“Concussed - Sport's Uncomfortable Truth” – A Revolutionary Book Launched Alongside Steve Thompson and Alix Popham  - Ruck

“Concussed – Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth” – A Revolutionary Book Launched Alongside Steve Thompson and Alix Popham 

Nestled in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside, journalist and concussion campaigner Sam Peters greeted the audience, as he prepared to launch a revolutionary book. Flanked by two icons of the game, Peters was set to introduce the global rugby landscape to ‘Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth’.

Peters, Popham and Thompson at the book launch.

A decorated rugby writer, Peters has covered the greatest competitions the game has to offer. From Rugby World Cups to British & Irish Lions Tours, Peters has routinely enjoyed the best seats on the biggest rugby stages. However, the former Mail on Sunday writer could not sit comfortably, as the game he grew up playing for at Richmond, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and then Edinburgh University, had evolved into a concussion-rife sport of combat. 

For more than 15 years, Peters fought to draw attention to the welfare of rugby players, who in the late 2000s better resembled traded commodities than human beings. Peters’ eyes were opened widest, once Lewis Moody’s held a glazed stare at the Parc de Princes’ turf. When covering the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the former England captain was knocked unconscious against Tonga, yet staggeringly played on… twice. 

After repeated set-backs on how concussions were not ‘newsworthy’, Peters persevered to fight against the curve. In 2013, he launched the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Concussion Campaign’, which printed a double page spread over the sport’s fastest growing problem. Fast forward a decade, and the concussion conversation has grown insurmountably. From feature-length interview articles to mainstream TV documentaries, the modern day public knowledge of concussions is now a world away from where it was just 10 years ago. 

Legends of the game have come forward, and shared their tragic stories on living with early-onset Dementia. High profile sports doctors have been put under the spotlight, after they down-played the long-term impacts of concussions. There is still a long way to go, however rugby would certainly be back in the dark ages of concussion knowledge, if it was not for the journalistic ingenuity of Sam Peters. 

Image Credit: Sam Peters

“From a personal perspective, what I wanted this book to be, was a representation, hopefully a balanced representation of the experiences I had covering the sport, which I saw change very, very quickly and very radically.” Peters said at the book launch.

“(Of) Where I didn’t believe the true picture was being presented by the games authorities and people around the sport. And so, hopefully it has an impact. Hopefully, it shows people the deep love that I’ve always had for the sport, the game of rugby, but also the problems that are there, which haven’t been spoken about historically. And now thanks to people like Steve (Thompson) and Alix (Popham), they are out in the open, and we’re trying to get a handle on what we do about it.”

Peters took to the panel, on the first of three stools that would soon host the former England and Wales internationals. As always, the journalist was equipped with his notes, and read an impactful statement from a true rugby great; five-time British and Irish Lion Willie John McBride. 

“The sport I played for 20 years and covered as a journalist for the same period of time, has changed radically, potentially irrevocably since the onset of professionalism in 1995. And I’m far from alone in voicing grave concerns about his direction of travel for the last three decades. 

“Willie John McBride perhaps the greatest of all British and Irish Lions captains, who played in the amateur era, said several years ago, and I quote, ‘there is an injury crisis in rugby. You look at every international game that is played, how many do you see the injury free? I believe every player should be playing for 80 minutes unless he has to leave the field injured. I played the game for 14 years and never left the field in my life.'” 

Before Peters introduced his two esteemed guests, he read an exert from ‘Concussed: Sports Uncomfortable Truth’. As Peters read, murmurs and gasps rippled throughout the hushed audience, who had begun to understand the gravity of the situation. Peters had been at the coalface, the Lions’ den, and he has now come away to tell the story. 

“British Lions vs Australia, sixth of July 2013.” Peters began, with the eyes of audience glued to the front.

“The look on his face was not what I’d seen up close before, his eyes open yet blank, devoid of expression. That he was physically there was undeniable, but at the same time, there was a completely vacant look written across his features.

“‘You okay, mate?’ I asked. Yeah, I think so comes the unconvincing reply. Only two hours earlier, George Smith, one of the most celebrated Australian Rugby Union players in history, had suffered an injury all too familiar to those of us who worked in the sport, but utterly shocking to anyone operating outside of its tiny bubble.

