Stevie Ward: Leeds Rhinos captain retires from rugby league due to concussions
Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward has been forced to retire at the age of 27 due to concussions he suffered last year, saying he cannot put his health and brain at any further risk.
The loose forward, a two-time Grand Final winner, has called on the sport to become more proactive in how it protects players to avoid another generation from becoming “guinea pigs” in research.
Ward says he suffers on a daily basis with symptoms caused by the concussions, which occurred on January 19 and February 2 of last year.
“I was made captain of my hometown team and I had a big purpose for that year, to win a trophy as captain and to play that year for Rob Burrow,” Ward told Sky Sports News.
“That took an unexpected direction and I was hit with two concussion which have completely derailed plans and my ambitions, and I’ve had to experience one of the hardest years I’ve ever experienced.
“[I have experienced] Symptoms like migraines every day, balance and dizziness issues, sensitivity to light, screens and slurring my speech sometimes.
“It has been some glimpse into neurological impairment and I’ve come to the decision I’m not going to put my brain to any further risk or detriment.”
Ward is not part of the legal action involving former players which law firm Rylands is understood to be preparing, but he said the issue of concussion within the sport needed greater focus.
Rylands has sent a pre-action letter of claim on behalf of nine rugby union players to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.
Ward has already witnessed the impact motor neurone disease has had on his friend and team-mate Burrow, and says a more proactive approach is needed.
“I love the game of rugby league,” Ward said in his retirement statement. “I am immensely proud to have competed on some of the biggest stages next to childhood heroes and test myself to the absolute limit while feeling the incredible buzz from the Leeds fans after being one myself as a youngster.
“I thank every player that I have played with and against, and I am especially grateful for the incredible friendships the sport has given me.
“With the news about Rob and the current climate of rugby union players, I cannot help but ask the questions that need to be asked.
“I am left motivated to help get our sport to a place where it can ensure the players’ long-term safety whilst keeping the beauty and grit of the game.”
Ward says his sport has to act now to make the sport safer and revealed the impact of those two concussions has gone beyond preventing him from being able to ply his trade for the Rhinos.
He is grateful to the support of his partner Natalie, explaining how their relationship has been affected too.
“One thing I would want to stress is it hasn’t just affected me,” Ward said. “It’s a dangerous territory to get into as a rugby player to feel useless, because that’s what I’ve felt like for a long period of the year, and there is a lot that goes on like the tough side of the sport.
“My partner has been my rock in terms of how it has affected our life. It’s completely changed the dynamic of our life and Natalie has completely supported me throughout all of the strife.”
Ward has been told by specialists in a minority of cases the symptoms he is suffering from never go away, and he retires “with a dream of being able to live with day-to-day normality again soon”.
He is now concentrating on making a full recovery and will also focus on his work with Mantality, which aims to provide assistance to those suffering from mental health problems.
“I want to get back to living a normal life and being able to live life past rugby, live a fulfilled life and to achieve in other arenas,” Ward said. “But I need to get back to normal life and normal health.”
Full retirement statement from Stevie Ward
Today I announce my retirement from rugby league due to the two concussions I suffered on January 19 and February 2, 2020.
I have come to the conclusion, after over 11 months of severe symptoms, that I need to give this injury the respect and time it deserves and cannot put my health and brain to any further risk and detriment.
On a daily basis, I struggle with migraines, dizziness, motion sickness, sensitivity to light and screens, short-term memory issues, slurred speech, and an inability to exercise or do daily tasks without irritating my symptoms.
I love the game of rugby league. I am immensely proud to have competed on some of the biggest stages next to childhood heroes and test myself to the absolute limit while feeling the incredible buzz from the Leeds fans after being one myself as a youngster.
I thank every player that I have played with and against, and I am especially grateful for the incredible friendships the sport has given me.
It is fair to say that my career has been only partly what I envisioned as a young fan stood in the South Stand, but I can honestly say it has surpassed my expectations in terms of how it has shaped me to become the person I am.
I have been able to test myself in one of the most competitive and brutal games there is.
And I have been able to use my platform to raise awareness on the importance of mental health within a macho sport, which historically stigmatised any such talk.
One of the biggest lessons I have learnt from last year is that enormous consideration needs to be taken when mixing the brutality of the game with the brain’s fragility.
At the end of 2019, we were told the devastating news about a dear friend of mine, Rob Burrow.
On the same day I was told about Rob I was made club captain, and I was immensely motivated to do 2020 for Rob and get the Rhinos back to lifting trophies for him.
I am proud the boys were able to do this, but I feel my purpose for that year took an unexpected direction.
It was no longer about lifting trophies for Rob. It is now about having a glimpse into the scary world of neurological impairment and being another voice to help bring about the changes needed.
With the news about Rob and the current climate of rugby union players, I cannot help but ask the questions that need to be asked.
I am left motivated to help get our sport to a place where it can ensure the players’ long-term safety whilst keeping the beauty and grit of the game.
Of course, more research is needed. However, I believe that there is an element of laziness with just making this statement.
It is now time to be asking and answering more specific questions. What will this research be? How will it be funded? How long will this new research take? And how do we focus our efforts in the meantime?
The biggest question is what can be done to make things safer for our players now. We need to be more proactive and not rely on another generation of players to be guinea pigs for future research that will take years to give us the answers we need now.
Part of this questioning has to look into the culture and stigma around concussion within the game and how we can use the anecdotal evidence that we are receiving from former union and league players with the science that is already out there to draw connections to the part of the sport we can adapt.
I am choosing to step away from the game to fully look after my health and with a dream of being able to live with day-to-day ‘normality’ again soon.
I hope to continue to grow Mantality to the next level, something which was birthed through the lessons I have learnt throughout my career, and make its service more accessible to the people who are ready to invest in their mental health just like they would their physical health.
I would like to pay special thanks to my partner, Natalie. She has been unconditionally by my side the entire year and has seen and borne the brunt of the dark realities of my injury.
Throughout it all, Natalie has kept an incredible positivity, always bringing the main focus back to getting me better.
Also, thanks to my friends and family who have taken the time to understand my symptoms and offer a helping hand. I hold special thanks for this as I know 2020 was a year where people have also had their own struggles.
I look forward to challenges in a different arena with different rules and lessons to learn. My focus now will be shifting away from the sport. Hopefully, when I start to make improvements, I will be able to shine a light on concussion and brain injuries, which is an area where there are, unfortunately, more questions than answers.
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