First published in Rugby League World, Issue 389 (Sept 2013)
I remember the paramedic leaning over me holding my head, and asking him to let me die because I remember just thinking what my life would be like in a wheelchair.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan listens to arguably the most remarkable story in Rugby League – how Matt King has turned his life around since his devastating 2004 accident
Matt King’s journey since the day that changed his life forever nine years ago is both incredible and moving.
That journey has seen him be awarded an OBE, become an inspirational speaker – with clients including the NHS – play a part in carrying last year’s Olympic flame and much, much more.
At the age of 17, Matt was paralysed from the neck down and is unable to breathe independently, following an accident during a tackle in his first Academy game for the London Broncos back in 2004.
Although I had heard a lot about Matt and his journey, it wasn’t until the Four Nations tournament in 2011 that we actually met, when he was the guest speaker and presenter at our shirt presentation before the first game against Australia at Wembley. I don’t think there are many who could match the potency of Matt’s message and I certainly can’t capture it all in just a few pages, but I really wanted to hear from one of the most inspiring individuals of our game.
His granddad had a clear influence on him as youngster, leading him to rugby after his own experiences playing in the RAF. He started in union, where he was spotted playing by the dad of current Bronco Matt Cook, who took him to play for Bedford Tigers. He joined the Broncos scholarship programme at 14, the Academy two years later, and it was on his debut for the club at 17 that his life was turned upside down.
Three members of the Rugby League World traveled down to Bedford to meet Matt, and there was a distinct silence from all of us as we tethered ourselves to every word he said as he spoke about the day of the accident.
Understandably Matt has very clear memories of the day he sustained his injury and is detailed about his thoughts and feelings. I’ll be honest, at this stage of an interview I would try to throw in my own thoughts, beliefs and ideas about what is being said.
For the first time in five years though, I have nothing that can add to what Matt has to say.
“When the Academy fixtures came out, before the season kicked off we played Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire in a regional tournament in Sheffield,” he remembered.
“We beat Cumbria and lost to the others but traveling up to Yorkshire I remember thinking ‘Staying over night for a rugby match, it’s hitting the big time’. For the first Academy game against Halifax we traveled up in a mini bus with all the tackle bags and arrived at the Shay, sleeping on the floor in the bar – so it wasn’t all that glamorous.
“I don’t know why, but looking back I was so nervous about that game. I don’t know if instinct or something subconscious was telling me that something was going to happen, or if in hindsight I am just imagining this, but I was way more nervous than usual.
“We were due to play the curtain raiser at the Shay, but it rained very heavily the night before so they asked our match to be moved to a different pitch so we didn’t tear it up. We arrived there and did our warm up, where I remember dropping balls and making uncharacteristic errors.
“I was in the right centre, the match kicked off, and there was the first hit up, second hit up, third. I think their prop hit the ball in. I don’t remember there being any pain but I just remember being on the floor trying to get up and not being able to. One of their players came over, leaned over me and said, ‘Are you alright mate?’ I tried to say something and couldn’t speak. All I could do was mouth the words ‘help’. They stopped the match.
“I’m not religions or anything but a few things that happened during that time does make me ask some questions. There were only about 150 people watching the game that day but the person who saved my life and resuscitated me had only done his resuscitating training the day before. The fact that he was watching the game when I was hurt and it was his training that kept me alive until the paramedics arrived was too much of a coincidence.
“When they arrived, the paramedics and physiotherapists were asking if I could touch my toes and I couldn’t; they asked if I could feel them touching my hand and I couldn’t. I stopped breathing. I remember the paramedic leaning over me holding my head, and asking him to let me die because I remember just thinking what my life would be like in a wheelchair. Having grown up all my life being active and doing everything I wanted to, I can’t express how frightening it was and I know its cliché saying your life flashes before your eyes but I had all these thoughts rushing through my mind and I knew my life had changed forever.
“I was airlifted from the pitch to Leeds General infirmary. I was unconscious for all of it and because I had stopped breathing on the pitch they were unsure if I had sustained brain damage.
“After two days they woke me up and asked my mum to be there with them – they knew that if I recognised her voice there was a good chance that my brain was ok. I couldn’t speak or move, so if I could understand what was being said to me I should blink my eyes. ‘Do you know who you are?’ One blink. ‘Do you know what your name is?’ One blink. ‘Do you know where you are?’ One blink. ‘Do you know what I am saying to you?’ One blink.
Coming to terms
“I knew that I had broken my neck and my life had changed forever. I knew that the life that I had lived, loved and enjoyed but ultimately taken for granted for 17 years of my life were over, and I didn’t need to be told it.
“In hospital I was quite sheltered from things and I was concentrating on trying to get better, but my family was affected just as much if not more so than myself. My family had to come up from Bedford to Leeds knowing that I had been airlifted to hospital not knowing if I was okay. My mum is a nurse so she knew the worst-case scenario could be.
