'I tried to get my thrill by drinking, being stupid and getting outrageously drunk... it took its toll in terms of my mental state'
Tom Stephenson can’t quite believe it. As a player, he was never a fan of running at training. Yet, less than a year after leaving rugby behind at the relatively young age of 26, he is a rejuvenated man on a very worthy mission. Five marathons in five days next month is the audacious plan, his daily routes starting at his old Franklin’s Gardens stomping ground, continuing at his grassroots rugby club in Buckingham and then wrapping up on May 16 when he reaches Twickenham.
The ex-midfielder’s final destination is rather apt. English Rugby HQ was the scene of Northampton’s 2014 Premiership title win and Stephenson’s greatest moment in a sport that never as gloriously invigorated him as much as it did that remarkable breakthrough year where Saints also won the Challenge Cup and Stephenson then went on to help England U20s win a second successive World Cup.
Serious injuries, the mental torture of lengthy layoffs and excessive drinking stifled his career to such an extent that Stephenson didn’t have the inclination to carry on post-lockdown last summer, spurning derisory contract offers to instead go out on a limb and seek an alternative career.
Finding his feet has proven educational. He’s already on his second job, one putting more of a pep in his step than his initial foray into the financial sector, and his increasing ability to look himself in the mirror and confront his demons has now compelled him to give something back to rugby in a remarkably punishing way.
Before January, Stephenson had never run longer than ten kilometres. Last weekend, though, he completed a marathon and feels steeled for the prospect of completing five of them in a row from May 12, hopefully raising a targeted £20,000 for Restart Rugby, the charity wing of the Rugby Players’ Association (click here for Stephenson’s fundraising page).
An incredible challenge from @TomStephenson13 to raise awareness of mental health ????
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 23, 2021
Stephenson was just back in the door in midweek from a workout on his day off when he took a call from RugbyPass, his enthusiasm to publicise his athletic endeavours more than matched by his willingness to candidly discuss some far more difficult topics. He hopes his honesty can be a help to others who might be bottling up things and feeling overwhelmed by life’s challenges.
First the running and the madness of a schedule that will test him to an extreme. “A lot of my S&C, gym coaches are like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ I was always pretty rubbish in fitness tests. I was pretty good in the gym but I was pretty rubbish on the fitness tests and stuff like that, so to do this was completely out of character and something I wasn’t ready for.
“Hopefully I have got a lot better. I’d love to now do some of those fitness tests I used to do in rugby and see how I’m doing because I reckon I would get a lot of PBs (personal bests)… before January I had been no further than 10k without stopping,” admitted Stephenson.
“I always knew I wanted to do some challenges. I had talked about doing ten marathons in ten days in a couple of years’ time, but I needed to do something soon because I had got some good momentum (after doing a media interview) and it would be a good chance to make some money for the charity. I decided on five for five because my body wasn’t in the greatest place but with all the training my body has held up really well and I ran a marathon last Saturday.
“I have got some confidence from it but I’m also really enjoying it, doing some different training to just weights and getting big. I have lost a lot of weight, I don’t have to eat as much to try and keep my weight on because I’m not playing against 120kg men.”
If the physical shift has been restorative, the time to think while pounding the pavements has also been empowering for Stephenson who turns 27 on May 5, a week before his marathon challenge commences. “That has been really interesting,” he said about all the time spent on his own clocking up the training mileage.
“When I first started running three or four months ago it was very much thinking about everything, thinking about the bad times I have been through and I was almost quite negative when I was running. I was thinking about my ex-girlfriend when I was running and all that stuff I went through but now it is really nice to see how far I have come.
“Now my thoughts are very positive and when I am running I am in a good space and it is quite nice to switch off for an hour or two and it is just that part of my day when it is just me and you get a lot of thinking done then. Now I very much see it as a positive but when I first started it was very much a mental battle because I wasn’t in the greatest mindset. So yeah, it has been good to see that journey develop and I now actually appreciate it more.”
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Reflections are vivid regarding the eight-season playing career Stephenson had in the paid ranks, an adventure that began with a November 2012 Anglo-Welsh Cup appearance for Northampton as an 18-year-old and culminated in a January 2020 Challenge Cup outing for London Irish after fleeting loan pit stops at Birmingham Moseley, Randwick and Nottingham.
