Updated: Jun 2
The stadium lights have long been dimmed and the loud cheering for football heroes has faded into the past. Their uniforms, that were once covered with grass stains, blood drippings and sweat, have been cleaned, neatly folded and sealed in cardboard boxes labelled ‘career’.
The only thing they meet now is dust.
When the sporting podium they had been placed upon during often decade-long careers is pulled from beneath their feet, some of their supporters no longer support, instead turning a blind eye. However, there is one group that rushes over to help, one foundation that reaches out its hand. One of the hands that reaches out belongs to that of Warren Thompson, an inner Sydney-based wellbeing officer for the Men of League Foundation.
Warren Thompson knows what it is like to have the limelight pulled away suddenly, having received a career ending injury in the preseason of 1971.
“The tackle was like whiplash”, explained Warren. The two players who were defending their line swung their arms in such a manner to hit him up high and in the abdomen, simultaneously. “It snapped me!”, he exclaimed.
He had come off the field and was told to sit on a table within the St George Dragons’ lockers, so that the doctor could check his condition. A week later the doctors said to Warren, “Your neck vertebrae are pressing on your nerves”, and that his career was over.
The phrase ‘Every man for himself’ is not in the Foundation’s vocabulary. When professional Rugby League players have to retire from their much-loved passion, be it for injury, mental health, the toll on their bodies or their age, it can become overwhelming. But the Foundation is there to lift them up, to support them, and to encourage them.
Today, if a player is hit in the neck or head during a game of rugby league, a trainer will sprint on to the field to ensure that the injured player is safe to continue playing. After checking stability and speech, the trainer will signal for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA). Walking off the field, the player ends up in the locker rooms, just like Warren did. The trainer asks the player, “Where are we? What team are you playing? What half of the match is it?” and based on the answers he receives; the player’s remainder of the game is determined.
Dr Bianca De Wit, a researcher from the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, is focusing on the effect of concussions in rugby league players. She is working on a solution to protect players from future brain damage. Instead of testing based on questions that receive autonomous answers, her research tests the brain’s electrical responsiveness.
She believes that mateship is the ultimate goal to protecting sporting players. Dr De Wit says, “When I go out to clubs and I test, everyone goes, ‘Oh, what did you get?’ It’s a competition, and I think testing should not necessarily be fun, but there is this stigma that shouldn’t be there. If we can get to that point where it is more ‘mates’ asking each other about their tests, it just becomes part of what you do.”
With advancements in Head Injury testing, more players will finish their career due to age, rather than from injuries. In many ways, they will leave under healthier conditions, which Warren agrees would be beneficial.
Nowadays, smartly dressed in a dark navy polo shirt with an embossed gold emblem to the left of his chest inscribed ‘Men of League’, Warren would usually drive to one of the many appointments he has scattered throughout Sydney Metro. His objective, to assist in the wellbeing of his mates. Warren says that some people would call the ex-players and families that he meets, ‘patients’, but to him and to The Foundation, they are in fact ‘mates’. “It’s not just for the men of league."
Warren says, “It’s for the Rugby League family. It’s for the ladies serving the pies and sauce in the canteen, the guy marking the white lines on the ground. It is not just for ex-players.”
Warren often drives to destinations of intensive care units and special care facilities, where men who once had the bodies of Gods and were praised like heroes, now rest alongside family. The footy jumpers of their youth have been replaced by thin, pastel blue hospital gowns. Minds that once flowed without effort, now sit stationary and silent, waiting for the flood of memories that wellbeing officers bring.
Warren says, “All you have to do is listen.” Even if just for a moment, these memories provide hope, happiness and joy.
Warren recalls speaking with his old mate, Colin 'Col' Beath, from Gooloogong, Central Western NSW (the same tiny town that produced Panthers legend Royce Simmons) who played for Eugowra. Colin has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Warren has always wondered how Colin had been given the opportunity to play for the Rabbitohs, so he asked. This prompted Colin to tell his unusual story.
A taxi driver pulled up to a garage in Mascot in 1970 and asked the attendant, “Hey mate, are you able to help fix my cab?”. His cab displayed ‘RSL taxi number 290’. Another mechanic tending the shop said, “Colin Beath can assist you”, and pointed towards the auto mechanic dressed in dark navy overalls, his hands covered in grease from tending to vehicles all day.
“I can have a look”, replied Colin. But as Colin looked up to greet the driver, he blurted out, “I know who you are!”
The man standing before him had won five premierships as a player, two as a coach, played 157 first grade games in the cardinal and myrtle of South Sydney. He had represented New South Wales, Queensland, captained the green and gold, and was the then coach for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. In terms of clients for the day, he had just become first cab off the rank.
Colin said, “You’re Clive Churchill.” Churchill said, “Are you related to (formed Dragons Test second-rower) Barry Beath?”. “Yes, that’s my brother”, came the reply.
