Wolf­pack’s Laith­waite re­calls day he broke his neck

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY NEIL DAVID­SON

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.


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