The Sports Chronicle: I used to be a rugby player
I used to be a rugby player.
Technically, I’m still a quadriplegic.
Really, these days, I’m plain old Ed Jackson walking without any assistance.
Most importantly, we are Ed and Lois.
The two of us married last summer in Tuscany on the date that was always planned. Another little part of this miracle.
Most people in the spinal unit have given up. Left with little or no hope, they pack it in. Accept they’ll never walk or even move again.
On my first night I remember this guy tapping his foot against the metallic wheelchair while watching MTV. He’d just had a suprapubic catheter put into his bladder. This hollow flexible tube drains urine from people who can no longer take a voluntary piss.
We got to talking.
“No way I’m ever going to walk again” Nasser tells me.
“Says who, mate?”
“Surgeon, doctor, nurses…everyone really.”
He’s tapping away. “What else can you do?”
He raises his foot. “They not try get you walking?”
“No, they said I’d never walk again.”
I beckoned Rick to wheel himself over (Beckoning was my specialty in the latter months of 2017. Couldn’t do much else below my broken neck).
Rick is as driven as they come. I caught him after hours in the computer room… using the consoles to stand himself up.
Rick became an instant ally and remains a good friend.
We started dragging Nasser down the gym. Three weeks later I left the spinal unit. About six months past when he called: “Ed, I’m walking with a stick, out of the wheelchair, mate.”
The rest of his life could have been very different if he believed what the experts told him. Makes you wonder how many people have given up because they are given the worst-case scenario? There’s nothing wrong with rolling around in a wheelchair, mind. That was supposed to be my lot after what happened.
I climb mountains now.
I’m from Bath. Always supported the club growing up and entered their academy straight from school. But I came to rugby quite late. I was a swimmer, a tennis player originally.
My swimming scholarship ended when I realised five hours a week under water wasn’t for me. Funny how it goes. Under water is where my body has a clear advantage over most humans, or I’m at least their equal.
But as a boy I wanted to be around my mates so that meant rugby. I was good at it. Got picked for England Schools and that was it, my singular focus was to become a professional. Aged 16 Bath told me there was a place in their academy which was stupid information to give a teenager as I stopped working. I’d made it. The A Levels weren’t flushed down the drain, but I definitely underachieved.
English professional clubs used to steer you away from studies. Takes up too much time. Train, rest, sleep, play. Be a machine. Not very character forming for the long road.
Still, joining Bath was a boyhood dream. Making my debut aged 18 against the Leicester Tigers was beyond my wildest imagination. There was an injury crisis in the backrow so in I went. You think that’s impressive, Ben Youngs also made his debut in the same game, aged 16.
Alesana Tuilagi ran straight over me. Standard welcome to the Premiership. That’s also when my shoulder started dislocating. I missed about 18 months and Bath decided to cut ties.
The highs and lows of professional rugby can be ridiculous. England under-18 captain, starting for Bath and next thing I know I was up north lining out for Doncaster in The Championship.
Turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was a tackle bag at Bath but dropping down a league I could develop as a 21-year-old backrow against good players. Most importantly I was playing week in, week out.
Those nine, ten months saw me progress as a player more than the previous 20 years. After two more progressive seasons with London Welsh, Wasps came in for me.
I never played for England at Twickenham, didn’t feature at a World Cup or on a Lions tour but I look back on a successful pro career. Some would call me a journey man; five clubs, playing Premiership, Championship, back up to big league, over to the Pro12 with the Dragons while living in London, Oxford, and Cardiff.
Then, one beautiful sunny April day, I dived into the pool…
I’d signed for two more years at the Dragons. We lost all the time but great club, loved my teammates, seriously good people about the place.
Recovering from another shoulder op, dislocate again in January playing Ulster in Belfast, the Dragons had a double header at the Millennium stadium so I went back to Bath for the weekend. It was a scorcher. We went to a friend’s house to swim in their pool. My parents were there as well. Dad used to be a GP.
Took my top off and walked towards the waterfall feature in the swimming pool. Because of the ripples I presumed that was the deep end. I smacked my head off the bottom. It was about three feet. Despite a hard impact, I didn’t lose consciousness. Going to need a few stitches here. When I went to stand up something was seriously wrong. Confusion cloaked by panic. It is such an alien feeling, not being able to move. The primal fear of drowning can scar your psyche.
Oddly, it’s not a negative memory. I like the fact I can think about the accident. There is no stone unturned.
Dad was in the pool. He knew to keep me still. I had a little movement in my left side but that quickly drained away. We floated at the side of the pool for 45 minutes.
