Do you remember the moment when Leeds snatched the League Leaders’ Shield at Huddersfield last September? Ryan Hall’s last second surge down the touchline to score capped one of the most dramatic days in Super League history. It was a day that marked one of the biggest transitional periods of my life.
“An injury which in a previous era would have seen my career written-off.
That day began with me at my Nana’s funeral, carrying her coffin out of the church as ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played. It finished with the Huddersfield game, and I’d told myself I would do everything on that pitch for my Nana, and I did. I felt like I was having one of the best games of my life that day, I got my name on the score sheet and I believed I would be part of a last minute score to get the shield. With just minutes left on the clock I took an all or nothing pass from Rob Burrow and then it came… SNAP! My knee crumpled beneath me. I later learned it had completely ruptured, an injury which in a previous era would have seen my career written-off. I couldn’t believe it. Surely this wasn’t meant to happen?
Everyone goes through adversity. At Leeds, I’m surrounded by so many champions, so many experienced players that you’d think I’d have no shortage of people to look up to when dealing with this setback. So there may be some irony in the fact that the role model seeing me through this long term injury is my Nana. But why would she be someone I look to for inspiration?
Many of you will know just how vicious cancer can be. I used to visit my Nana every week and watch her deteriorate. Her cancer had stemmed from melanoma, and she had developed tumors on her face. Every time I saw her, her condition worsened, but she would still light up immediately when I entered the room. It was a connection I felt so strongly.
Everytime I went, I couldn’t believe how steely she really was. When I visited her, it sapped me of my energy. I’d look at old photos on her bedside table of her and my Granddad in their youthful days and then look at what she was currently going through. You know that feeling that you get when you’re a kid and you get a whack on the nose and your inner voice says ‘DON’T CRY’. Well I had that feeling every time I visited my Nana, it was only after I left the hospice that I’d let myself cry. It was my way of releasing the tension which had been building up during every visit.
“There is a fine line between living the dream and living a nightmare…
Being sat on that physio table, staring at what looked like an inflatable knee prompted the same feeling I felt every time I left the hospice. Despair. The absolute loss of hope, having to come to terms with your worst nightmare. Then I heard the stadium erupt. Hally had scored the winning try after screaming wide-eyed down the touchline, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was sitting on the physio’s table, feeling more alone than I ever had done. There’s a fine line between living the dream and living a nightmare, and it’s my experience of injury and setback over the last eight months that have made me realise that because TV adverts and pre-match montages can make rugby league players seem superhuman, it’s easy for fans to believe that we are. But we are anything but.
As I’m sat here writing this, I’m ducking the waves of anxiety that can wash over me every day. I could be having a coffee with close pals and then all of a sudden feel a flush of worry, as if I was late for something or I had to be doing something else right that second. Two years ago, I had depression. It’s a monster that can stop you getting out of the house just as much as a broken leg. How do I explain what that feels like? Simply put, I didn’t value anything I did or said anymore. I was stuck in a rut of low moods, which is dangerous if you’re used to going out in front of roaring crowds at 8pm on the dot on Friday nights. We have this idea that athletes are supposed to be all about positivity, and if you came to me with a set of questions I could guarantee you, one of them would be “What is your greatest achievement?” rather than “What has been your lowest point?”. Everyone struggles at certain points in their life, but men in particular avoid talking about it, or do their best not to make it obvious.
After Hally’s try, I hobbled out onto the pitch to the roar of the Leeds fans chanting my name. It felt different to when they do it after you’ve scored a try. It was almost as if the fans felt sorry for me. I went out there and smiled. I stood on one leg and held the League Leaders Shield up in the air. It was all a little bit weird after that condensed 4 minute period of injury and last second try to become top of the table. I didn’t know whether to genuinely smile, grit my teeth or just cry.
But my Nana had prepared me for the upcoming adversity. I’ve never thought too much about fate. I’m just a lad from Morley who did what he had to do to make it. I am aware that everything I had seen of my Nana, and everything which she had been through, would lead me to stronger resilience to cope with yet another nine-month spell on the sidelines. The last time I saw her, she wasn’t with it. She was on so many drugs just to cope with the pain. But when I entered the room, I’ll never forget the smile she gave me. That was all she could manage. It was her last treasured, lucid moment and I’m left with the memory of her brutal, honest strength. That smile was so powerful to me. If she could force out a smile for me in her darkest and most testing of times, knowing she was going to die, then surely I could smile at everything I’d achieved that season.
When you’re injured, you get bored, or feel worthless on account of being out of the game. When you’re a rugby player of either code you know that if you put the hard work in physically, then you can take your bag off the hook at the end of the day, leave your mates in the changing rooms and know you can relax for the rest of the afternoon. You feel as though you’re paying the price to be an athlete. But during injury, you cannot pay that price. You’re stagnant and you feel as though you’re stuck in the mud.
One Saturday night, my mum and dad had come over to keep me company, as all the boys I lived with had gone out. It was a week before the Grand Final, and I had my crutches laid on the floor, next to the sofa. I was sat in my ‘comfy’ spot, where I wasn’t finding any pain and could watch the television. I had some tea made for me and we watched some Karl Pilkington, a man that would almost certainly have a more cynical view on things than me. Anyway, he made me smile.
All the way through my mum and dad’s visit, I was acting positive and pleased with what I had already accomplished. I was already the youngest Grand Final winner and I’d been hit by a brick wall of noise at Wembley, playing in 2012 in the Challenge Cup Final, all of this at 18. Plus I’d been a part of the Leeds squad that was now on its way to securing a historic treble. It was a dream come true. But as I heard their car leave the drive, I sobbed.
“Why am I telling you all this? Rugby players don’t do this, do they?
Why am I telling you all this? Rugby players don’t do this, do they? But why should this side of sport – why should this side of life – have to remain silent and undiscussed? Since I’ve been injured, I’ve learnt that the most valuable thing you can have is drive. As a result I’ve created Mantality. My goal is to inform people and bring those less-discussed sides of sport out into the open. “You don’t do things by halves, do you mate?” our physio told me when explaining my latest injury. It turns out I don’t.
But I also want to provide frank answers to questions any readers might have. If I can provide features and articles which are honest and provides a deeper insight, then I will. It’s a way to focus my drive on something else. My legs might not be running right now but my mind certainly is. If I can break down the barrier where people hide how they feel and shine a light on the dark side of sport, I will have achieved another one of my goals: just off the pitch.