The man, who would become one of the first four Immortals 11 years later, asked if Colin played rugby league like his brother Barry, which resulted in a resounding “Yes!”
Churchill then proposed, “How about having a run for us?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Colin said “Yes please.”
Colin’s next game was playing in the cardinal and myrtle in the third grade side. He was given jumper number 44 and played alongside loyal club players Bob McMillan and Jeff Withers.
Through something as simple as a visit and a conversation with wellbeing officers, former players and their families are transported to memories of the past. It was as if Colin had left his age care facility, slipped into his cardinal and myrtle jersey with a white number 44 on his back, jogged down to the park, and took on his opponent again; if only in his mind. It provided the joy, happiness and humour to lift his spirits.
A strong friendship has formed between Warren Thompson, a Souths junior who played for the Rabbitohs, Bears and Dragons (47 first grade games), and Colin Beath. When Colin needs a helping hand, Warren provides the company to assist in whatever way he can. Recently, when Warren found himself in hospital, his phone vibrated and upon looking down, he had received a message from Colin, “Hey, Is everything alright, mate?”
Colin also recalls brilliant anecdotes from former Australian and premiership-winning five-eighth John ‘Bomber’ Peard, and memorable conversations with Alan Webb (Chelsea United), Colin Downing (Chelsea United), John Harris (wellbeing officer), Ken Vessey (wellbeing officer and Chelsea United), and the late Grahame Bowen (St George and Cronulla).
Whilst recalling the stories of the lives that he helped to bless, Warren’s eyes lit up, and he said, “I got a text the other day, let me find it for you. It is about a nine-year-old girl named Charli.”
Charli "Chucky" Berghauser had been diagnosed with a Pineal brain tumour, which made her eyesight blurry and her focus unclear. Her parents were informed that they would need to raise a substantial amount of money for the life-saving operation, the accommodation and the flights to Sydney from their home in rural Queensland. Through a telethon and other charity fundraisers, her parents were able to raise a high percentage of the money, but they were still short of the necessary goal.
Charli, a passionate Rugby League player in her local community, loved playing in the green and gold for the Jimboomba Thunder in country Queensland. She loved tackling her opponents and had even received the “Miss No Nonsense” award for her tackling skills. Since she played footy regularly, she met the criteria for receiving Men of League Foundation assistance.
The result was a helping hand that increased the raised money to the intended target, and in turn, helped to save her life.
At Suncorp Stadium, 38 days after her brain surgery, Charli had traded her pastel blue hospital gown and her blurred vision for a rich maroon and gold jersey and complete focus. She stood at the entrance to the field, and as the flames on the entrance’s arch way pumped into the air, Charli confidently lead a strong Brisbane Bronco Rugby League team out onto the grass. She also received a special visit from Queensland Maroons women’s team members Ali Brigginshaw and Meg Ward.
Emotionally, Warren said, “Found the text. Her mother sent me this last week out of the blue. ‘Warren, just wanted to check in and let you know that Charli is doing exceptionally well. We want to thank you and all the gang for everything you have done for us’.”
Warren then received another update, this time a photograph which revealed the beaming smile of Charli. She was dressed in her training gear with a golden tick on her black footy boots, signifying that just do it attitude. The photo was accompanied by a heartfelt message that said, “Her first training session in over two and a half years. Thank you for making this possible.”
Charli now plays for the Fremantle Roosters, proudly wearing the red, white and blue. Her nickname, 'Chucky', was given to her by her under-6s coach, and the number '503' represents the number of days since her surgery.
Her mother described her first game back by saying, "Charli played like she's never stopped, she tackled, got tackled and had an absolute blast."
Recently, Charli was accepted into a Rugby Specialist Program for high school next year, and she has just scored herself a RUGBY SCHOLARSHIP! Amazing news.
Due to the current pandemic, the Foundation is unable to physically visit ‘old mates’ or even ‘young mates’ that require assistance, so it has implemented the virtual visitation program to help tackle this issue. Wellbeing officers reach out via Zoom, Facetime calls or just the general voice calls, and this is what Warren, and many others, have been doing.
Warren, still smartly dressed in his dark navy polo shirt, now sits on his brown reclining chair which lives in his “man cave”. His wife is adamant that it isn’t a ‘man cave’, referring to the space as the family rumpus room. Behind the chair are framed memories of mates that stood by him during his toughest hardships, the same mates that he stands alongside today, during theirs.
This tarnished, padded, chocolate-toned chair that he finds himself in, is the same brown recliner that he bought for his mother many years ago. It now resides at his place, in the room most special to his heart, becoming a sentimental throne with memories of his past.
Two plywood boxes rest on the floor, carefully balanced to become a side table for his coffee to perch upon. Leaning back in his chair, Warren Thompson dials the number to one of his ‘old mates’ and the phone begins to ring … on the other end of the phone, a voice smiles back, “Hey mate, it’s good to hear from you”.