The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
Miracle of my new Wally
Inside The King’s remarkable transformation
IT IS 7 7.45pm,45pm Wall Wally L Lewis walks inside his bayside home after a 10-hour day at Channel 9 and immediately begins searching his mobile for a text message.
He finds the text. It is from Epilepsy Queensland and it contains a list of phone numbers. He picks a number and dials. “Hi, it is Wally Lewis here.”
On the other end is a young mother who has just been told her daughter has epilepsy.
Lewis patiently listens to her story and offers advice, the conversation lasts 45 minutes.
She thanks him and Wally returns to the list and picks another number, another family wondering how to deal with life-changing news.
This is the routine of the greatest five-eighth in rugby league history. The King. A living legend.
A man immortalised in bronze who cold-calls families struggling with epilepsy each week. “I feel like a hypocrite though,” Wally revealed to The Sunday Mail.
This open, gentle, engaging man is not the Wally teammates, journalists and even fans remember.
It is a Wally his family knew then lost in 1985 when he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
A Wally he kept hidden from teammates, media and the public for 21 years as he lived life in fear of being outed as an epileptic.
It has been eight years since a 5cm long and 3cm chunk of Lewis’s left temporal lobe was removed.
Eight years since he went blank on live television while reading the sport report.
Eight years since the real Wally began to emerge.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t realise I am a very lucky person to be able to see the man that I love get his life back,” his wife Jacqueline says.
“As a human being, if you can change one person’s life you have done a good job and Wally’s changed more than one.”
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Mail, Wally Lewis and his family have opened up about how the most embarrassing moment of his life transformed him from a reclusive and misunderstood sporting hero to a generous and inspiring person.
Wally is a rugby league Immortal, inaugural Broncos captain, Maroons champion and arguably the code’s greatest practitioner yet even former teammates have only discovered the real Wally since brain surgery.
Jacqueline says more people should know how special this champion footballer is away from the field.
Until brain surgery, Wally was a loner. A man so concerned about his epilepsy se- cret that he became a hermit in training throughout the second half of his playing career.
Some of his Broncos teammates barely spoke to him when he was their captain.
They are still in shock at how friendly and engaging Wally is now.
Some fans still complain to the Lewis family about how aloof the King was to them when he was playing.
They had no idea how sapping his secret was, how he feared he would piss his pants at any moment from a seizure.
“If I was in company, I was always sure to be on the outer so if I felt it coming on I could make my way to the toilet,” Wally says.
“I had been in a time tunnel for ages. Nothing was moving forward. I would come home, stay home and not go out.
“Every night I would think … will tonight be the night?”
The night it all changed was November 30, 2006, when Lewis had his second minor seizure, known as a petit mal, while on air.
That night, which prompted much media speculation, Lewis cleaned out his desk believing he had let the network down. Nine wouldn’t have a bar of it but Wally knew he had to come clean and he had to have surgery.
He didn’t realise at the time how freeing having part of his brain removed would be.
“I don’t have a fear of failure any more,” Wally says. “I thought it would be the beginning of the end. Now I realise it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I used to think I got on well with most blokes but I never said too much to anyone. “People would ask me things and I was comfortable to just chat about football … but personal health never because that was me and my family’s business only.
“I bet I had the personality of a dead fish. There was nothing there. “Only very few people knew I was dealing with it. I didn’t want to trust a lot of people. It was fear. Geno, (Gene Miles) I told him. We had trust.
“You feel you are a different, lower level, person. It sounds harsh but that’s the way you feel. You feel you have let your family and yourself down.”
Epilepsy affects about two per cent of Australians, many o of whom deal with the illness in secret. While there are trigg gering factors, a seizure – w which essentially means the br brain no longer communicates w with the body – can occur at an any time and can be an embarra rassing experience.
It means those who suffer from the illness live in fear of losing control.
“I have the man I married back,” Jacqueline says. “His friends from school and early football often remark to me how great it is to have the real Wally back.
“Some people just caught him on a day when he wasn’t really there and that’s the memory they have.
“People never know who has epilepsy and they have no idea the turmoil that person is going through.”
Wally has developed into a terrific journalist and presenter, a man who would be working in the television industry even if his last name wasn’t Lewis.
Kylie Blucher, Nine’s Queensland managing director, recalls approaching a presurgery Wally at the Mt Coottha canteen.
Sometimes he would say hello, other times he would stare past her reluctant to engage. “He is so much more open, giving and wanting to engage,” Blucher says.
“For a long time he didn’t want to have a conversation.
“Pre-surgery there was an undercurrent of people thinking Wally was rude and arrogant and with the benefit of hindsight we know now why … that he was dealing with a serious issue.”
Nine allows Wally to do charity work even while he is at their Mt Coot-tha office. He also does it at shopping centres, grocery stores and walking with Jacqueline.
“It is almost hypocritical of me considering how I hid it,” Wally says of his ambassadorial role. “I feel it is my responsibility to assist others.”
Jacqueline says she is reminded every day how fortunate they are the secret Wally fought so hard to keep was revealed in such a public manner.
“We go to the shops and people approach us and start crying because Wally has helped them deal with the stigma of epilepsy,” she says. “He has allowed people to face their fears.
“It is a miracle. How lucky can one person be? I lost the person I married but still loved him through it all and then I get him back the way he was always meant to be.
“It is a wonderful relief to know he will live a great life.”