I had to be in shock, “You look worse than me”, I told my petrified looking mate.
This kept happening. People would walk into intensive care and their faces would betray them, the colour would drain. I couldn’t see myself, couldn’t see the tubes, I was inside myself, always trying to put on a brave face, counselling everyone who came in.
Except for rugby friends. They would take the piss. Simon McIntyre, the Wasps prop, chucked three juggling balls on my chest, “Seeing as you are going to be here for a while you might as well learn new skill.”
“I’m paralysed, mate.”
Simon knew that but the normality was needed.
I felt guilty seeing how traumatic it was for Lois and my mum. The scene in the waiting room was morbid, but they brought positivity but until I showed sign of recovery the vibe was grim.
When rugby wasn’t going as planned, I always stayed the same. When I was playing out of my skin, same guy. Floating in a pool after a fracture dislocation of my C6 and C7 joints, I cracked a joke. When stuck in the hospital those initial few days trying to process the expert view that I would never walk again, I kept it together. Stayed as calm as was humanely possible. Even when I couldn’t move a muscle.
My parents and others who helped shape me instilled certain values.
For the first four days it was possible I’d never get out of a bed again. Not on my own. I presumed I was conscious throughout the whole process.
I wasn’t. There were gaps from the moment my head smacked the bottom of the pool until I reached the hospital.
A 15-minute ambulance journey from where I broke my neck actually took two and a half hours. It felt like 15 minutes to me, but I missed the three stoppages to revive me.
That gives me perspective. It could have been over, all of it.
I could have died. Very nearly did.
These days I appreciate the simple things. Walking to my car, putting the key in the front door brings a surge of happiness. It was all going to be taken away from me.
Standing is one of my favourite past times! Just being able to move my arms, pure joy. Making a cup of coffee changes my mood.
I went from being a professional athlete – the big man walking down the street, recognised in my environment – to nothing. Bed-bound, needing to be fed, dressed, washed.
Your ego takes a hammering. Come out the other side and you have this wonderful perspective.
Now, I’ll probably never run again – didn’t really like it to be honest – and I’m half the size I once was. There’s a lot of limping in my future due to the left ankle but it could have been way worse.
There is a 40 percent rule – people only tend to try that hard when they think they are at 100 percent. My baseline has changed dramatically. Reckon I’m at about 250 percent these days.
Being able to walk feels like I’ve got super powers. Climb a mountain with me and I’ll drive you nuts with the levels of positivity.
That has become this life’s calling – to help others in similar situations.
I was never really alone during the day. So many friends put their lives on hold to put the hours in. You can’t get through it without that sort of support.
The nights were tough. Your brain plays tricks on you because, initially, there was no end in sight.
With a rugby injury – and I’ve had loads – you know with near certainty if I hit each marker I’d be back on the field in six weeks, three months, whatever target the doc/physio gives you.
Wiggling the big toe on my right foot became my personal war. You can’t do anything. You can’t move. So, you imagine your toe wiggling.
That becomes frustrating and then it becomes traumatising, then you get deeply upset.
One motivation rose above everything else: Lois and my parents. You can’t have done this to them. They can’t be looking after you for the rest of your life.
Especially Lois. We had just got engaged. She didn’t sign up for this. That was my driving force.
Blog extract by Lois, Day Two –
“To see my rock, my big protector lying strapped down to the bed with wires and tubes sticking out everywhere was terrifying. I had been told that each person reacts to trauma differently. For me, I stared blankly at a wall for most the time and tried to piece together what the hell was happening. It was only when I sat in the waiting room and thought about the ifs and buts that I broke down. I sobbed and sobbed but only for a short period of time as something inside of me told me I had to keep it together in front of Ed.”
Up until day five the doctor was clear: you’ll almost definitely never walk again. Hopefully you’ll get the use of your arms back, so you can use a wheelchair. They felt I was in too positive a mindset, that I hadn’t accepted what was going on.
Bloody right, I hadn’t. That was the turning point for me. That’s it. every waking hour was me and my big toe.
I stayed present. Ditch regret about the past and dreams of the future. It keeps you in a positive mental state to get through each and every day. I still live that way, keeps my mind healthy.
Twenty-four hours later my finger flicked.
“Mum! Get in here!”
Later that evening my toe wiggled. Happiest moment of my life (I’d yet to get married so it’s since been demoted).
Am I going to be able to walk again?
Prognosis: maybe. Could be a spasm.
I did it again.
“Mum, you got to see this!”