There were some mighty highs. “The obvious one was winning the Premiership and the best three years of my life were at Saints. We were winning pretty much every game, won the Premiership, won the Challenge Cup, I was successful with England 20s as well and it just seemed that life was pretty good and we were going on some great piss-ups.
“Like, some of the nights we had, it’s the sort of stuff I will look back on forever and some of the names I was playing with as well. Those three years at Saints when we were winning everything – if I could go back to any time it would be that even though in hindsight it was probably the worst thing for me having all that success so early. It was the most fun I definitely had.”
A foot fracture that curtailed most of his 2015/16 season was his first major setback. Next, there was a double leg break in pre-season 2016/17 and even after Stephenson had battled through bouts of destructive drinking and abject loneliness to get back playing at Saints, he cruelly broke the same leg nearing the end of 2018/19 following a switch to London Irish where a rich seam of form saw him voted on the Championship Team of the Season.
— Tom stephenson (@TomStephenson13) June 1, 2014
“I have spoken to so many boys since retiring and found when they have been injured they have gone through similar things. I basically lost that thrill of playing on a weekend and it took its toll on me and I tried to get my thrill by drinking, being stupid and getting outrageously drunk, and that ended up taking its toll in terms of my mental state.
“Loads of players go through similar stuff when they are injured. It’s like training for a boxing fight but never having a fight. So you are constantly battling. You see the team and the worst thing about it was coming into the club, I was always almost hiding from coaches, hiding from players, like senior players.
“Just because you felt like you were a bit of a burden and you just wanted to get out of the way. So many players have said that to me since, that they felt similar. When you are on crutches and you are out for a year you almost feel like you don’t want to see the coaches because you are just in the way, you are getting paid a full salary for nothing.
“What I took for granted when I was in that situation was how much it affected my mental health when I was there. I was no angel. I used to go out drinking a lot and was an idiot but I worked hard at the club on my own – but you do feel very lonely. I don’t want to say isolated but it is almost as if you are isolated.
Looking forward to get to work with these, some exciting stuff coming up https://t.co/lOev86yds4
— Tom stephenson (@TomStephenson13) February 9, 2021
“I honestly believe if I looked after my mental health at an earlier age I probably would still be playing now. I have spoken to Northampton and London Irish, they reached out to me and said they want to put some stuff in place now. I honestly believe it is about educating the young guys, especially academy players, educating the team as a whole but especially the younger players about mental health.
“I have heard it so many times now: everyone looks after their body and physical state but no one pays much attention to their mind. Everyone goes to the gym to look after their body but no one is actually talking about their mental state and training their minds to make it stronger. I honestly believe if I looked after that when I was 18, 19, 20, then I would have been in a much better place now and potentially still playing.
“There is a stat that two in three rugby players, when they retire, have suffered from mental health. Like two in three is just a stupid stat. There needs to be more done throughout rugby players’ careers. There is so much attention on the internationals and big dog players and rightly so but it’s the players you don’t hear about who might play 15, 20 games a year, they are just kind of cast aside. It is those guys who are suffering and I feel like they are almost forgotten about.
Despite those demons, what ultimately did for Stephenson and the continuation of his playing career was his status as a middle-rank player. When the pandemic squeeze hit the business of rugby last year, the honest to goodness pros were most badly hit and knowing he was getting released by Irish, he opted to quit rather than persevere on a much lower wage elsewhere.
“I was very much a middle-to-bottom player in a club. I wasn’t your Owen Farrell, I wasn’t your England player, but I was very much in that middle bracket where when the internationals would go away I would play and for players like me now I just don’t feel there is a market there with the financial situation.
“You have still got all the big dogs on silly money and then you have got the young prospect players coming up and then it’s the middle bracket players, the 26, 27-year-olds who haven’t quite made England or haven’t really got much international hope but they can be really good club players, it’s their salaries that are getting cut by a large amount. Those players are left in the s*** and it made it more worthwhile for me to start a career (outside rugby).
