calculated, yet four years later a definitive decision had still to be made.
No action appeared ready to be taken either until L’Equipe published a letter from a family friend advising of the deplorable situation. During the next France international match, the iconic French commentator, the late Thierry Roland, added his gravitas to the cause by reading the document out live on air.
This spurred the authorities on to reach a verdict in October 1993.
Life, such as it is, continues for Bernadette and Jean-Pierre. Hospitals cannot commit staff to looking after Adams for long periods of time, which prevents his loyal wife from taking holidays or long trips. Each day Jean-Pierre is washed and dressed by Bernadette, who maintains that her husband still has some cognitive function.
“Jean-Pierre feels, smells, hears, jumps when a dog barks. But he cannot see,” his wife confirmed in an interview with Le Parisien in 2007.
Even after all these years she remains relentless in her support and love for her husband. “I have the feeling that time stopped on 17 March 1982,” Bernadette explained in a discussion with Midi Libre in 2012. “There are no changes, either good or bad. While he does not need respiratory assistance, he remains in a vegetative state.
“Last year, we met a neurologist specialising in brain injury from Carémeau [the hospital in Nîmes] through an acquaintance. He ran his tests and examinations at the hospital, which confirmed very significant damage. There was a lot of damage in the brain. But he does not age, but for a few white hairs.”
Despite confirming that her daily routine is “killing her”, euthanasia is not an option she would consider.
“It’s unthinkable!” she said. “He cannot speak. And it’s not for me to decide for him.”
Jean-Pierre, whose son Laurent briefly followed in his footsteps by signing for Nîmes in 1996, is now a grandfather and has been introduced to all of his grandchildren. His birthday is still celebrated in the household. The rest of the world has moved on, but Adams lives on as a pioneer, whose unlikely journey to prosperity has been replicated by so many since he was sent from Senegal to France as a young boy.