“At that time there weren’t any set procedures that come into play. These days you have the Rugby League Benevolent Fund (now Rugby League Cares) and processes that the Rugby Football League go through to make sure that the player and family are okay and have a support network for them. At the time there was none of that. Mum and dad were trying to do their best for me with minimal support and the RFL where doing their best but there was nothing in place. In light of what happened to me since then, Danny Scott and some other players with serious injury, there’s support been put in place to help them.
“I was drugged up and out of it, I didn’t really understand the severity of what was happening, but my family were. I spent nine months in hospital, which was terrible. My younger brother who was twelve had lost a brother for a year, and his parents whose efforts were all on trying to get me home. A twelve year old boy lost his family for a year and my older brother up north was badly affected but in an entirely different way. My parents had to do a lot of fund raising, speaking with the RFL and going through all these processes that had to be done, and thank God they did, its because of them that I got out and am here today.
“Nine months in a hospital is a long time to reflect. I was 17 years old, paralysed from the neck down and everything I thought I would achieve in my life went completely out of the window. I had to completely reevaluate my goals and what I wanted to do.
“My parents did a lot, I guess it was tough love. They could have sat there saying ‘There, there, this is bad but this is your lot’ – but they made it clear that I was a young boy with hopefully a long life ahead of me and I had to try making the best of it. It was clear that I was going back to school when I got out, get my A-levels, go on to university, get my degree then hopefully go on to build a career for myself because it would have been no life if I had given up and sat at home watching TV all day.”
I’m not qualified to comment on what should happen after a life changing incident like the one Matt had, but it’s obvious – and inspiring – that he was going to carry on achieving. He decided to make the absolute best of what he has and has gone on to accomplish some remarkable achievements. He went on to achieve a first class degree in law, has done marathons, painted an unbelievable Christmas card with his mouth to raise money for charity, and has received an OBE in recognition of his work.
As with most people who play Rugby League, there’s that desire for challenge, and having been through what he did I wanted to know when he decided what that would be for him. One thing that stands out for me is that he bares no grudges and is completely at ease with the risk that Rugby League and other sports contain. In fact having been turned down by the London Marathon – due to his wheelchair being electric – Matt has found himself in a legal battle with the organisers over their overly politically correct view of acceptable risk.
“To put it bluntly I had to concentrate on careers that I could still perform as effectively as I could have without the injury,” he explained. “So if I was a mechanic or anything like that it would have been no good so it was either media, journalism or law. It had to be something you need your brain for because – without being crude – that’s all I have now. I studied history and geography when I went back to school, then law at University before starting work as a trainee solicitor in October 2011 in London.
“I spent a year in personal injury, now I’m in aviation and finish that in October, and I think its clinical negligence after that. I’m enjoying it – it’s part-time three days a week, which I think is enough. They’re long days – I’m up at 5.45am and back from London at 7pm.
“When I was in hospital I was incredibly fortunate in how the Rugby League community rallied round, did fund raising and I was incredibly fortunate in the support I received. Not just me but my family too. If everyone else hadn’t given up on me then it wouldn’t be fair to give up on myself. I remember one girl that I received a card from, she was three years old and it had £1 taped inside of it. It was her pocket money to help the fund raising and I thought ‘wow’. That’s a gesture that really touched me.
“In the October there was a guy called Chris Hawkins who did a cycle ride from London to Perpignan to raise Money. Chris was huge after I got hurt and the years following. There was a charity called XIII Heroes who raised a lot of money for injured Rugby League players. We did the great North run in ‘06 and ‘07 together, then I applied to do the London marathon and they said no!
“We thought the next best thing would be to go to America (for the New York Marathon) and we did it with the help of the Christopher Reeve foundation. I had a great experience and something I had thought not possible during my time in hospital.
“I think now I need to get my head down and complete my legal training, and there’s also an on going battle with the London Marathon. I applied again last year and they said no on the grounds that I am in a powered wheelchair, which breaches the rules apparently and health and safety grounds. I guess in the UK and possibly worldwide there’s coming to be too much emphasis on health and safety and minimising risk. If that goes too far then many things in life you enjoy you won’t be able to touch anymore.
“The New York Marathon and Great North Run I have run under the same rules and regulations, so I don’t know how I can do one and not the other. I am currently suing them and will hopefully be on the start line for 2014. That’s the next major challenge along with completing my legal training. Then I can step back and look at where I want to go with my life.
“The things I have been through mean I have got more to offer than sitting in an office behind a desk, so I think long-term, alongside my legal career I will be starting to do a lot of speaking. It’s something I already do a lot of in hospitals with nurses. Nurses have been taking a lot of flack with all these enquiries and the current state of the NHS.
“When I was in hospital, painting was a way of strengthening my neck. I would write with a mouth stick and dabble with painting but I was never particularly good. When I first came home, my grandma’s friends like doing paintings and she came round to teach me the basics and I did quit a lot in the few years. The RFL sold a lot of Christmas cards from it, but to be honest it’s a lot of hard work. I’m not very creative and I am not particularly good. I sat down on Saturday and spent three to four hours trying to do one for the RFL for Christmas cards again, but it didn’t go well. You have to be in the right mood but I do plan to do another one to raise money for the Benevolent Fund.”
