This might be one of the toughest blogs I have ever written – just as Newcastle Knights player Alex McKinnon is about to embark on the toughest challenge of his life.
When I first read about what happened, I felt sick to my stomach. After watching the first seven games of the NRL’s round three, I deleted the eighth straight off my Sky box, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it.
Thanks to the Footy Show on Thursday night though, I couldn’t avoid it and it was every bit as sickening as I feared. Why the Footy Show replayed it from so many angles is beyond me, and it was quite distressing seeing this young lad on the floor in so much agony and distress.
Alex was playing for Newcastle against Melbourne Storm last Monday night when just before half time he was brought to the ground in a tackle that has changed his life as he knows it.
As he thought he was being lifted right over, Alex tucked his head in to prepare for landing, but sadly, tragically and accidentally it has to be noted, Alex was driven into the ground just as he did so.
McKinnon had emergency surgery early on Tuesday morning in Melbourne to stabilise his neck. The surgery consisted of a disc removal at C4 and C5 and anterior fusion. The exact same operation I had at Leeds General Infirmary in the early hours of Monday June 25 2001.
As some of you may already know, on Sunday June 24 2001, at the age of 14, I was on a cross-country mountain bike course with my friends when I came off my bike at speed, flying over the handlebars and landing on the back of my neck, fracturing 4 vertebrae and slipping a disc at C4 and C5.
Initially I was taken to York District Hospital, and was quickly transferred to LGI for the emergency operation and a month in Intensive Care, before later being transferred to Pinderfields Spinal Unit in Wakefield for eight months of specialised care. I don’t think I can put in to words just how scared I was at the time.
Both my family and I found my injury very tough at first. I had to go through a lot of physical and mental changes and so many adaptations. Being told I would never walk again around four months in to my recovery was the scariest moment of my life, but crucially my fantastic friends and family always kept me positive, despite doing a 70 mile round trip to Pinderfields from York every single day – sometimes twice – which they kept up for the eight months I was in hospital.
The world-class specialists around Alex have warned it will take two years before he knows the extent of his injury, which is the same as what I was told too. Being a fit, strong and growing 14 year old I was lucky in the amount of movement I recovered in my arms as some Spinal Injury patients at that level don’t regain quite so much. Being a 22 year old full time athlete will definitely work in Alex’s favour.
When he is well enough, Alex will endure months of gruelling physical and mental recovery. Hours in the Gym and Occupational Therapy room will be unforgiving, but it will get easier. I have no doubt that Wayne Bennett, the Newcastle Knights and the NRL will provide Alex and his family with all the support they need, practically, financially and most importantly, emotionally.
After my accident I went on to finish school, college, then went to university and graduated with a degree in Sports Journalism. Rugby League has always been a huge part of my life, I attended my first game when I was still but a babe in arms and I played the game for my local team Heworth from the age of 6. It was all I was ever really interested in so I knew I still wanted to be deeply involved in the game so to sit here now writing for Love Rugby League and my beloved York City Knights, I feel truly lucky, privileged, and above all happy.
I am so thankful to the amazing, if at times brutal care I received from Natasha Green and her wonderful team at Pinderfields in 2001/2.
Natasha now works at the brilliant Tops Fitness in Wakefield with another familiar face in Rugby League and fellow spinal cord injury sufferer Jimmy Gittins. Check out his fantastic work with the State of Mind Rugby League charity.
Of course, there is the possible chance that the damage to Alex’s spinal cord isn’t as severe as mine was, and I think I can safely say I speak on behalf of the whole Rugby League community that we desperately hope that this is the case.
I’ve written this blog to show that it is so easy to suffer a life-changing injury, but that in no way means it has to be a life ending one.
I am proud of everything about my life, I absolutely love it. Alex can still be proud and love his life too, however it may turn out.