Alex McKinnon is resting in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne with his parents at his bedside as reports emerge that the Newcastle back-rower may have been diagnosed as a quadriplegic.
The Knights won an emotional match against Cronulla last night for their injured team mate, after the club launched the #RiseForAlex social media campaign.
The No. 16 jersey worn by McKinnon has reportedly been retired for the season as a sign of respect.
The 22-year-old sustained his injuries last Monday when he landed on his neck following a three-man tackle by Melbourne trio Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and Jordan McLean.
It was McLean’s attempt to lift the former St George Illawarra player that went horribly wrong, leaving him with injuries that have rocked the game and its supporters.
It is being reported that the Rugby League player faces the possibility of life in a wheelchair, but club officials are refusing to rule out some form of improvement in his condition.
‘‘Alex is in the first phase of his recovery and we all hope his progress continues,’’ Knights chief executive Matthew Gidley reportedly told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday night.
The Nine Network reported yesterday that McKinnon’s spinal cord is not severed, which leaves open the slim chance of improvement in his paralysis.
The diagnosis was first reported on the Nine Network and was seemingly confirmed on Monday night by the Country Rugby League – the governing body for rugby league in country NSW – on its Facebook page.
“Absolutely devastated by the news of Alex McKinnon. Doctors diagnosed Alex a quadriplegic. The Rugby League family is right behind you,” the CRL wrote.
Fairfax reported that those closest to McKinnon remained hopeful his condition would eventually improve as he recovered from surgery and received intensive treatment. It pointed out that quadriplegia was a condition of paralysis, from which it was possible for someone to improve over time.
McKinnon has undergone an operation to fuse his C4 and C5 verterbrae, as well as a bone graft from his hip to help support his neck.
It has also been reported that McKinnon had surgery on Thursday night to insert a steel plate and a bone graft from his hip over the damaged vertebrae to protect the spinal cord.
Melbourne’s McLean, meanwhile, will front the NRL judiciary on Wednesday in what is certain to be a difficult situation for all involved.
The young prop was allowed to play against Canterbury on Saturday after initially being stood down by the NRL and is said to be distraught by the plight of McKinnon.
NRL legend and former Newcastle great Matthew Johns said on Fox Sports: “Everyone in sport, not just rugby league are in total shock. It was always a chance it was going to be this type of terrible news but everyone was praying that it wouldn’t be.
“Then you get the news come through of this young boy who is so universally liked and respected in rugby league may not walk again.”
Social media was awash with tributes to McKinnon from figures from across the game and the world of sport with Australia Test captain Michael Clarke leading the way:
Devastating news about Alex McKinnon. Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this time.
— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) March 31, 2014
One of Australia’s greatest Paralympians, Newcastle-based Kurt Fearnley posted:
Extremely tough turn for Alex McKinnon. Grateful he’s still here. Life will never be the same for him, but he will be the same great human! — Kurt Fearnley (@kurtfearnley) March 31, 2014
Wests Tigers NRL player Keith Galloway:
Absolutely heart breaking hearing the news about Alex McKinnon. Really puts things in perspective. Feel for him, his family and loved ones — Keith Galloway (@kgalloway85) March 31, 2014
Joel Selwood, who plays for Geelong in the AFL:
My thoughts are with Alex McKinnon, his family, friends and the Newcastle Knights family.
— Joel Selwood (@joelselwood14) March 31, 2014
Coach pays tribute
Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett paid a moving tribute to McKinnon in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, on the eve of the Knights’ emotional ‘Rise Up for Alex’ match at home against Cronulla, in which he talked of his “father and son” relationship with McKinnon and described shopping for clothes with the 22-year-old.
“One of the things endearing me to Alex is his ability to care for other people,” Bennett wrote. “If he is your friend, you do not want.
“Recently I went to a player I knew to be struggling financially, prepared to give him a loan. ‘You OK?’ I said. ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘Alex looked after me’.”
He described Monday night last week as “terrible, horrific, highlighted by the fact I’m the coach, the steadying influence. The one they look to.
“We play a tough game and Alex is a tough young man. Nobody’s fool. He doesn’t walk around trying to show he’s tough, but he is. And I’ve always loved his humility.
Today, it is his dreams shattered, he who is staring at the unknown.
“Never seen him drunk. Not once. Never seen him do anything stupid. No one’s ever talked about Alex like that.
“He doesn’t wear his cap back-to-front, prefers country music and watches every game of footy every weekend. He’d rather sit down and talk to old blokes than prance around with rock stars.”
Bennett told how he returned with McKinnon last year to his home town of Aberdeen in central NSW.
“We spoke to his old school, St Joseph’s. He talked about how hard it was for him to leave home, how much he missed his parents and friends, at the same time encouraging the students to have the courage to follow their dreams … not to be afraid of the unknown.
“Today, it is his dreams shattered, he who is staring at the unknown.”