There's one thing about being in the spotlight: sometimes you cast a deep shadow. And behind his easy grin and blokey wit, football fanboy Martin Devlin's can get awfully black.

Who knew? Because every night, there he is, the boy with the keys to the toyshop as he fronts TVNZ's World Cup coverage. Good on him too. He's the perfect choice. If this country has a soccer equivalent to rugby league ambassador Sir Peter "Mad Butcher" Leitch, it's Devlin.

So, as I sank into a fireside chair at De Brett's Kitchen, I had no concerns about getting him talking. My problem was going to be shutting him up once the fervour kicked in. It's as controllable as Ebola Virus, and being a carrier myself, I know full well how time stops when the eyes grow wild and wide.

Which is just how we started ... the All Whites (yay ...), Manchester United (boo ...), the Phoenix, the Block Five Boys, punk rock, the exquisite torture of loving a team of foreigners madly, truly, deeply ... joyful, machine-gunned banter all of it.

In journo jargon it's called the warm bath, putting your subject at ease. But we were well past that point. This was a bubbling spa with a glass of bolly in each hand and a Miss Universe on each arm. Until we got on to his life story and the tone began careening between highs and lows.

I need to see photos to really believe him, but Devlin says he spent his late teens and early 20s in Wellington as something of a crustie; all Cuba St dreadlocks, long coats and commie leanings: "I was so far left I popped up on the right," he cackles. "I did everything, protested everything, from Irish republicanism, to whales, to organic coffee from El Salvador. I'd been a Catholic schoolboy, now I was 18, 19; I did what I had to to get a root. I probably joined Greenpeace three times."

The carefree life ended when a close friend hanged himself over Devlin's bed, the only surface from which he could reach the rafters. With no clue of how to deal with it he dumped his girlfriend, abandoned an uncompleted degree and ran to Motueka to grow veges.

Then he flashes forward to his first year at Radio Sport, the year he came from nowhere - okay, Hamilton via Wellington - to breathe new life into AM radio. Before that year was out, the producer who had guided and cajoled him along had killed himself. "I still didn't get it ... to do that? It's mental illness, I know that now, but I just didn't understand that then ... it was horrible." There was no running away this time, he had a job and family. No option but to get back behind the microphone and play on.

If our conversation hasn't fallen from the rails, we've paused at a grim stop I didn't see coming. The boy in the toyshop is now a 46-year-old father of two, struggling with darkness. He's crept to the edge of his chair as he battles to explain his confusion and loss as best he can.

But there's some backstory to run through before his real demons surface.

He was lying on a couch one Friday night watching 80s sit-com Shelley when a character lamented how unemployment in your 20s was cool, but in your 30s, you look like a loser. Devlin was 27 and jobless. The next day he chopped off his dreads and started pondering his future. Radio seemed a likely option, if nothing else, you could wear your own clothes. He just needed to get on to a course, a problem he solved by getting his brother to write the seven advert scripts he needed to for his application.

After working through an alphabet of stations as a music jock, his star shone brightest at Radio Sport. "After the [2004] Athens Olympics I felt like I'd reached the ceiling and I wanted to explode through that. I wanted to kill the world, get our ratings over 10 per cent, go to FM, and just take over. What I didn't understand was that the company was very happy with where we were at, if we grew we might be cannibalising their other stations."

His frustration seeped into his performance. "The thing about being on air is that the microphone does not lie, so if I could feel it the audience was going to pick it up as well. I felt like I was going stale, I could hear myself getting cynical, and I didn't want to be that guy."

I tell him that as a listener, I felt his worst moments were when he went off-topic and talked politics - it was like your parents talking about sex, no thanks - so I was wary when he became RadioLive's first breakfast host to go head to head with Paul Holmes.

"Yeah, and wasn't that a disaster? I drove the car full tit into a wall ..." The thing is, he doesn't consider himself a journalist, or a straight man. He got no pleasure from doom-laden talkback fodder or the feeling of people's jobs being dependent on his performance.

"Every day I was talking about horrible stuff like the Kahui twins and I'd end up carrying it around with me. Sure, people told me to shut those things off, get some distance, but I'm the guy who takes my sport home and sulks about it for days."

Liam Ashley's murder inside a prison van in August 2006 was his death too far. Ashley's uncle was a fan of Game of Two Halves, a sports quiz show Devlin featured on, and he helped the station score an exclusive interview with the dead boy's father a week after the murder. "We spoke for about 14 minutes and I don't remember anything I said or anything I asked him ... I just didn't know what to do or what to ask ... so he was talking and I just had tears running down my face, my adam's apple was the size of a pumpkin.

"Then when we were done, someone came in and said, 'Fantastic scoop, great stuff', and I'm just thinking, 'This guy's son is dead'. At that point I realised this job wasn't for me and I wanted to get out ... then dad got sick big time, [terminal] prostate cancer ... he was my biggest hero, him and my brother. So, I had dad dying and an employment dispute going on at the same time. I didn't realise how taxing it was until [my wife and TVNZ spokeswoman] Andi [Brotherston] said that the fire had gone out in my eyes. I was coming home and not even saying hi to the children. It was bad and I felt anger and rage about all of it."

The joys of football are now very distant. Inner torment is staring me in the face as he relates batting away every approach from his station boss, Brent Impey, with a barrage of F bombs.

He ran away again. This time the family spent a year or so in Awhitu where he slowly got his head and health back in working order and the kids got a wonky, dad-built treehouse.

Clearly, this was an ideal time for some Dancing With The Stars. Umm, really? "I promised dad when he died that I'd take the blinkers off ... there's this image I have of myself, and to do something like that, well, it's not part of who I am, it was way outside my comfort zone. But I was starting to say yes to those things. What was the worst that could happen? Make a dick of myself on television? I've done that already."

The public discomfort provided some redemption though, particularly with family. "My mum, people started treating her like a princess and she was laughing for the first time since dad died."

He's now finding a working relationship with the grief he's been carrying - this year he won his fifth radio sports broadcasting award before being offered his telly job - and says it's because he owes a lot of unpayable debts to people like Brotherston, Impey, Holmes and, of all people, former All Black Norm Hewitt.

The pair met after a fundraiser organised by Wynton Rufer for a young soccer player with cancer. "Yeah, at the worst times it's amazing who can come into your life ... Norm came up to me. I thought he was going to say, 'Great speech', but he just said a few words and all I could think was, 'Christ almighty, he's staring straight through me'. Then he told me, 'Get in touch, ring me'. It was totally out of the blue; I didn't know him at all. He can't really explain it either, just that something told him to reach out a hand and ask me to hold it because it was something he thought I needed. I'd like to think I've helped someone in the past to have deserved something like that because thank Christ that he did.

"He's given me a new lease on life ..."