RIP Rob Burrow, the greatest rugby league superhero of them all

Aaron Bower

We crave our superheroes in this sport sometimes. The people who, like Rob Burrow, produce the most incredible feats of athleticism but are hidden away to the wider world.

But in many ways, we almost like that. They’re our stars. And nobody else’s. But Rob Burrow was always destined to break out of the rugby league bubble, you felt – and how he did that.

The news of his passing at the age of just 41 after the most courageous of battles with Motor Neurone Disease will have stopped many in their tracks. Not just in our sport, but across the whole country – millions of people will have followed his fight and held nothing but admiration and awe for the way Burrow tackled this cruel illness.

But those who were fortunate enough to see Burrow play knew that’s exactly what he’d do. Never one to take a backward step, always one to take a battle head-on, Burrow defied expectations throughout his playing career given his size and went on to achieve what only a fraction of individuals have done. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that he did exactly the same following news of his diagnosis being made public in 2019.

There was never any time for Rob to take a step back. From the moment he went public, he was adamant he would fight, and he would do everything he could to help other people living with the condition. He did it with a smile on his face, and with the utmost optimism. He was always the same Burrow who would stop in the tunnel win, lose or draw to speak about his beloved Leeds Rhinos – and do so with that trademark smile and upbeat attitude.

And just like in his playing career, it is his selflessness, his willingness to put other people before himself, that made Burrow the simply incredible human being he will forever be. As a player, it was team first: it was never about Rob Burrow, it was about Leeds Rhinos.

And post-playing, he did not want to focus on his own battle with MND. He wanted to instead shine a light on those who have suffered in silence with the condition, and raise awareness. Not for him, not for his own battle. But for the battle everyone living with MND was going through. Team first, individual second. That was Rob Burrow.

It was evident at every turning. The scenes when Kevin Sinfield helped him across the line at the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon will remain with many of us forever. But that day helped build the legacy which will now become apparent over the coming years when the Rob Burrow Centre for MND at Seacroft Hospital is built.

Even in Leeds’ wonderfully poignant and touching tribute on Sunday, they confirmed that Burrow requested the groundbreaking of that hospital went ahead as planned on Monday. In a world filled with hate, evil, and abuse, Rob Burrow CBE taught us all how to live. He is and forever will be a shining light of hope.

Incidentally, Sinfield, another human being who represents the very best of us, should also be in our thoughts at this time.

Those who were privileged enough to watch Burrow perform as a genuine rugby league superstar always knew that his heroics deserved to be showcased to a worldwide audience. He was, to league supporters, one of our hidden gems. 

But now, the whole world will never forget Rob Burrow and the legacy he has helped create to have a positive impact on so many lives both now and in the future. If you were fortunate enough to witness him play, you were lucky. But the truth is that the world was a lucky place simply to have Rob Burrow.

In years to come, there will be people who owe their lives to the tireless work Burrow did while he himself was going through such an immense battle. For that, we all owe him the greatest gratitude of them all.

He broke the hearts of so many opposition supporters as a player: but how he won them back and so much more with his incredible bravery in recent years. A superhero on the field: but so, so much more than that off it. The world will miss Rob Burrow: but it will never forget him.