Sixteen weeks ago, Newcastle Knights’ player Alex McKinnon suffered a serious neck injury which has seen him confined to a wheelchair. The 22-year-old now has a long rehabilitation process ahead of him. Almost immediately after the incredibly rare, yet devastating event, the rugby league community, from the professional right through to the grassroots level, rallied around the rising star of the NRL whose whole life has now changed.
In a wonderful gesture, the Newcastle Knights – under financial strain – said that they would honour the rest of Alex McKinnon’s contract in order to assist Alex and his family with the long rehabilitation process. The NRL stepped up and delivered too. Alex McKinnon was graciously offered a job for life with the organisation, and a foundation was set up in his name.
But that was not all. Not that long ago the NRL said that Round 19 would be the #RiseForAlex round. The aim of the round, to raise funds for the foundation and for McKinnon. Another wonderful idea.
That round commenced on Friday night, with two very entertaining and high-scoring matches played. The two games so far were a celebration of rugby league, as much as they were a chance to help out a young man in need.
As I sat comfortably in my loungeroom, I began to ponder all things Alex McKinnon and all things NRL. It was a cathartic experience as I parsed through the thoughts I was having about what this tragedy, and the way the different actors have reacted, says about the NRL and its’ players. And there were thoughts about the man himself.
There might have also been a quiet tear or two. But they were happy tears. The Alex McKinnon situation resonated with me on a personal level.
Aside from a small issue I have grappled with in relation to the #RiseForAlex hashtag, and the contentious judiciary decision involving a Melbourne Storm player, the Knights and the rugby league community as a whole, not just the NRL have conducted themselves admirably. Their actions soon after the full extent of the injury to Alex McKinnon was known, could barely be faulted.
The one thing that I am still the tiniest bit unsure about is the wording of the hashtag. Is it a call to the community to get in and raise money? Or does it imply, in the tiniest way, that others have to help Alex and that he cannot help himself? I am probably over-thinking this. I have a tendency to do that. But nonetheless, the thought did cross my mind. Obviously though, I am not claiming there was any malicious intent. It’s just the case that words can have different meanings to different people.
Aside from my happiness at seeing the NRL community pull together, I also considered how Alex has so far dealt with what is the biggest challenge in his young life.
This is where it got really personal for me. I too have a disability. I was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.
I thankfully still have the use of my legs. But life has not been without its challenges. But they pale in comparison with those struggles that Alex and his family are now enduring. Alex is the very personification for me of the old adage that there is always someone doing it tougher than you.
The way that he has dealt with his acquired injury – and in the public eye – is something to behold. I have known nothing but a life of disability and I struggled to come to terms with it, basically until I found swimming when I was about 11. A few months after his injury, Alex appears to be dealing with his far more severe disability in a much more positive way. Of course he admits there have been tough times, but it barely shows when you see his smiling face in the video updates.
A horrific event in rugby league has brought out the best in those involved in the game. And it appears it has brought out the best in the victim. Perhaps most importantly, the response of the broader community appears to have been quite significant based on early indications.
You cannot underestimate too, the effect this might have on the way that we as Australians view disability.