The next six months were the scariest, most exciting, confusing, uncomfortable, interesting and exhausting I’ll ever know.
The idea to climb mountains started because it’s the opposite of what I’m supposed to do.
Sudoku as a hobby isn’t going to work. Initially it was Mount Snowdon in Wales one year after the accident. I had started walking with poles on nine months.
The physios said I was bonkers. “No way Ed.”
“I’m going to do it anyway, so you can come if you want.”
The reasoning was simple: I’m a rugby player – I needed a target to aim at, a game, the next season. Hours upon hours of rehab with no specific goal was crushing my spirit.
Mount Snowdon gave me hope.
Remember, I’d been told a few months previously that I’d never walk again. A lot of people on the spinal unit heard the same words and packed in all hope. The medical expert gives you the guarded prognosis because they don’t want to open themselves to litigation.
That is something I am determined to change because the majority of people hear that and shut down. I was lucky. I met Pete. Others hear the doctor’s words and they believe it as truth.
Negative prognosis, as a starting point, is something I’m keen to see altered. The NHS are almost on board. The doctor doesn’t want to say that in every case and they can be toeing the party line but we encountered some amazing individuals that helped me along the way. The first person to say out loud that I had a chance of walking again was a physio called Pete – a guy that represents everything that’s great about the NHS. It was week three, just after leaving intensive care, and his words filled me with belief. Everyone won’t be lucky enough to meet a Pete.
The Game I Love
Rugby is over but it’ll always be part of my life. I’m working with Channel 4 at the moment covering Ireland’s November Internationals. Putting questions to Rory Best and Kieran Read this Saturday night at the Aviva. The only major stadium in this part of the world I never ran about.
No more running for me.
That’s got nothing to do with rugby, but we are all wondering where the sport going? This used to be an all-consuming conversation for me. Until the accident I used to tackle low or chest high with arms down but that’s only because I’ve had four shoulder surgeries. The swinging arm tackles we see from a player like Owen Farrell would only pop my shoulder out of its socket. I got good at the low arm tackle technique. A coach would be foolish for trying to turn Farrell into a chop tackler at this stage in his career – he’d only start missing more tackles, he’d get hurt too.
But rugby is at a crossroads. No doubt about it.
If these injuries and concussions keep happening the sport will inevitably die. We must enact drastic change. We’ve seen what is happening to American Football. I think the only way to combat the problem is less players on the pitch. Create more space, make it a disadvantage to be huge.
As a kid you get shown how to tackle low – shoulder in tight, hit hips or below. The problems occur when people start getting bigger and running around, sticking your head in where their knees and hips are propelling becomes counter intuitive.
There are statistics to say stood up tackles equal more injuries, but I find that hard to believe. The only times I ever got knocked out was from a hip or knee, when tackling low.
The game has not gone soft. I see where that idea is coming from but my attitude to concussion – as a professional rugby player for 10 years – was that it’s just part of the game. I used to get knocked out all the time. Now I realise that was clearly not a good way of thinking. It’s not sustainable for players to be flying in with big hits, it’s more fun to watch them, but if it’s to the detriment of the sport’s survival then it’s not worth it.
Everyone is getting bigger, everyone is getting stronger, so solutions are harder to find. You can become more powerful as an athlete, but you can’t train your skull to get thicker, so impacts are getting harder, injuries are getting worse.
The nipple height rule is tricky because people are different sizes. It doesn’t make sense to me. My solution? Less players on the pitch. But that is the end of rugby as we know it.
Genuinely, I would love my kids to play rugby all the way through school, but I wouldn’t want them to be a professional unless they were at scrum-half or maybe fullback. That’s very unlikely. The way the game has gone I wouldn’t want them involved. Too much risk.
The challenges rugby faces won’t be solved by me, my focus needs to be on the impact I can make elsewhere, and it began by climbing that mountain.
What was it like on top of the highest peak in Wales?
Mount Snowdon began as a dream. Then it was an impossible mission. Eventually it was the hardest task I’ve ever attempted. The rugby player version of me, the number eight, would have packed it in. You never want to do it again. Then you reach the top and forget about all the pain. Within a week I’d signed up for the next charity climb.
This gives me the opportunity to repay every penny the charities gave me during my recovery period. That’s important to me.
I’ve an idea in my mind. I want to bring other people who are struggling up the peaks I’ve scaled – they could be overcoming injury, ex-forces, people repatriating out of prison or suffering from mental health issues.
I’ve seen how it helps, I’m proof it works. Just keep climbing.