i miss my old mate Dan Vickerman (who took his life earlier this year). i played with him for many years, and his mates will always wonder whether they should have spotted the signs. it seemed like he had it all mapped out. He had a wife and kids, he was a Cambridge Blue and was well liked in the corporate sector – there were no disruptive life events like a marriage breakdown, alcoholism or bankruptcy. Vicks did talk about feeling isolated and in hindsight it was a cue to say, ‘you’re still part of the rugby family’.
The wider message is that depression can lead to poor decisions in a vulnerable moment. it’s perpetuated by the extreme highs and lows that pro sportsmen experience.
if you equate it to business, playing Test rugby means you’ve reached the top two per cent of your profession, you’re an industry captain but are relevant for a limited time. Vicks’s death stimulated a lot of conversation amongst us players to start talking more and looking out for others who had expressed concern about their self-worth. Once a Wallaby, always a Wallaby, isn’t it?
That’s part of the reason i’m flying over from France in a few weeks to play an all-stars game at saracens with the likes of John smit, mark Cueto and matt stevens, and lend some support to the RPA’s lift the Weight campaign. We need to stimulate the conversation for longer than it takes some old boys to jog or walk around a pitch for 80 minutes. it should be a great day and gives us a chance to reconnect with each other. Our aim is to turn the great ocean liner that is professional sport around to remember those who’ve been left behind.
Personally, there have been seismic events that will forever be woven into my life tapestry, dark moments. Without the love of my family, and the woman who went on to be my wife and give me two sons, there was a time when i didn’t care if i made my next birthday. i’m much happier now. After moving to France and coaching at Narbonne, i joined AFEX, a global payment and risk management company, and i have a sense of purpose.
my kids will soon be old enough to read what some people have written about me, but i hope they’ll have formed enough of a moral compass to look past the misinformation, rumour and innuendo online.
Retirement is a difficult beast to wrestle. many of us are used to projecting a gladiatorial image and having every part of the day mapped out, so when you stop you don’t recognise the new world you’re in or your part in it.
What we’re seeing now is the first full generation of professionals. Before, players weren’t defined by rugby because they had other jobs. Players who’ve retired in the past five to ten years are trailblazers as pro rugby’s first institutionalised products. i don’t want this to sound like some poor me violin story about a pro athlete who didn’t get paid big bucks; it’s about being able to wake up and tell your family what your purpose in life is, other than being defined by a tired youTube clip.
many people say pro rugby is like an extension of your schooldays. When you’re in the sheds, you think you’ll have friends for life when in reality you will speak to only two or three team-mates regularly as you get pulled all over the world. you don’t get those moments to check in because you’re not together. lives will be lost through our inaction and there’s work to be done. if we can stop someone making a grave decision, give them a sense of community and belonging, we’ll succeed.
The rugby family is the most powerful mafia in the world. it can nurture and care for its offspring, but it needs to remember its duty of care to professional players. This is an issue that transcends sports and continents, with the common thread that athletes are struggling with the end of their careers. We’re making progress but more support is needed – and days like the one at Allianz Park are a step in the right direction. l For tickets to the all-stars game on sat 30 June, 8.15pm, at Allianz Park see sevensandthecity.com
Topsy-turvy Harrison has found it tough post-rugby