Brain-damaged rugby star speaks out

Nic OLeary still loves rugby and would play today if a serious brain injury had not changed his life
Nic OLeary still loves rugby and would play today if a serious brain injury had not changed his life

As England celebrates its Six Nations Grand Slam, Bognor Regis man Nic O’Leary is thinking of the days he could have played for Wales.

A blow to the head while playing rugby in London put paid to that idea and left the 23-year-old with a brain injury that has changed his life.

Nic, who played with the Welsh Exiles, was just 16 when he was injured. He played on, not realising he had serious concussion, and a second knock to the head exacerbated the injury.

“I suffered an injury which has changed my life and it has been a struggle yet I would not change anything about rugby,” he said. “I would do it all over again and if I could, I would still play today. I feel lost without it. It was my life.”

Nic probably would have turned professional and despite his injury bringing that dream to an end, he has spoken out passionately against a campaign to ban collision elements on rugby played in schools.

He is strongly opposed to the appeal by the Sport Collision Injury Collective, made in a recent open letter to ministers, chief medical officers and children’s commissioners.

He said it was important for players to learn how to tackle correctly from a young age, but at the same time there was a need to raise more awareness about concussion and early recognition of the signs of brain injury.

“Even though I am someone who has suffered a serious injury, I still believe it is not a good idea to stop the contact in rugby,” said Nic.

“When you step on a rugby pitch, it is like stepping in a boxing ring, you know how it is. Taking away contact is the same as telling boxers they can’t hit each other any more. It just seems ridiculous to me.

“You take that away, you kill the game, you may as well stop international rugby. You can’t learn it unless you learn it from the grassroots.”

Seven years of misdiagnosis hampered Nic’s recovery and it was only last year that the cause of his symptoms was correctly diagnosed.

“People have been more aware of concussion and how to deal with it as soon as it arises, which is important,” said Nic.

“That can stop people going through what I had to go through.”

Nic said being involved in rugby taught him a lot.

“I don’t think people realise exactly how playing in a team benefits you” he explained.

“There are things rugby teaches, things you can take into the real world to help you be successful. Everything I learned – dressing smartly, control, being brave – has been because of rugby.

“Young teenage lads get a build-up of testosterone and stress and it is a way to let that out. If you stop the contact, you are not getting the energy out. Then people will turn to other ways to get it out.”

Nic is using his devastating experience to help others by adding his support to charity Headway’s ‘If in doubt – sit it out’ concussion awareness campaign.

He has shared his story at www.headway.org.uk and hopes to break down the stigma of ‘bravely playing on’, urging sports clubs and player of all ages and levels to take a safety-first approach to head-injuries.

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