League: El Salvador international's fight to flee from heroin hell

Fredy Arteaga-Figueroa is El Salvador's captain-coach. Photo / Mark Evans, News Corp Australia
Fredy Arteaga-Figueroa is El Salvador's captain-coach. Photo / Mark Evans, News Corp Australia

If heroin wasn't available, the boy inhaled gas. As in LPG.

Simply turning on a stove, a heater, whatever. For this was his life.

Wake up, get high, grab your lunch box from mum. On good days, smoking marijuana.

On the best, heroin.

Then at night, robbing businesses around Casula for cash.

"I started at 12," recalls Fredy Arteaga-Figueroa.

"By high school, I was selling. Trying everything. Plenty of people around me went down."
Seated now in a nondescript Liverpool park, big Fredy may just be rugby league's most inspiring international.

But more on that shortly.

First, let this El Salvador native, a father still only 35, walk you through his 20 years of drug abuse.

At least, as best he can.

For the black spots, they're many. So too days spent unconscious.

And as for the most obscure place he ever woke from a bender?

"Ah, Jesus," he cringes, "probably Melbourne."

Yep, you name it, Fredy tried it.

Marijuana and mushrooms. Ecstasy and cocaine. Acid, valium, heroin, codeine ... even LPG when cashless.

Using and selling. Fighting and stealing. Lawless except for one simple rule.

"No drugs Saturday," he says.

"That always belonged to rugby league."

And here, truly, is the story.

Understanding how, sure, our man lapsed occasionally. Like that game when, wired on coke, his heart stopped.

Yet in all his years with Liverpool All Saints, this gifted leaguie - a kid contracted, briefly, to the Roosters - essentially stayed sober on Saturdays.

At his best, Tuesdays and Thursdays for training, too.

"And that ability to choose when I used," he says, "it saved me from addiction. Rugby league saved my life."

And on Saturday at Henson Park, you can see the proof. Watching as this unlikely No. 7 - and El Salvador captain-coach, no less - leads an international debut against Chile. What a story in itself.

Take Paco Godinez, the El Salvador centre who, like another five teammates, was forced to flee his homeland in the 1980s, as civil war claimed 75,000 lives.

"Dad was dropping me at school, first day, when our van got hijacked," Godinez recalls.

"They were going to kill him if he didn't give them money."

Arteaga-Figueroa nods knowingly.

Explaining how, aged two, his uncle was shot dead in front of him. His family then forced into hiding for four years, before eventually arriving Down Under in 1987. And still, he hurt.

Unable to speak English, or even hold a pen, young Fredy was quickly ostracised. Lonely, and increasingly angry by the time he found heroin at 12.

"But thankfully, I also found league," he says.

"Playing footy, I could express myself. Integrate. It's the one place I've always felt equal."

Better, he had structure. And finally, a way out.

"Summers, I was f ... ed," he continues.

"But winter brought order, hope.

"Put me among people who cared.

"So, yeah, I'll only ever be a park footballer. Still, I'm in a community.

"Even years ago, I'd watch players on TV and think 'at some stage you've had to get past somebody like me'. It meant I was part of something.

"And that was enough."

Still is. Clean almost five years, Fredy is now a qualified counsellor who, apart from having two children - Abriella (11) and Elijah (4) - also works growing Latin American league while completing a Masters in social work. Later Saturday, captaining his country, too.

"Which is humbling," he says.

"And satisfying. This idea my life can finally be full of goodness ... it makes me smile."

- news.com.au

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