An emotional Willie Mason admits the Newcastle players have been struggling to cope following Alex McKinnon’s potentially career-ending neck injury.
The 22-year-old back-rower is in a critical but stable condition in a Melbourne hospital and in an induced coma following emergency spinal surgery to repair two fractured vertebrae and have a disc removed.
Doctors are waiting to discover the full extent of his injuries, which were sustained following a three-man tackle that went wrong by Storm trio Kenny and Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean.
“There’s no manuscript to say this is how you deal or act when something like this happens,” Mason said on Thursday.
The incident occurred just before half-time in the AAMI Park clash, and Mason said it was tough for both sides to continue playing after hearing McKinnon’s anguished cries.
“Probably at the time we didn’t realise the full extent, but I was standing next to Alex and it was pretty horrifying the words that were coming out,” Mason said.
“We’re a pretty strong group and a strong leader in Wayne Bennett. He is a strong man and we’re going off him.
I was standing next to Alex and it was pretty horrifying the words that were coming out.
“We’ve got to continue but we’ll never forget Alex McKinnon.”
Mason is in his 15th season as a professional, and the former NSW and Test prop said he’d never experienced the depth of feeling that was whirling around the club this week.
“It’s hard to block your emotions and it’s hard to grasp the whole situation,” he said.
“Wayne has rang me personally, I’ve rang some of the younger kids to see how they’re feeling, and some have rang me.
“We’re all brothers and Alex is like a little brother to me. It sucks.”
The Knights take on Cronulla on Sunday in what’s certain to be a hugely poignant occasion.
McKinnon’s No.16 jumper has been retired for the rest of the season by the club, and his name will be embroidered on the front of the NRL side’s shirts.
A huge crowd is expected at Hunter Stadium, with representatives from McKinnon’s junior club to form a guard of honour for the players when they run on to the field.
“This is my 15th year being a pro and you realise you are blessed,” Mason said. “It’s a sad moment for sport.
“It’s hard. Even talking about it now makes me emotional, so imagine what it will be like before the game. I’ll just shut my mouth and let my actions do the talking.”