All of Matt’s remarkable achievements since his accident saw him recognised with an OBE.
“I returned home from work one day and had a letter from the cabinet office,” he recalled. “I guess it was a mixture of trepidation and excitement when I got that envelope – I didn’t know what it was but I opened the letter and the first paragraph said that the Prime Minister had nominated me for this award.
“I rang my mum straight away and I remember saying that if I could shake I would because it was genuinely something I never thought about, contemplated or wanted. It never even crossed my consciousness that I would ever get something like that, and everything that followed was incredible.
“I received it in January this year from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace. It was quite a surreal day. When you are surrounded by armed forces people who have done all these amazing feats in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt a bit out of my depth to be honest, but its something that I am proud of and will remain with me forever.”
After the Olympics of 2012, the word “legacy” was used as if everything immediately preceding the games would be anointed with an Olympic baptism of fire. It wasn’t long, however, before people where claiming that the flame was prematurely dying out, but a just a year on instances of British sporting success are rising as fast as the temperature.
The British Lions, Andy Murray, Chris Froome and England’s Ashes prospects are all red-hot examples of our current success in world sport. Matt was a part of the Olympic ripple when he was invited to be a 2012 torchbearer, and for him was an honour to be a part of that. With that in mind I was interested in his thoughts on our own chances of success in the Rugby League World Cup this year.
“The fact that the Rugby League World Cup is on home soil is a massive positive. I think that the game at Wembley for the Four Nations was a great atmosphere, I know we didn’t come out on top but we definitely held or own and if we can feed off the support in the country and the whole competition takes it on board then we definitely have the skill to beat the Aussies and Kiwis.
“Jamie Peacock got in touch with me around 18 months ago – literally on Christmas Eve. I got a phone call and he said [in a deep voice] ‘It’s Jamie – Jamie Peacock’. I thought it was a wind up; it was incredible. He had a similar injury to yourself at the time; he had been out for a while and was looking to put things in perspective a little bit.
“I love to see players like that progress along with lads like Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook – someone who was playing the day I got hurt. But you also have in the back of your mind ‘what if?’ or how life could have been.
“In terms of players I admire it’s the ones I grew up with. It’s not great in the south at the moment with the way the Broncos are going in the league but I still enjoy watching the game. In terms of the Broncos and Rugby League in the south, I don’t know what needs to change but something needs to change to get people through the gate and enjoying the game down here.
“When you’re at the Stoop there are sometimes more away fans than home fans, and there’s not much atmosphere with 2,000 people in a ground that’s capable of holding 20000. Off the field the game has definitely expanded at grass roots and I am aware of a lot more Rugby League clubs down here since the time I got hurt, when there was Hamel Stags and a few teams. People still talk about southern Rugby League as an experiment but it should still be pursued.
“I still watch a lot on Sky but I don’t get down to the Broncos very often any more. League doesn’t have that much of an involvement in my life anymore but in terms of the support I get from the Benevolent Fund (which has now become Rugby League Cares), it’s huge.
“There are so many costs involved with being like this now, and I simply could not afford these costs by myself. I have a £25,000 wheelchair here, £5,000 ventilators that need replacing, and on-going support from Rugby League Cares is something I will rely on for the rest of my life.”
Matt’s attitude to everything that has happened to him is simply inspiring.
“What happened to me was a freak accident,” he added.
“A teammate came into the tackle to help and his knee hit me in the side of the head which broke my neck. I don’t hold any grudges – time is a healer. It’s been nine years since my accident, and in hospital there was a lot of ‘why me, why do I deserve this?’
“But it became clear very early on that I couldn’t continue thinking like that because it doesn’t change anything – it is what it is. If this had been because of someone else, or I had been in a car crash and it’s someone else’s fault then you can hold them to account. But the fact that it was playing rugby means you accept the risks and you know what they are.
“You have to get on with your life, but there are still times when it hurts. I’m 26 and my mates are beginning to settle down have families and kids, and that’s something I don’t think will ever happen now. You think these things are a given, and it was one of the first things that hit me in hospital that all these things have been taken away.
“I do still have the dark days when I compare my life to what it would have been but I have to step out of that quickly. There are a lot of people worse off than I am.”
As part of the Reading Agency’s “Six Book Challenge” and in conjunction with England Rugby League, I’ve been asking the interviewees what their last read was.
The Six Book Challenge is aimed at getting adults back into reading by making the time to read just six books, pieces of online literature or magazine articles.
Matt King told me: “I spend nearly three hours a day on the train going to work so my Kindle is a bit of a life saver.
“The last book I read was Game of Thrones. The book is long, around 1,000 pages, and took three to four months to read, but is very good – I don’t think the TV series can do it justice.
“I also read a book by Scott Mariani which is an SAS thriller. I am more into fiction than non-fiction, although I have read Jonah Lomu’s and Richard Hammond’s autobiography.”
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