“Rugby taught me the most important life lessons; lessons of accountability, sacrifice, humility…” -Michael Halsey, New York Rugby Club
NEW YORK, NY – I felt the tell-tale “pop” in my right knee as my foot planted and my body twisted in an attempt to catch the pass thrown behind me. Cue searing pain, lots of screaming and the abrupt realisation that I had done serious damage to myself. Five weeks and an MRI later, I have the diagnosis of a torn right Anterior Cruciate Ligament, better known as a torn ACL; the bane of both professional and amateur athletes the world over. Surgery will take place within the next two weeks, with a projected full recovery time of about 12 months.
In the time since I injured myself I’ve done an awful lot of thinking: Why didn’t I stop playing at the end of last season? Why did that pass have to go behind me? What will surgery be like? How do I stop myself getting fat when I can’t run after the operation? All of these questions and plenty more have rifled through my head, and led to a bigger, ultimate question:
Why do rugby players, particularly amateurs, do this to themselves?
I’ve known for a very long time that I was never going to be a professional player. Rugby was never going to pay my bills, so why continually put myself in harms way? I could have looked to soccer, tennis, cycling, running or countless other fitness activities which didn’t involve running straight at people who want to beat me up. What’s the use in waking up every Sunday morning reaching for the painkillers feeling like someone’s tried to club me to death? And to add monetary insult to physical injury, amateur players are paying for this privilege in the form of club dues along with sacrificed free time. I could easily have been spending that Saturday five weeks ago sitting on my couch, sipping a beer and watching some Aviva Premiership action, safe and cozy in a cocoon of blankets, and I’d probably be walking around today with a fully intact ACL. At 32 years old, that would arguably have actually been the sensible thing to be doing.
Do I regret playing on that day?
Given the opportunity again, would I come up with an excuse to get out of the match? The answer to both questions is a firm and immediate “No.” I started playing rugby when I was a shy 11 year old, immediately thrown into the starting XV at a new school as a lock forward, purely on account of my height. I had never played a game before in my life. As a quietly spoken, reserved child this was a borderline terrifying experience; surrounded by children who had been playing for years and who seemed intent on hurting me. All I wanted to do was return to playing soccer, but that wasn’t an autumn sport option at this new school. The physical nature of the sport petrified my devout Catholic mother, who would pray every week that I would finally be dropped from the team. My first coach, unusually for an English school, was an American, who saw my reluctance but encouraged me to use my size advantage to start “knocking people over” and eventually… I did. I started to see that actually, I could impose myself on other players and be effective as a ball carrier, line out jumper and scrummager, and as the months wore on and I started to learn the game, I started to fall in love with it. This newfound confidence on the rugby pitch started to carry over into everyday life as I became more self-assured as a person, more confrontational in the face of bullying and more comfortable speaking publicly.
As I progressed through my adolescent years playing multiple sports, I found that rugby taught me the most important life lessons; lessons of accountability, sacrifice, humility, teamwork, leadership, respect, conflict resolution and handling defeat. I believe rugby to be the ultimate team sport, and I credit it a huge amount with making me the man I am today. Rugby has been responsible for some of the most incredible and memorable experiences of my life, from captaining a team on a six-week tour of Australia aged 18, to training half way up a mountain in the Alps with my club side in Austria, to wearing dangerously short jean shorts on a night out in Austin, Texas. None of this would have happened without rugby in my life.
When I moved from London to New York eight years ago, joining New York Rugby Club (oldest in USA, est 1929) immediately introduced me to 50 new friends who would form the foundation for this city starting to feel like home. I have been fortunate enough to play rugby in multiple countries around the world and I can genuinely say that regardless of whether you’re in Melbourne in Australia, Innsbruck in Austria or St Rambert D’Albon in France, rugby players are cut from a similar cloth; the type of people who will welcome you with open arms, buy you a beer, take an interest in who you are and give you a couch to crash on at a moment’s notice if need be. Over the years, rugby has continually introduced me to these kinds of people, many of whom I’m now fortunate enough to call lifelong friends.
With all this in mind, when faced with a little soul searching after encountering my first serious injury, making peace with the situation has been fairly easy. Rugby has given me so, so much in life that one operation and a few months of recovery are a very small price to pay. After 21 years of playing I am extremely fortunate not to have suffered far more serious injuries which I have sadly seen befall others, and a torn ACL can occur slipping on ice, falling down stairs or dancing at a wedding (this happened to a work colleague of mine), so this could easily have occurred even if I had given up rugby years ago.
To answer my own questions, I have absolutely no regrets about my rugby career; the benefits and good times far outweigh the crushing defeats and now, debilitating injury. This is just my personal story; every rugger out there will have their own version of how the game has helped shape their life and bought them happiness, in spite of the physical toll it may take. Here’s to many more of those stories being written.
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