It’s a moment that we live in fear of; it’s always there hidden in the shadows, lurking. Just one careless tackle away, one ill-timed throw as every week our football teams are subjected to a level of brutality and blunt force trauma that most of us will never experience. But it’s here now, out of hiding in all its ugly reality – our worst nightmare realised.
In Round 3 of the 2014 NRL season, life for Alex McKinnon changed forever. In fact, the outlook of the entire Rugby League community is now irrevocably changed. In a ferocious but otherwise orthodox three-man Melbourne Storm tackle, Newcastle’s Alex McKinnon landed awkwardly. He broke the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. Doctors told Alex it was unlikely he would ever walk again.
Born in the Hunter Valley town of Aberdeen, Alex had Rugby League in his blood. The McKinnon family is a household name in Aberdeen, so much so that the home of the Aberdeen Tigers – the club were it would all begin for Alex – is named after his grandfather Mal. It was while playing for the Tigers at McKinnon Oval and attending St Gregory’s College that he attracted the attention of St George Illawarra, the club where Alex would play in the NYC before being given his chance in first grade in 2011. Debuting in Round 14 against the Gold Coast Titans in the centres, McKinnon scored two tries, immediately impressing coach Wayne Bennett.
Exceptional form in his initial season of first grade attracted the attention of several clubs, increasing his options dramatically, but as a true testament to his character Alex put family before a big-money contract, signing a three-year deal with the Newcastle Knights. It was a move that would see Alex return closer to his family – and also keep him under the direction of master coach Bennett.
In 2012, Wayne rewarded Alex’s hard work and loyalty with a regular spot in first grade, and the good form continued. At season’s end, Alex was named in the Junior Kangaroos side to play the Junior Kiwis.
Playing Rugby League his entire life, Alex has become accustomed to hardened battle. The toughest battle of his life has just begun, however. The long and uncertain road to recovery will be frustrating and incomprehensibly challenging – yet McKinnon always has a smile on his face.
Newcastle teammate Jeremy Smith says it’s the tremendous courage that McKinnon displays that helps the team deal with the situation.
“Yeah he is so incredibly tough, toughest bloke I know,” Smith admitted.
“Seeing how far he has come really lifts the boys”.
A true example of this came just six days after McKinnon’s devastating injury, when the Knights hosted the Cronulla at Hunter Stadium. After the teams ran out, the home side stood in a circle, arm in arm, in front of the 25,000-strong crowd, where they were joined by Bennett. This could only be described as one of the most emotional days in Rugby League’s history. The Knights went on to dominate the Sharks 30-0 that afternoon. During the post-game press conference, Bennett’s statement summed up the mood at Newcastle perfectly: “I didn’t care if we won today. I’m just too emotional to care right now, though I couldn’t be prouder of my group today.”
On a more positive note, Alex has had tremendous support throughout his ordeal from the Knights, the NRL and the wider Rugby League community. His courage in the face of a personal tragedy has served as an inspiration, transcending the game itself.
The NRL is devoting the entire Round 19 of the premiership to Alex, in what has been dubbed the ’Rise for Alex Round’. The NRL will donate one dollar for every person that attends every match this weekend to a help set up a fund to aid his costly recovery. ‘Rise for Alex’ wristbands will also be available for purchase at all grounds. The New Zealand Warriors’ owners and players announced this morning they are donating $20,000 to the cause – just one of many sizeable contributions to come from within the code.
Alex has also been offered a job for life with the NRL. But it’s not just the NRL administration getting behind him – players from all codes are coming out in support, donning the ‘Rise for Alex’ bands on their wrists. North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston will wear the No.16 jersey against Cronulla on Friday, the number on the back of Alex’s Knights jersey when he suffered the injury (the Knights have retired the jersey for the season).
In Newcastle last on Thursday night, Channel Nine’s The Footy Show featured a telethon where players from several clubs took donation calls. Local Hunter businesses also made considerable donations.
So if you haven’t been to the footy this year, this weekend is the perfect excuse to grab a jersey, load the family in the car and get out to a game. Remember, one dollar will go to this special young man and his family for every person who attends an NRL match.
At a time when our game is regularly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, a tragic incident that has rocked every Rugby League person to the core is perhaps the silver lining of a dark and harrowing cloud. Alex’s bravery and the community’s response to his setback has illustrated with crystal clarity the camaraderie, mateship and unique bond that makes us love this game above all others.
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