My tribute to Rob Burrow: My close friend who will never, ever be forgotten

George Riley
Rob Burrow, George Riley

Rob Burrow (left) & long-time close friend George Riley (right)

Rob Burrow was a rugby league hero. It is painful even using the past tense. A legend of the sport taken from us far too soon by a brutal disease for which we must now find a cure.

All our thoughts and love are with Lindsey, the kids, Geoff and Irene, and Rob’s siblings.

As a close friend of Rob, I have witnessed first-hand how MND takes its suffocating grip at haunting speed. To see him smile through his heart-breaking demise, allowing national media to show him at his most vulnerable for the benefit of others, this was the ultimate bravery.

Rob was an unbecoming, reserved family man. The decision to lay bare his suffering for the greater good was completely at odds with his character. An unbelievable thing to do.

The player: He was dynamite. Far too small for this unforgiving sport, the little man had to find a way to survive in the land of giants. His ducking, diving, electric pace and unflinching bravery proved the ingredients for a real one-off. There really was nobody like him. I genuinely don’t think we will ever see a player like Rob in rugby league ever again.

The 2011 Grand Final – the Rob Burrow Grand Final – is what he will be best remembered for. The greatest ever Grand Final try, and don’t forget he did it again after half-time to set up another one. Leeds fans though will tell you he did this every week.

The career: One that yielded eight Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenges would suggest very few low points. But there were, you just wouldn’t hear about them.

He never saw eye to eye with coach Brian McDermott for example, and almost left the club when he found himself dropped to the bench as back-up hooker. The fact that he stayed at Leeds, put the team first without sulking, and still earned another Grand Final win in his last ever game, is testament to his character.

The man:  He was everything you want in a mate. Loyal, generous, reliable and incredibly funny, frequently out-quoting even the most dedicated of The Office quoters. He had no interest in the showbiz side of professional sport.

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He wasn’t interested in boozing – unless it was coffee or Red Bull – he was a proper caffeine fiend. When Rhinos’ players headed up into the Long Bar after a home game for a beer and to meet their adoring fans, you would always just find Rob in the far corner of the room with his mum, dad and Lindsey, sneaking off home as soon as club duties were done.

Rob Burrow, George Riley
George Riley (second in from the right) with Rob Burrow and numerous other former Leeds Rhinos stars

As a tight Yorkshireman I would take advantage of our friendship during that golden era spanning from 2007 to 2017. Rob would always sort tickets if I wasn’t already commentating on the game, but would get his own back by leaving them under a different name in the ticket office which I would have to say out loud each time. These names  – apart from when it was Ron Burgundy – were mostly obscene.

Other than Anchorman, it was Ricky Gervais who underpinned Rob’s relentless lust for humour. There was something funny in everything. The moment about ten years ago that a WhatsApp group was born in which we could only communicate via quotes from The Office probably cemented an unspoken rule not to take anything too seriously.

Rob was always the one ripping his friends to pieces and going way beyond the boundaries of what might have been deemed acceptable. Even on the day of his public diagnosis, Rob privately broke the ice with the most politically incorrect assessment possible.

The illness: Rob’s diagnosis was devastating, his reaction to it superhuman, and the bond that we have watched between Rob and Lindsey since has shown what an extraordinary woman Lindsey is.

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The day that he went public with the news just before Christmas in 2019, we were due to be meeting for our festive social. I hadn’t heard from Rob all week so was in the process of typing some abuse for ghosting me before jumping on the train. Before I had finished the message the news popped up on my phone instead.

Everything changed.

You google Motor Neurone Disease and are physically sick with the horror stories. As Kevin Sinfield recalls, Rob was staring straight down the barrel of a loaded gun and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

A family man who had just retired and who was so excited about the rest of his life with his family in their new home, was now instead going to be tortured physically and mentally for as long as he could bear it.

But Rob would not let that be his final chapter. Instead, just as when they told him he was too small to play rugby with the big boys, he wrote his own story. And what a story.

His approach to, and acceptance – indeed the embracing of his fate – will genuinely change so many lives and has done already. None of this was fair, but you never heard ‘Why me?’. ’What we did hear was ‘Why not me? I’m a fit sportsman in good health so I’m probably better equipped than most to take this on’.

Shortly after his diagnosis I met with Sinfield at the Leeds training base in Kirkstall to discuss what we could do. Kevin obviously had his own extraordinary plans forming in his head that have almost single-handedly accelerated the push towards finding a cure. But what could we do as mates?

“Just be there for him, every day, and keep him laughing,” said Kevin. In truth it was Rob who would keep us laughing through these last few years. His humour, character, mischievousness, love – none of this ever dimmed as the disease took hold.

Visiting him every few weeks, firstly at home, and then at his parents where he would spend most days through the week, was incredible for the soul.

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All he would want to know was how his mates were getting on, he would howl with wall-shaking belly laughter whenever Barrie McDermott turned up. He adored Barrie, and Keith Senior, whose visits gave him massive lifts. It was a case of holding it all together for a couple of hours to keep Rob in a dressing room atmosphere, then crying a lot on the drive home.

“I remember reading that what happens with MND sufferers is that people stop seeing them because it is uncomfortable,” McDermott told me last summer. “I didn’t want to be one of those.

“I go because I appreciate it, I go for him. I get in my car sometimes and you are either really upset when you leave as you are traumatically affected by what he is going through, or you come out inspired. There aren’t any emotions in between.” 

I last saw Rob just a few weeks before he passed. Myself and our friend Stevie Ward would visit together – when Rob lost the use of his voice in the middle of 2020 we always made sure we arrived as a pair to fill the air with nonsense while Rob took time to type his responses on the EyeGaze technology that he used to communicate.

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This worked because he had banked his voice on the computer, but quite how it accepted some of the words he recorded I will never know. Rob’s spirit never faded even through his bad days. He was very, very poorly, but the light was always on.

Rob’s favourite film was The Shawshank Redemption. We last watched it together at his home one afternoon a couple of years ago, (probably the only time The Office wasn’t on).

Good friends Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd Redding reunite on the outside of prison after a lifetime of unjust incarceration. One particularly poignant scene I have watched on repeat most of this week, as “Red” remembers his friend after his escape, leaving Red behind.

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows that it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they are gone. I guess I just miss my friend.” 

Rob is free from pain and suffering now. A lot of people are heartbroken, the legacy of a man who was universally loved. But when that pain heals, that legacy left has allowed MND sufferers hope. It has given the nation a new mindset to attack life to the full, and it has showcased to a huge audience the very best of rugby league.

Rob was the very best of rugby league, and the very best of men.

He will never, ever be forgotten.

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