The Story of a Little Big Man

MARTYN SADLER reviews ‘Too Many Reasons to Live, My Autobiography’, by ROB BURROW

Publisher: Macmillan
Hardback – RRP £20
Pp: 291
ISBN: 978-1-5290-7324-9

I’ll never forget the email from Leeds Rhinos that came into my Inbox at one minute past midday on 19 December 2019.

“Rhinos legend Rob Burrow diagnosed with motor neurone disease”, the email title said.

“Leeds Rhinos legend Rob Burrow has announced that he has recently been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND).”

Like most people I not only found it hard to believe, but I was devastated by the news.

I couldn’t believe that Rob, at the age of 37, could possibly have been struck by such a cruel and incurable disease, just two years after retiring from the game he had graced for so many years. I suspect my reaction was shared by everyone who received that email.

The email went into detail about his career with the club, listing Rob’s individual and team achievements and telling us how we might contribute to a fund that was going to be set up to help him and his family.

“Regrettably, today I am confirming that I have been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease,” Rob was quoted as saying.

“I would like to thank everyone for the support I have received already since being given my diagnosis. I know I have a big challenge in front of me but knowing that I have the love and support of so many people will give me inspiration and strength. I am very positive about the situation and intend to battle the condition as I still feel fit and well.

“I would like to ask for privacy at this time so I can adjust to the battle I have ahead and so that I can spend time with those closest to me ahead of Christmas and New Year.”

I’m sure that many people connected with the Rhinos enjoyed a much more reflective Christmas that year than they might otherwise have done, reflecting on the news they had heard and, even if they were not particularly religious, praying for Rob and his family.

We are now 20 months further down the track and Rob has inevitably suffered the ravages of motor neurone disease since the original diagnosis.

Rob himself certainly hasn’t been inactive since then, and neither have those who know him best, throwing themselves into raising funds for both Rob himself and for Motor Neurone Disease Association.

His admirers have contributed magnificently to the fund that was set up to help him, particularly after Kevin Sinfield’s remarkable seven marathons in seven days, which did so much to draw attention to Rob’s plight and which generated more than two million pounds.

One of those projects has been the production of this autobiography, which has been written in association with the ghostwriter Ben Dirs.

And one thing this autobiography seems to prove is that a leopard doesn’t change its spots.

As a Rugby League player Rob Burrow was hyperactive, quick thinking and impulsive. Off the field he was a cheeky prankster, often driving his team-mates to distraction with the tricks he would play on them, both inside and outside the dressing room.

And that’s the Rob Burrow you will find in this autobiography, telling us about some of the things he got up to during his career, taking the mickey out of his former team-mates (while many of them are given the space in the book to also take the mickey out of him), while reflecting on the way his life has changed as a result of his illness.

But if you think you are going to read about a player who feels sorry for himself after that terrible diagnosis, then think again.

He tells the story of how he came to realise he probably had a serious health condition without any sentimentality, but recognising the impact his illness would have on his family – his wife Lindsey, his children Macy, Maya and Jackson, and his parents Geoff and Irene.

He also takes us through the highs and lows of his rugby career and the coaches and fellow players who have influenced him most.

The foreword to the book is written by Rob’s former captain Kevin Sinfield who describes Rob succinctly.

“That Leeds Rhinos team won everything there was to win and Rob was integral to its success. But it wasn’t just that he scared defenders to death and produced moments of magic to win big games, time and time again. He also personified everything that was special about that side’s culture. He was a great friend, respectful, honest, selfless, loyal, worked so hard and cared so much. Even during the tough times, when things weren’t going quite as he wanted, he never stopped loving Leeds or his teammates.

The book takes us right back to the early days of Rob’s life. His first mentor was his Granddad Bob, who would watch him playing junior rugby as a youngster, probably half the size of the other kids, with the other parents wondering what such a tiny tot was doing on the field.

“Just you watch, you’ll have changed your mind by the end of the game,” Granddad Bob would say, and inevitably, after yet another hat-trick, he was proved right.

Rob tells us movingly about the relationship he has established with the former Scottish Rugby Union international Doddie Weir, who had already been diagnosed with the disease when Rob received his diagnosis, and who clearly has made a big cross-code impression.

Reading this book, I can guarantee that you will both laugh and cry, particularly when describing his new life as it is today.

For example, when talking about his dad, Rob says: “Dad tried to feed me the other day and I flashed him a look of pure fear. To be fair, he has a habit of missing my mouth and hitting me on the nose with the spoon.”

And, more seriously, “I still pinch myself some mornings to make sure I’m not dreaming and Lindsey’s really my wife. There are times when I feel bad that Lindsey has to do what she does. But there’s something beautiful about being cared for by the only girl you’ve ever loved.”

What more can we say after that?

Well, we all know that at some point Rob will lose his battle against this horrible disease. But he is having none of it.

“You know what they should stick on my headstone? ‘All right, we’ll call it a draw,’ he writes.

“MND picked on the wrong bloke, just like opponents on the rugby field always picked on the wrong bloke. Thought they’d run over me, trample me to dust. I can’t keep dodging the disease forever, but I won’t stop trying. I’m not thinking about the full-time hooter, I’m still out there fighting tooth and nail. That’s how it has to be.

“I hope you don’t feel sorry for me, because that’s the last thing I wanted. Why would a man like me need anyone’s pity.”

And perhaps we’ll allow his great mate Kevin Sinfield to have the last word.

“Every time I talk about Rob on camera, I get emotional. But every time I see him he’s got a big smile on his face. He still gives off so much energy and I feel like a better person for being in his company.”

We are all very lucky to have seen Rob Burrow play Rugby League and now to be able to share his story.