- Ward suffers daily symptoms after two concussions last year
- ‘I will now try to shine a light on the darker side of the game’
Stevie Ward says he is “haunted” about what his long-term health may look like after announcing his retirement at the age of 27 due to neurological symptoms caused by concussion. The Leeds Rhinos forward, who has challenged the sport to take a more aggressive approach to the protocols surrounding head injuries, suffered a concussion in a pre-season game last January and then another in the season-opener against Hull FC a fortnight later.
He has been unable to play, train or even live an everyday life since then without symptoms such as confusion, migraines and dizziness, and after almost a year of struggle, he admitted he had no choice but to now put his health before his career. “I can’t further risk the health of my brain and put it to further detriment,” he explained to the Guardian. “The decision has become clearer the longer my symptoms have persisted. It’s been a very dark period.
“I still suffer now. A classic symptom of concussion is confusion, and for the first couple of months I was totally confused with day-to-day life. Then there’s the migraines – every single day. Mood issues, balance problems, dizziness and just generally living a life which was nowhere near normal. It’s been very distressing; it’s impacted on my relationships and created a lot of problems with my life. It’s impacted everyone around me, and it had to stop.”
Ward said news of numerous high-profile rugby union players revealing long-term concussion symptoms and signs of early-onset dementia, as well as his former teammate Rob Burrow’s battle with motor neurone disease, has caused him emotional distress when considering his own situation. He said: “I’m at peace with the fact I won’t play again, but it’s been on my mind throughout, haunting me really, what the future might look like. I’ve certainly asked those questions of people.
“After suffering a lighter shade of some of the symptoms Rob was going through in the early stages, and what the rugby union guys are now revealing, it’s definitely been concerning, worrying about my long-term health. I respect the guys who are speaking out about it. Right now, I just pray for normality again. I pray for being able to walk without getting dizzy or watch the television without getting a headache. Just to go through a day without a headache – I’d be so grateful.”
Ward believes rugby league, which could yet face its own legal battle following news a number of former players are considering action over a failure to protect them from neurological impairment, now must look at its own actions. “There’s got to be a stronger look at the protocols, and the assessment of what concussion can do in collision sports like ours,” he said. “When you’re playing such a tough game, you shun off injuries and niggles, but the fragility of the brain is so different. There needs to be deeper consideration and care given when looking at what players go through.”
The two-times Grand Final winner hopes to now live a life free of the problems which have plagued him for the past year, but concedes he does not yet know if that is possible. “The doctors and specialists I’ve spoken to, they agreed it would be good to step away from the game,” he said. “Some of the specialists believe it’ll get better, but even if I did improve, I wouldn’t consider playing again. That would be silly. My focus and drive is now to live a healthy life again. I don’t want to run any more risks on my health.”
Ward, who has raised awareness of mental health problems in rugby league in the past, admits the inspiration Burrow has provided has kept him strong throughout his own battles. But he is harrowingly frank about what he hopes to achieve next. “Just to be able to exercise without getting dizzy, stuff like that, that’s my goal,” he said. “Seeing Rob, how he’s handled his battle, that purpose has got me through this. But I will try to shine a light on the darker side of the game regarding brain injuries now. I hope to achieve some things in a very different arena – but first and foremost, it’s about getting back to normal.”