“Four minutes into a match watched by millions on television, Smith had carried the ball into a tackle, only to suffer a brain injury, of such significance that had it occurred in almost any other walk of life, an ambulance would have been called, and he would have been blue lighted to the nearest hospital for an extended spell of observation, tests and treatment.

“For the professional rugby field is unlike any other walk of life. Indeed brain injuries, or concussions, as they’re also labeled, had become such routine occurrences. Many involve chose to shrug them off, laughed them off simply a ding having my bell rung or a head-knock. Well if you don’t laugh.

“Gradually after several minutes, Smith was raised from his stupor and help gingerly off the field by medics. his left leg trading alarmingly behind him as the motor function in his brain struggled to control the rest of his body. After coming out to four years of international retirement to help his already injury stricken national team, this was not how it was supposed to end for one of Australia’s greatest sporting warriors.

“I’d be very surprised if George Smith comes back on the field said to Fox sports commentator witnessing the evidence in front of him. His co commentator agreed ‘he can hardly stand up hardly walk he’s going to be a very sore man tomorrow’. Sore man is rugby speak for likely to be unable to get out of bed, turn on the lights are walked to the local shop. To put it more bluntly, saw man meant he was utterly f***ed.

“Even in a sport were planning on after suffering a concussion had become increasingly normalized, revered as an act of bravery and sacrifice on behalf of the team. By 2013 concern about the long term risks that prompted a few to call for change. And this one was so bad many assumed Smith would stay off. I didn’t for a second, I leant across to my colleague in the press box and said he’ll be back. And so he was. 

“Five minutes later, the 32 year old trotted gingerly out onto the field again and carried on playing.
‘That’s a massive call’ said the commentator. That’s a massive call for George Smith’s life, he may have well have said.”

You can purchase a copy of ‘Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth” at this link.

Peters then introduced two former internationals, that feature prominently in the newly released book. England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning hooker Steve Thompson, and Wales’ 2008 Six Nations Grand Slam winning back-row Alix Popham, received resounding applause from the audience, who had gathered together at the Chesnut Yard Studios in Salisbury. 

Both former players, have previously spoken out on their battles with traumatic brain injuries, with that evening’s talk being amongst their most significant appearances. The panel discussion began, with Popham first to discuss his experiences of dealing with concussions during his playing days. The former Newport, Leeds Tykes, Scarlets and Brive player highlighted the intensity of training sessions, which would often be far more physical than the match days themselves. 

“Thank you for the invite Sam, and congratulations on the book. For me, as a player you were conditioned to just move forward. And it was only most probably the first game of the season, a friendly usually that was the only game that you wouldn’t be in pain. And from that game you would end up taking painkillers, strapping your thumbs, your knee, potentially your shoulder. And that was just rugby. 

“You just got through it. The only… I wouldn’t call it an ‘education’, but the only thing you heard of concussion was when somebody was sparked out. And like Steve (Thompson) said earlier, went to hospital. That’s what we were told a concussion (was), if you were seeing stars, you would have water squirted in your face, given some sniffing salts. This was happening every day in training, couple of times a session because the sessions were so long.

“And sometimes, or most of the time, the training was harder than the game. The mentality, was ‘train harder than you actually played’ so the game was easy. There was no medical stuff on the training pitch. There was a kitbag with sniffing salts, some tape, you would tape up yourself if got injured and you just cracked on.” 

Steve Thompson elaborated on Popham’s statements, about how brutal the contact training sessions were in his playing days. The former England international was knocked out and lost consciousness so frequently, he now has few memories of his decorated on-field career. Perhaps most poignantly of all, the former England hooker has no recollection of winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup, or throwing the line-out in the build-up to Jonny Wilkinson’s immortalised drop goal against Australia. 

“You know, when you look back at it now, it was just ridiculous. I was constantly getting knocked out in training. And when I spoke to people, it was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ They used to call me ‘Wally’, I was born Thompson, then adopted to Walter, then changed my name back to Thompson. So, when people say ‘Wally’, that’s me before I was 20. 

