Sport Rugby League Alex McKinnon and the brutal reality of pro sport

Alex McKinnon and the brutal reality of pro sport

Alex McKinnon
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· Knights battling to cope after McKinnon injury

As news filtered through on Tuesday about the plight of young Newcastle Knights backrower Alex McKinnon, who suffered a devastating spinal injury in Monday night’s game against Melbourne Storm, the sporting news cycle was put in stark perspective.

Matches are played, points are scored, coaches are interviewed, referees are blasted, stories are written and we all move on to next week.

But when an accident like McKinnon’s occurs, talk of tries and finals are put into their proper context.

Alex McKinnon in his St George Illawarra days. Photo: AAP

McKinnon is in intensive care in a Melbourne hospital, after fracturing the C4 and C5 vertebrae in a seemingly innocuous tackle from Jordan McLean and the Bromwich brothers, Jesse and Kenny. He faces a fight not to return to the sport but simply to walk again, with the club saying it could take two years to recover from his injuries.

McKinnon’s accident is sobering for those who view sport purely as entertainment, an excuse to down a few ales and let off some steam.

Yes, accidents like McKinnon’s are rare, but when you’ve got 100kg blokes running around at the speed they do, stepping onto the playing field in any code of football takes courage.

In the AFL, Andrew Embley was a whipping boy of mine. He’d won a Norm Smith medal and was highly regarded by most West Coast supporters, but for some reason he could infuriate me like few others.

I remember a game against Carlton at Etihad stadium, May 2010, when we were getting spanked but starting to mount some sort of challenge.

Embley came ambling out of half-back like a toddler, with an eternity to dispose of the footy. Poor old Andrew needed longer than that though, and he was run-down from behind, giving up a free-kick and costing us the precious momentum we’d built up.

A few beers down, I got stuck into the wingman with abandon, questioning his place in the side, his sight, his manhood and his general lack of worth as a human being.

As I learned more about what had happened to Alex McKinnon at AAMI Park, and the battle he faces to rebuild his body and mind, my behaviour that day came back to me.

As a boxing fan, I’d always seen ball sports as a safer option. No matter what heinous injury could be incurred on the sporting field – and there are plenty – boxing had it covered.

I’d never witnessed anything more serious than a leg break in NRL or AFL until Monday night’s game, although there have been plenty of concussions that we are only now beginning to understand the long-term ramifications of.

Their workplace is a high risk one, and there is always a chance they won’t come out the same way they went in.

In boxing, however, I’ve seen some tragic examples of men who entered the ring in peak physical condition but who came out permanently broken.

On 25 February, 1995, undefeated American Gerald McLellan fought Briton Nigel Benn in London. He was stopped in round 10 and collapsed shortly after the fight.

He had emergency surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain, and was in a coma for 11 days. He suffered extensive brain damage, lost his sight and almost all of his hearing.

In September 2005 Leavander Johnson defended his world lightweight title against Jesus Chavez and was stopped in the 11th round. He left the ring unaided, but collapsed in his dressing room because of bleeding on his brain and died five days later.
Former Footscray player Neil Sachse. Photo:

While boxing may be the most brutal and consistently violent, football codes offer plenty of risk too.

Footscray player Neil Sachse became a quadriplegic in 1975 when he collided with Fitzroy’s Kevin O’Keeffe, and more recently former Geelong VFL player Casey Tutungi suffered the same fate playing for South Barwon.

In 1978, Penrith prop John Farragher became a quadriplegic when a scrum collapsed in a match against Newtown.

The Australian sporting community sincerely hopes and prays such a fate will not befall young Alex McKinnon.

His injury should give us all pause to reflect on the sacrifices our sporting heroes make every time they cross the white line. Their workplace is a high risk one, and there is always a chance they won’t come out the same way they went in.

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