HOW terribly sad it is to hear that that the career and quality of life as he knew it could be over for Knight’s star Alex McKinnon. While it is still very early and all hope is not lost for the 22 year old, a fracture to the C4 and C5 vertebrae is an injury that usually has very devastating consequences.
As I watched him go down in the tackle with his head bent towards his chest, I was filled with dread - because the same style of split-second tackle rocked my family to the core back in 1977.
My cousin John Innes was a robust front rower selected in the Roosters’ Jersey Flegg and President’s Cup. While captaining the Bondi United C Grade side at just 19, he charged the ball up and as he was tackled he tucked his head to his chest and it hit another player’s hip.
It was a split-second moment that was to change his life forever.
“One minute I was charging up with my neck flexed and the next thing my whole body had turned to jelly,” John said.
John is my only cousin on my dad’s side and is like an older brother to me. I worshipped the ground that he was once able to walk on – he was a bit of a local hero in our hometown of Bondi and everyone knew him.
I’ll never forget the day I was at the beach participating in nippers and I as I dived down on the sand to grab the flag in a race my father came into my line of view.
“Quick, jump up,” he said. “Johnny’s had a terrible accident at footy and we need to get to the Royal North Shore hospital.”
I was only eight at the time and as we drove in silence towards the hospital I was expecting to see Johnny sitting at the hospital with a broken arm.
What greeted us instead was the sight of him in complete body traction – and he had to talk to us through a mirror. We had to wait outside while several doctors tended to him and it was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. He told me that Johnny had broken his neck at the C5 and C6 vertebrae and would be a quadriplegic for life.
We put on our bravest faces and returned to the room and as he glanced up to eye me through the mirror in this utterly devastating condition, the first thing he said to me was, “How’d you go at nippers this morning? Did you win all your races?”
It was this incredibly positive attitude that would see Johnny through more challenges that most of us could possibly imagine. After being told he would never walk again, he refused to accept that as his fate. Over the following years he dedicated every waking moment to his rehabilitation. He’d ride his quad bike up and down Bondi promenade – all day every day, trying to regain the strength in his arms and legs that the accident had cruelly robbed him of.
His efforts paid off - he did eventually walk, with the aid of crutches and for a time with a walking stick. He also became a taxi driver, with aid of a special fit-out so he could handle the steering wheel. He was very proud of the fact that he wasn’t dependent on welfare and was able to become part of the workforce despite his condition.
In 2006 Australia was in shock to hear that lightning had struck twice for young Sophie Delezio – the little girl who had lost her legs as a toddler when a car crashed through her kindergarten. Incredibly, she had suffered a second devastating accident when a car hit her as she crossed at the crossing with her wheelchair.
Little did I know at the time, in a matter of months lightning would strike again for Johnny. He was riding down to the beach in his motorised wheelchair when he attempted to cross the road and was hit by truck.
My always happy, positive thinking cousin who had spent years of blood, sweat and tears improving his condition was right back at square one and unable to move.
How could life be so cruel? If there is something worse than being trapped like a prisoner inside a body that can’t move - I’m yet to see it.
I still see signs of the happy, chirpy Johnny that I once knew, but the positiveness isn’t there as often as it once was. Two freak accidents and winding up back in the darkest place you can imagine has proved to be more than even the most positive person I’ve ever known can bear.
I hope with every bone in my body that Alex and his family as not in for the same catastrophic diagnosis, but if they are Alex is going to need as much support as he can possibly get.