“They’d say ‘Oh, Wally’s just having a nap, he’ll be alright’. And literally, like you (Alix Popham) said, there were no physios, because they’re in mending other people in the changing rooms. Then you get up, and then just straight back into it. Scrums, you’d hit the scrum machine, and what they (coaches) used to do, they (scrum machines) have got the big rollers on, and they’ve got springs on for it to move. No… that weren’t good enough. 

“So, what they’ve (coaches) done, they’ve put concrete on them, and they pegged them (scrum machines) in, and then they strengthened the bungee so it wouldn’t move. So, rather than hitting it, and it moving and then going, you’d hit it, and it just wouldn’t move. So, imagine, you’ve got a tonne of weight coming through your neck and your head, literally pushing, and the machine after a while would end up just coming up, ‘like that’ (bending). 

“Then as you come off, you’d pass out, or I’d pass out. Everyone else has gone on to do that phase, and then just as I was coming too, I’d get back into the scrum machine and go again. They (coaches) were just constantly doing that, or they’d put the scrum machine against a wall, so you couldn’t go anywhere, or they put the rucking shields against the wall, so you can hit that.

“They would say, ‘We’re playing Gloucester, they don’t feel pain. You might as well start hitting some walls.’ Honestly, when you talk about it, you just think, what on earth was going on?” 

Thompson’s quip at the Cherry and Whites ended the brutal recount with some light-hearted comic relief. However, the underlying factor was that concussions were not to be laughed at. Peters’ influence in driving this narrative shift can be traced back to the early 2010s, with a decisive interview with Lewis Moody presenting the state of rugby’s former problematic attitude to head injuries. 

“When I was playing, if someone got knocked out it was always a laughing matter.” admitted ‘Mad Dog’ Moody to the Mail on Sunday in 2013. 

“Guys would get asked if they knew what they were doing on the pitch, or where they were. Now if players really understand the risks, they will take it more seriously.”

“It was something you could just shake off. Nobody ever said concussion could lead to permanent brain damage or even death if it was not dealt with properly.”

Peters will be joined by Lewis Moody and Steve Thompson in the next book launch event for “Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth”, on Thursday November 2nd, at Topping’s Bookshop in Bath. Buy tickets for this event here.

Moody’s pre-munitions a decade ago have now begun to unfold. The dangerous stigma engrained in rugby’s early professional days, was that you did not complain if you were injured. The fear of losing your place in the starting line-up, respect from coaches, or social standing amongst teammates was far greater than any ‘head-knock’ or ‘bell-ringer’ as concussions were formerly known. 

“So much so now, if I get injured with the different events that I’m doing, I lie to my wife about my injuries.” Popham explained. 

“That’s what you did. I have a (muscle) tear in my hip, and I said ‘Oh, I’ll be fine in a week.” The doctors told me, it’d be six weeks rest, but that’s what is in my DNA. But as rugby players, we weren’t told the truth” 

As recently as last month, Popham said how he felt ‘lucky to be alive’, after an incident at an Ironman event. The former Wales international was kicked in the head during the swimming stage on the competition, and told the BBC: 

“Coming out of the water I really felt the worse for wear and my wife Mel said my eyes looked completely glazed over, as though I didn’t recognise her at all. I tried to go back in for the second lap but just couldn’t.

“I felt sick and probably vomited about 10 times afterwards, which is when the ambulance was called.”

Such is the implications of living with the long-term impacts of repeated brain injuries. Popham continues to strive in feats of unbelievable athletic endurance, yet comes crashing back down due to his permanently damaged brain. Concussions, or Traumatic Brain Injuries are indeed ‘Sports Uncomfortable Truth’. 

Peters kept the panel discussion flowing. After decades of chasing the stories to make the back-page spread, the journalist-turned-author had the undivided attention of the room. He spoke confidently, with his passion for player welfare burning through on the brisk Autumnal evening. Peters then took the discussion away from the rugby pitch, and turned the attention to the fathers and husbands whom he sat beside. 

Alix and Steve, they are both married men with young families, and after years of hearing their names sung from the rafters of Twickenham and the Principality Stadium, the one which they respond to the best these days is always ‘Dad.’ Sam invited his guests to share their stories from a personal perspective, and disclaimed his audience on the ‘uncomfortable truth’ that was set to follow. 

