A few days ago I spent a few hours walking around an old Abbey with my family, taking advantage of one of the few days of real, hot sun we get a year around here. Perhaps mistakenly, my chosen footwear for the day were no more than a pair of flimsy flip-flops.
Pottering around some uneven terrain, my foot slipped on some loose rocks, jarring my right ankle. Had this happened on my left, there would be no issue, but the second my right rolled, I knew I’d be spending the next few days with my leg elevated, wearing an unattractive, but extremely necessary, support.
To fully understand how and why, I need to revisit an incident nine years prior, and the most physical pain I’ve ever experienced: breaking my leg, dislocating my ankle, and snapping the surrounding tendons and ligaments.
Rugby League is a simple game that requires commitment, strength, and above all else, discipline. My playing style then is much the same as it is now; risky in possession, flamboyant handling, and geared towards attractive attacking play – my defensive attitude is very much Dimitar Berbatov, if you will.
The accident happened when I was playing an away game at Kings Cross in Halifax early in September, in one of our first games of the season. Around midway through the first half, the scoreline was close, but we hadn’t seen much of the ball. Taking an early drive inside our own half as I often did, I saw a gap in their defence and made a diagonal run toward it.
The first tackle came toward my right hand side in attempt to unsettle my ball carrying arm, but I knew I had the better of the defender on his own. Planting my right leg hard in to the turf, I attempted to shift my weight in the opposite direction to break the tackle, essentially performing an elaborate pirouette to gain a few more precious yards forwards.
As my upper-body rotated, solely supported by one standing leg, a second tackler blindsided me at full pace, forcing me back from the way I came. It was a hard, but fair, tackle – the kind that is clapped across rugby league pitches across the land. This one, however, was met with silence.
I don’t remember screaming on my way down, but I’ve always been told that I did. All I can really remember is hearing a loud ‘pop’ as my right leg was left under an unintended three-man pile on. The first people to reach me were my coaches, who debated on whether or not to remove my boot after concluding that my ankle had ‘gone’ – it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear at the time.
Not long after, my Dad was with me on the pitch. In reality, I think it only took two or three minutes to get me up and carry me off, but it felt like an age. Dad left me slumped on the touchline while he ran to get the car, and not long after we were speeding toward the closest hospital.
On the phone to my Mum, that’s when I first felt myself crying. It’s not the most masculine thing to admit, but I was in the most pain I’d ever felt in my life, and sheer concern and adrenaline getting off the pitch and in to the car is all that had held me together until that point. After consoling me and trying not to breakdown herself, she told us to avoid Halifax hospital – for obvious reasons – and head to Huddersfield, my hometown.
Although we lived in Leeds, and still do, Huddersfield was the best option given where we were coming from. With my Grandparents only five minutes away from the Infirmary, it meant we had somewhere to go during the inevitable rehabilitation that would follow.
During the journey, Dad tried to make light of the situation and make jokes. Among the highlights, he told me that “it’s not all bad – we’ll be able to park in the disabled spaces now”, which only served to panic me and amuse him.
After a long wait in A&E, I was finally seen by a triage nurse, who didn’t believe that my leg was actually broken. Although I asked her not to, she proceeded to pull off my boot with an unnecessary amount of force, before taking off my mud soaked rugby sock by hand while I screamed, rather than cutting it off like I’d asked numerous times beforehand. She was, in truth, genuinely lucky that I didn’t kick her in the throat with my one good leg right there and then.
An x-ray followed that we wouldn’t see until the day after with the specialist, and a temporary plaster cast made for the night while the swelling was still at its worst. I was given crutches I didn’t know how to use properly and sent home to elevate my leg above my heart for as long as possible and return the following day.
A restless night behind me, we returned to see the specialist, and find out exactly what had happened to my leg during that tackle. The explanation, it’s safe to say, wasn’t what either my Mother or I were expecting to hear.
The pressure of my leg going back from the way it came with three people on top of it had snapped the majority of my ligaments and tendons toward the lower part of my right leg. In turn, the velocity in which they had snapped caused a piece of my lower fibula to break free, dislocating my ankle. It was then, as it still is now, fucked.
To add insult to injury, quite literally, I then had to have my permanent cast applied, which wouldn’t be leaving my leg for the foreseeable future, my leg underneath still muddy and unwashed from the scene of the incident. It transpired that the leg had begun to heal overnight at the wrong angle due to the dislocated ankle, so for the second time in two days, my leg was broken and put in to a cast, this time forced in to the right position in order to heal in the right manner.
Around eighteen months later – countless sessions of rehabilitation and consultations behind me – I made my return to the rugby pitch, my right ankle housed in an expensive, yet extremely necessary, sports support. As fate would have it, we played the side I had broken my leg against last time out. I came through the match not having played particularly well, but in one piece, which was the main objective of the night. Soon after the match my lower leg began to ache in a manner I’ve become worryingly used to, and was slightly inflamed for a few days afterward.
Now, nine years later, the slightest excursion causes pain, and unexpected incidents such as the small slip I opened with trigger hours spent with my leg atop a tower of pillows. When I told my friend I go to the gym with the story, he told me that he “knew there was a reason you’re rubbish on leg day!”, and for once, he wasn’t actually wrong.
If I can live out the rest of my days and never feel a physical pain that matches the one I felt back then, I’ll be a very happy man.