The Sunday Mail (Queensland)

Mir­a­cle of my new Wally

Inside The King’s re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion

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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.”

 ?? Pic­ture: Jamie Hanson ??
Pic­ture: Jamie Hanson
 ??  ?? OUT OF DARK­NESS : A happy, out­go­ing Wally Lewis to­day (main); the mo­ment Lewis stopped mid-sen­tence on air (top); surgery scar; with chil­dren Jamie-Lee and Lin­coln; Ori­gin and Kan­ga­roos hero; and with son Mitch at Chan­nel 9. Main pic­ture: Liam Kid­ston
OUT OF DARK­NESS : A happy, out­go­ing Wally Lewis to­day (main); the mo­ment Lewis stopped mid-sen­tence on air (top); surgery scar; with chil­dren Jamie-Lee and Lin­coln; Ori­gin and Kan­ga­roos hero; and with son Mitch at Chan­nel 9. Main pic­ture: Liam Kid­ston
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