Alix Popham’s Story 

“I first went to the doctors, it was probably early 2019. Mel (Alix’s wife) was trying to get me to go to the doctors, because I was forgetting conversations, losing my temper over nothing. Losing my train of thought in conversations. I’d have really bad headaches, as well. And I was putting it down, I was saying ‘no, it’s stress, ex-wife, kids’, making excuses. 

“And then I went on a bike ride, and I had a blackout moment on this route that I’ve done many times, and come back, pretty shook up. The next day went to the GPs. By luck, my GP was half the time a GP, and half the time a neurologist. And he got me straight in for an MRI, maybe (after) three weeks. I also saw a neuropsychologist who did a load of memory testing with me.

“At that time, I thought the MRI was the Royals Royce of scanners, because if you got injured in rugby and you had one of those then you were serious because the cost of it. They wouldn’t send you for them all the time. They (MRI scans) come back with loads of white dots. And the neuropsychological testing said I was ‘below average, but we’ve got to base we’ll test you’re getting 12 months.”

After taking the brave first steps, Alix found rest-bite in an unnamed former teammate. A meeting in the most unassuming of circumstances, led to the former Wales number eight pursuing his journey, and breaking the ground for others. 

“I then met a player who was an agent, who I played with in France, who’s got epilepsy from concussion. And I had a coffee with him in Newport, and I told him about the different problems, different symptoms I was struggling with. He said he had epilepsy, and I said ‘I bet there are hundreds of us from our generation’.

“We were always seeing stars, sniffing salts and just carrying on. About three weeks later he contacted me, and told me about this other scan, a DTI; diffusion tensor imaging, that they’re scanning the players brains. I went through that testing, and that was the one that picked up the five areas of damage. As Steve (Thompson) said, when I had the diagnosis, it was a relief, that all this stuff that was going on, that wasn’t me. There was a reason for it, because this damage was shown on my brain.

The neurologists who diagnosed me said, ‘Look, you’re going to have a load of questions to ask, I’ll give you a week.’ (So, I) Go away, and as you do you Google, that was the first thing that anybody could do. I watched bloody ‘Concussion’ (2015 film) with the kids, but I shouldn’t have done. But we did, and that was a quite a hard, hard watch.

“Then from then, until we went public, I started to talk to players I played with and against, and over 50% of them, were struggling in silence and had different symptoms. Word got out, Chinese whispers, that I’d been diagnosed, and they wanted to know how they could. So, we were helping people because otherwise, they were at home. 

“A couple of people, unfortunately, have committed suicide, after getting after getting the diagnosis, or waiting for testing. But in as a whole, I believe we’re helping more people with going public, and I’m telling our story.”

Thompson is one such man whom Alix helped to a great extent. An unexpected phone call started the dominoes, which have since toppled into the mainstream media. The former Northampton Saints hooker hung up his boots in 2011, after 73 appearances for England and a further three caps for the British and Irish Lions. 

Thompson’s post-rugby life took him first to Dubai, but as his neurological symptoms worsened, work began to get harder. The daily grind became a mountain which he struggled to summit, having previously shunted 18st forwards for a living. The sting of the repeated head impacts had caught up with Thompson, just four short years after finishing his career at Wasps. 

Steve Thompson’s Story

“I think, looking back, I’ll sort of skip back and forth. I was probably having problems definitely from 2015 I think. I was over in Dubai working there, and I’ve never kept a diary, I never needed to, I was working, I was doing construction work.

“Then all of a sudden, I just started like missing meetings. Then I started going into meetings, and coming out just thinking ‘what on earth just went on?’ I just couldn’t remember what was going on.
And then suddenly, I was not really sociable, then all of a sudden I just stopped socialising. My wife just thought I was just a moody old git to be honest. I’ve just totally changed.

“I started hiding away, not going (out), not working. To the point where over in Dubai, if you don’t work properly, you lose your visa. So I had three young kids, who had to move from there to Cyprus quite quickly. And then it was just I was dropping the kids in the morning (to school), and I was just sat down for hours, just in tears. Just crying, and just feeling that, it was just ridiculous.

“So you know, we came back (to England). I started working out on the tools and loved it, fixing water pipes. Then ‘Pops’ (Alix Popham) gave me a call because we played together in France, and he started telling me what was going on. How he was getting lost going for cycle rides, and his memory and anger issues and things like that.”

