These days it’s refreshing to hear of a youngster signing for a local team, rising through the ranks and leading them to glory.
And if Rugby League needed its own version of football’s Roy of the Rovers, perhaps Stevie Ward fits the bill, a talented local lad who supported Leeds Rhinos. He signed for the academy in 2005 aged 12 and quickly gained a remarkable reputation for his uncompromising style.
He made his first team debut with Leeds in 2012, going on to win the Super League three times and two Challenge Cups, including the 50 points to zero thrashing of Hull Kingston Rovers. “That was a good day,” said Stevie in his understated way.
In December 2019, Stevie became captain of the Rhino’s First Team. But soon after, he sustained debilitating concussion injuries. Just a month later in a game against Wigan, Stevie’s head got caught between another player and the pitch. After taking another jolting hit in the second half, Stevie felt unsteady and was substituted. However, on the way home he felt the nausea so common with concussion.
Immediately following this first brain injury, Stevie took a break from training in line with Rugby League’s concussion protocol, which mandates a gradual return to play and a minimum of six full days between games. He returned two weeks later when a coming together of heads saw Stevie needing stitches, but worse was to follow as Stevie experienced painful fogginess, anxiety, and more nausea. He hasn’t played rugby since.
After the concussions, Stevie continued to experience migraines, dizzy spells, nausea, confusion, and anxiety. He was sensitive to noise, light and looking at screens triggered migraines. Exercise also triggered nausea and headaches which was particularly hard to deal with. Showing little improvement over time, Stevie retired from professional rugby in January 2020 aged 27.
This coincided with the pandemic, and a lockdown. Stevie battled physical symptoms and a sense of uncertainty and loss following his retirement. His routine was gone, and he couldn’t exercise or mix with loved ones. Stevie was in a dark place.
He credits partner Natalie with helping him through. “It’s not just the person injured who takes the load; your partner lives that journey with you. She was my rock, and I owe her an immense debt for sticking it out,” said Stevie.
A couple of years on and Stevie is seeing gradual improvements in his health and is even training for a 5k run. “There are still good days and bad, but the bad days are becoming less frequent,” he said.
One of the things that helped Stevie was his mental health initiative, Mantality. Founded in 2016, Mantality supports men with their mindset, mental health and to consider counselling.
He said: “It does take courage to be open and put your feelings out there, convincing others that it’s ok to take up counselling. Our mission with Mantality is to encourage people to be more open about their feelings and mental health and to seek professional support.”
Stevie believes improvements have been made to help protect Rugby League players. “Head Injury Assessment was brought in the same year I made my Leeds debut. I felt lucky it was in place and it is being taken more seriously, though I really want people to see concussion for what it is, a brain injury.
The term concussion doesn’t reflect the seriousness of what’s happening; it’s a hidden effect, but the brain is still inflamed, still injured. You can play on with some injuries, but the last thing you want to do is play on with an injured brain.
“The game is going through a transition in how it treats brain injury, but it’s a challenge allowing the game to keep its identity whilst not risking the long-term health of players.”
One of Stevie’s most memorable rugby moments was playing in a testimonial match for Rob Burrows, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) aged 37.
Stevie said: “My injuries are bad at times, but there are others worse off; it’s sobering the emergence of rugby professionals with MND, dementia and other illnesses. Not just players who retired years ago; current players are getting ill most likely from how casually brain injury has been looked at in the past.
“There was no more powerful experience than captaining the team for Rob Burrows’ testimonial.
The care and empathy everyone felt that day. We need to take that emotion and use it to look after players and safeguard the future of the game. Professionals should be allowed to do the job they love without risking their future health.
In October 2022, Stevie appeared alongside Headway’s Interim Chief Executive Luke Griggs at a government round table discussing concussion in sport. Stevie provided a detailed personal testimony, while contributing to the discussion on how to improve player welfare and safety at a professional and grassroots level.
You can find out more about Headway’s ongoing concussion in sport campaign at headway.org.uk/concussion-aware.
Click on this link for details of the Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon.
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