The Rugby League community was devastated in March when promising Newcastle Knights forward Alex McKinnon sustained a serious spinal injury in the game against Melbourne. Gavin Wilson, a Rugby League journalist and the York City Knights media manager, suffered the same injury 13 years ago. Here he pens an open letter to McKinnon, which originally appeared in the May issue of Rugby League World magazine.
I know by now you will have heard this thousands of times over the last few weeks, but I am so sorry to hear about your injury. I know right now the well wishes won’t mean much because they cannot change what has happened, but I hope in time you can take some strength from them.
You are about to embark on the toughest challenge of your life. Its not going to be pretty and its not going to be easy, but you can do it.
When you are well enough, you will endure months of gruelling physical and mental recovery. Those pre-season conditioning sessions at the Knights will seem like a mere loose warm up compared to the work you will do in the coming months! Hours in the gym and occupational therapy room will be unforgiving, but it will get easier. I have no doubt that Wayne Bennett, the Newcastle Knights and the NRL will provide you and your family with all the support you need, practically, financially and most importantly, emotionally.
Samuel Johnson once said that a man does not know his own strength until he has met adversity, and in this situation that quote has never rang so true. With the support of your family, friends, Newcastle Knights and the NRL, you will now find out just how strong you truly are. My advice to you and everyone around you at this time is to never underestimate the power of positivity, no matter how desperate you think the situation is.
In 2001 I suffered the exact same injury as you by coming off my mountain bike at speed, and I underwent the exact same emergency operation you had a couple of weeks ago. I know how scared you will be feeling but please believe me when I tell you that you are already through the worst of it.
Both my family and I found my injury very tough at first, I was only 14 at the time so being a moody teenager didn’t help at a time when I needed to be so grown up. I had to go through a lot of physical and mental changes and so many adaptations. Crucially my fantastic friends and family always kept me positive, despite doing a 70 mile round trip from York to Pinderfields spinal unit in Wakefield every single day – sometimes twice – which they kept up for the eight months I was in hospital.
The world-class specialists around you have already warned it will take up to two years before you know the true extent of your injury, which is the same as what I was told too. Being a fit, strong and growing 14 year old I was lucky in the amount of movement I recovered in my arms, as some spinal injury patients at our level don’t regain quite so much.
Being a 22-year-old full-time athlete will definitely work in your favour. It took me six weeks to fully come off the ventilator and breathe unaided, so for you to reach that stage within eight days is already fantastic. You may feel terrified at the lack of movement you have at the moment, but it took me months to recover what I could, so please don’t panic.
After my accident I went on to finish school, college, and then at the age of 18 I moved away from home to study at Leeds Trinity University while living independently. It was bloody scary at first, almost as scary as my initial rehabilitation! But it turned out to be the best four years of my life and I eventually graduated with a degree in sports journalism.
Rugby League has always been a huge part of my life you see, I attended my first game when I was just a baby and I played the game for my local team Heworth from the age of 6. It was all I was ever really interested in so I knew I still wanted to be deeply involved in the greatest game.
To sit here now surrounded by fantastic friends while living the good life in Headingley writing about the sport I love I feel truly lucky, privileged, and above all happy. And I’m still only 26!
I am so thankful to the amazing, if at times brutal care I received from Natasha Green and her wonderful team at Pinderfields in 2001/2. Natasha now works at the brilliant Tops Fitness in Wakefield with another familiar face in Rugby League and fellow spinal cord injury sufferer Jimmy Gittins. Check out his fantastic work with the State of Mind Rugby League charity.
I have written this letter to you Alex to show that it is very easy to suffer a life threatening injury, but that in no way means it has to be a life ending one. I love absolutely everything about my life and I am proud of everything I have achieved so far. I still hope to achieve so much more too. You can still be proud and love your life too Alex, however it may turn out.
Good luck, mate.