Like Alix had spoken with his former Brive colleague, this phone call was a decisive moment in Thompson’s life. Unbeknownst to the Northampton native, he would soon be delivered with the life-altering news, that he admitted did come as a relief. 

“I went back to Steph (his wife), and I said, ‘I’ve had a call today from Alix, saying all these things.’ She just looks at me, and was like, ‘are you sure he’s not describing you?’ And I was like, ‘no, no’. But then that’s when we started like talking properly. ‘You should go and get tested’ (Mel said). 

“You go through all the tests, and then go through all the scans, we get a message because obviously (due to the Covid-19 pandemic) things could not go face to face. And he (specialist) was like, right, I want to speak to you tomorrow. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to wait for tomorrow. Just text me. Have I got it (early onset Dementia), yes or no.’ 

‘He’d put ‘Yes’. And that was it. 

“We spoke properly the next day. I didn’t tell Steph at the time and I was just thinking, ‘s**t, you know, what are we going to do?’ So I started explaining that over the phone. 

“It was like, a massive relief getting the diagnosis, because there’s nothing worse going to the doctors, where you know there’s something wrong, but they’re like, ‘well, your blood tests are clear and everything’s fine.’ So, at first, there was a massive relief, and yeah, I’ve got something wrong with me, you know, this is the reason.”

Having put their bodies on the line throughout their prime years of life, Popham, Thompson and countless other retired professional rugby players have been dealt cruel cards, from the sport which brought them so much success. These stars of the early professional era should be enjoying the fruits of the labours, but are bruised on the inside and out, having run a relentless gauntlet for too many years. 

“Suddenly I’d just fall apart. I’d be in the bedroom in tears and just trying to hide from the kids. Then we (Steve and Mel) decided, we’ve got to come out public now, and it was hard, because I was thinking that we’re kind of going against rugby. That’s sort of it, people say, (rugby) gave us so much, and all this sort of stuff.

“It’s like, can it really do it to us? Even then I was questioning like, would they, they couldn’t have? Because they (rugby clubs) spent so much money (on us). For instance, my neck went from 15 inches to 26 inches, when I was playing, they made us bigger, stronger. They were putting you to bed, they were looking after you, doing all those bits, doing everything they possibly could to get you on the field. 

“So, it was like, ‘there’s no way, they wouldn’t’. Then suddenly I was given a load of evidence to look at, and it was like ‘’b*****ds’. I thought ‘this is just wrong’. 

The two ex-internationals are part of a wider group of former rugby union and rugby league players, that have banded together in a legal case against the sport’s governing bodies. The days of suffering in silence are over, with former players more vocal than ever, on their concerns around prolonged and permanent neurological damage. 

Today, there are outstanding organisations available for everyone affected by sports related brain injuries. Popham is a co-founder of ‘Head for Change’, a charitable foundation that pioneers positive change for brain health in sport. From the 7th to the 12th of October, Head for Change is putting on a fundraising event called ‘The Big Rugby Swim’. Six former Rugby Union and Rugby League players including Alix Popham will race against each other, in an incredible relay across the 22-mile long British Channel. 

Progressive Rugby is another organisation, that champions the welfare of rugby players above all else. Tom Morris of Progressive Rugby attended the book launch, as Sam Peters’ work has garnered the attention of the top sports concussion activists. There is no downplaying the significance of Peters’ work, and the important change it can help bring to the modern-day rugby landscape. 

Morris shared his thoughts on Peters’ work. “Sam has spearheaded the drive for player welfare in rugby for more than a decade. Like us (Progressive Rugby), his passion is driven by the desire to better protect the future of the game he loves, and the long term brain health of those playing it.”

Peters closed off the panel discussion by excitably announcing that ‘Concussed: Sports Uncomfortable Truth’ has been long-listed for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. An enjoyable book signing followed, as Peters closed a page on more than 15 years of tireless journalistic work, and penned in a new chapter as a published book author, with a milestone contribution to the sports concussion sphere. 

The book launch continues on Thursday November 2nd, as Peters will be joined by Steve Thompson and Lewis Moody, Topping’s Bookshop in Bath. Buy tickets for this event here.