Concussions in sport: I stopped playing after sustaining head knocks

I was 63 not out and batting beautifully, flaying Weston Creek fifths all over Rivett Oval. Cut shots, pull shots, mighty heaves down town. I was 16 years old and surely on the way to a hundred. And then they brought on the Angel. He was quite a bit quicker than his pals.

The Angel (known so for his surname) bowled a half-tracker that I shaped to hook. There followed a meaty “thock” not of leather on willow but rather Kookaburra six-stitcher connecting flush with right temporal bone. And, helmet-free, down onto the synthetic wicket I went.

I got up pretty quickly, though, dazed more than injured – a bit of a sore head, but I knew what was going on. I thought I could have kept on batting but umpires and captains advised I retire hurt, so off I toddled. I pulled off my gloves, sat on a bench and heard the chirp of bird song that began playing in my head. I sang along with it while metallic spit filled my mouth. And that was my last memory until I woke in hospital the next day.

I’d had a seizure. Went all blue and purple, thrashed about. My poor old team-mates were in all sorts. They bundled me into a V8 Commodore and sped up Hindmarsh Drive to hospital, pouring water on me, cradling my neck, doing their best as good people do.

Twenty years later, another one. I was punched by a drunk, hard, on the top of the head. More stunned than concussed, I was able to walk home, where I sat on the couch and had a seizure watching TV. I awoke up surrounded by police and ambos, concerned flatmates. And it was up to hospital again.

After a week of MRIs and scans, a doctor pointed to some anomaly on a brain wave chart, and said: “Epilepsy.” A form of it, anyway. The doctor said he wouldn’t have known where to look if I hadn’t mentioned the cricket incident. Apparently it had lain dormant. It had taken those two knocks to bring it on. They’re the only two seizures I’ve had but it’s safe to say I haven’t played rugby or cricket, or put my head near anything fast and hard, ever since.

James Graham has and will. The St George Illawarra Dragons front-rower and England international says the thrill of rugby league overrides the risk of brain injury. He argues that people over-indulge in alcohol and tobacco despite knowing the risks. He says his grandma has dementia though she never played rugby league. He’s researched things, conducted tests upon himself. And he says: “What are you supposed to do? Stop playing?”

Well, maybe.

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The eighth Immortal of rugby league, Andrew Johns, revealed the extent of his epilepsy in a fine and raw interview with his brother Matthew on Monday night. Another Immortal, Wally Lewis, told a similar tale in separate interviews with Fairfax and News Corp, describing his own seizures, his empathy with Johns and his desire to play the game he loved despite the brain-fog of physical battle.

Neither man blames rugby league for their condition. Neither man could definitively say – because experts cannot either – that the head injuries they suffered on the football field exacerbated or otherwise brought on their epilepsy. They may have still had epilepsy if they’d been concert pianists.

Yet as Melbourne neurologist Mark Cook declared in Fairfax’s Good Weekend: “Even through mild brain injuries, the risk [of developing epilepsy] is at least doubled.”

Former player Ian Roberts says he can “absolutely empathise” with Johns and Lewis after their diagnoses. Roberts was told he had “irreversible brain damage” early in 2014. He says he’s saddened but not surprised by Johns’s revelation.

“To be quite literally informed you have some sort of brain damage is a shock,” says Roberts. “And I use the term ‘brain damage’ on purpose. When people talk about a ‘head knock’ it somehow makes it sort of OK. But it is brain damage. And it’s going to take these high-profile cases for the subject to get the air time.”

Roberts points to a 50-man Deakin University study that he was a part of that looked at the effects of concussion. There were 25 footballers and 25 men of a similar age who hadn’t played contact sport. They were studied, tested and scanned. And every one of the players was positive for some form of brain damage, according to Roberts. “Of the 25 men in the control group, only three came back positive.”

Nevertheless, Roberts says he understands and respects Graham’s opinion. “I hear what he’s saying. He’s talking about his own situation. And it’s fine for him to have his perspective, his opinion. I’m not talking down to him – it’s fine that he doesn’t mind risking his mental health to play a sport that he loves. But I’d say not everyone feels the same way.”

Roberts agrees with Graham: it’s everyone’s choice whether to play contact sport. “But not everyone knows all the facts,” he says. “People should be aware of the potential for brain injury in contact sport. We’re encouraging kids to play sport and that’s great. But if they’re contact sports, it’s about making parents aware of the risks.

“It’s not about wrapping kids in cotton wool. It’s about putting the information out there and letting people make an informed decision. A lot of people don’t have the information. There are preventative measures.”

On Tuesday morning, before I’d written any of this, my wife sent me a text with a link to an article about Johns and the question: “Should our boys really be playing these head sports?”

I still haven’t written back. I’m not sure of the answer.