Wolfpack’s Laithwaite recalls day he broke his neck
It started as a routine rugby league tackle. But bad things can happen when some 900 pounds of beef collides at speed with no padding.
That’s what happened April 23 when the Salford Red Devils, riding high in the penthouse of English rugby league, hosted the fledgling Toronto Wolfpack in the fifth round of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.
Adrenalin was flowing early on as the Wolfpack, a fully professional side starting life in England’s third tier, faced their biggest challenge to date. And Newton’s third law — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — was about to hammer Toronto forward James Laithwaite in the head.
Bob Beswick, a fireplug-shaped hooker who doubles as the Wolfpack’s strength and conditioning coach, met the Salford ball-runner full on. As Beswick held him up, the sixfoot-two 223-pound Laithwaite came in from his teammate’s right to help wrestle the Red Devil down to the ground.
Immediately after Laithwaite grabbed on, Toronto teammate Jack Bussey came crashing in from the other side to complete a Salford sandwich. But the sixfoot 234-pound
Bussey also connected with Laithwaite’s head.
“It was just unfortunate,’’ said Laithwaite, a quiet redhead.
“I didn’t even see it coming. I was in the tackle, made the tackle. Next minute it felt like a steam train hit me on the side of the head. It felt like my ear touched my shoulder and instantly (I heard) a massive crack.
“I felt to the floor, for a few minutes. And I lost feeling in my arms. Pins and needles in my hands. It was a horrible feeling, scary really. The physio came on straight away and said ‘What are you feeling?’ Straight away I said ‘I broke my neck.’’’
Sadly Laithwaite was right. It just took a while for doctors to confirm it.
As Laithwaite lay on his back on the pitch at A.J. Bell Stadium, a crowd of physios and medical staff gathered around him. At one point, there were seven people undertaking the slow process of getting the big second-rower on a spinal board and into a neck brace.
There is perhaps no more sickening feeling in sport, especially if you’re the one they’re working on.
“I was thinking like this could be it,’’ Laithwaite recalled. “You don’t know. I could never play again. I could be paralysed. I didn’t know.’’
But looking back, he feels nothing but gratitude to the doctors, physios and helpers for taking their time.
“It could have been a lot worse maybe if they hadn’t followed the procedures.’’
On the field, Toronto lost 2922. At the hospital, Laithwaite underwent X-rays and a CAT scan. Eventually he got some unexpected news.
“They said ‘We can’t find any fractures or broken bones. It just looks like bad whiplash,’’’ Laithwaite recalled. “So they discharged me.’’
At seven the next morning, he got a phone call saying: “Get back as soon as you can. We’ve found a fracture on your X-ray.’’
Laithwaite wasn’t surprised. He had spent part of the night stuck in one stiff position on the sofa. He couldn’t sleep in bed. “I knew something was up ... the neck was killing (me).’’
His mother drove him back to hospital, where they slapped a neck brace on him and kept him in for three nights while they did more tests.
“I was quite nervous while I was waiting,’’ said Laithwaite. “I didn’t really know how bad it was.’’
The final diagnosis was a fractured C-3 vertebrae, high on the neck. ``It’s the bottom of your head, really,’’ Laithwaite explains.
Initially he was told six weeks in a neck brace. But another specialists, with experience in treating rugby players, deemed that unnecessary saying “it’s all quite stable.’’
The news has continued to be good since then.
Doctors expect the bone to heal by the end of June and, if the specialist agrees, Laithwaite could resume training in July.