“It has bounced back a tiny bit (this year) but I still don’t think there is a market there for those players. With the Premiership, you have got so many foreign players coming over now in the top tier bracket. All the young players are the ones getting the contracts I would have got before which makes sense but it’s just that middle kind of territory where the market is flooded and because the Championship is not financially in a good place either there is nowhere for you to go. I got offered an 80 per cent pay cut and I wasn’t willing to take that in rugby.
“Everyone has their troubles. I’m sure the international guys have their troubles when they finish their career but the thing is they get paid well, they get financially rewarded. It’s the middle tier players. You might get a decent salary compared to the real world but you have only got that for eight years and some people a lot less and it’s those players who are completely forgotten about.
6??7?? | Nine is fine ??@TomStephenson13 is the provider again, skipping through and putting it on a plate for Pisi, who’s been outstanding.
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) March 21, 2020
“At the clubs, they work their arses off. I know a lot of players who work their arses off and then the internationals come back and they are forgotten about. For me, that was the hardest part and that is why I know what a lot of players go through in getting shoved aside. It’s almost like you get treated like a piece of meat which mentally took its toll on me. When I stepped out of rugby I had a lot of issues buried below because of that which came out after rugby.”
The jaw-dropping aspect about the Stephenson retirement was that he was completely ill-prepared to break away from rugby. He never had a plan B, had never imagined a life without playing, so here he was, stepping into the unknown without a safety net. “I was so under-prepared for leaving rugby. Until April I was very much still staying in rugby and then in June, July I decided no and then I had no idea what I wanted to do.
“I had no experience, I didn’t do a day’s work experience in my life, had no degree, had nothing – I couldn’t have been more unprepared which I look back now and regret completely but it is one of those things. People told me to do stuff but you are just so involved in rugby and caught up in it you don’t listen.
“I kind of covered it up that it was fine and I was quite looking forward to it but deep down I was absolutely petrified. All my mates and everyone close to me probably thought it’s classic Tom, he is taking it in his stride, he will get a job and will be fine. But deep down I was absolutely petrified. It was the fact I was going to have to go and do something completely different. I had no idea how to work in the real world, it was like going back to school.
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“It was also the fact of losing that identity of the rugby player. All of a sudden you have given up on a dream or all you thought about for the last ten, 15 years and all you had known was that and then you have given it up. You were just closing that door. Covid made me make the move a little bit earlier than I had anticipated but it’s just the whole fear around that which was the ultimate thing for me not being alright.”
Brendan Macken, another retired player who recently finished at Irish, lives just five minutes away from Stephenson and was of immense assistance making some sense of it all. “I didn’t have a clue how to apply for a job or anything like that, didn’t have a clue how to put my CV together, but one thing Brendan is very good at, which I have now learned, is to use your contacts.
“It’s amazing how many of my contacts are actually through rugby but we just don’t think about it when we finish. Many of those guys are actually willing to help you and see you as an asset to their company. That is one thing that I have learned now but when you leave rugby it is all a massive blur and you’re just kind of s****ing yourself about getting a job.
“Looking back you almost need to take the first year out of rugby as very much a trial year. Go and try everything, be shameless and speak to people, put your name in hats and try everything because you have got to kiss a lot of toads to find the right one. In terms of jobs, you might have to go through five or six before you actually find the one you actually want to do and are good at.
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“Unless you have got that experience during your playing career, you are going to have to go through a lot of things to find the actual one you enjoy. I was working at a place I didn’t enjoy for a couple of months and I just knew I had to leave, so it’s just trying as much as possible, putting your name out there as much as possible to people, being a bit shameless with it.”
As for rugby, the break has served Stephenson well in terms of how he now looks at the sport. “I fell out of love with rugby when I first stopped because I was going through my own troubles and I blamed a lot of things for it, but now I’m a huge Northampton fan. When I was a kid I was a season ticket holder so I love watching Northampton and I speak to a lot of the boys there still.
“I am signed at Rosslyn Park at the minute but (National One) rugby didn’t start this season at all. To be honest, I have lost so much weight doing all this running I’m weighing about 83kgs, I’ve lost about a stone and a half. The chances of me getting to play at an alright level again are pretty low but I will play some fun games and some sevens maybe and just enjoy it again, take the pressure out of it, have a few beers after and just enjoy the company. That is the part we all got into it for and that is what I enjoy.”
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