'The back of my brain smashed into the back of my skull and that caused the main artery to my frontal lobe to burst'
Will Hurrell won’t forget the unusual way he had to say his goodbyes to Bristol recently. His short-term memory is still shot to bits following the career-ending stroke suffered when playing for the Bears at Leicester in January, but that side-effect hasn’t blurred recollections of the lockdown day he made it official that he was retiring from rugby at just the age of 30. “I was basically stuck at home for weeks,” he said, explaining to RugbyPass how he broke the devastating news to his team-mates that he was finished, all played out at a time when rugby everywhere is indefinitely suspended and everyone is social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I did go in a few times (before the lockdown) and was happy to see the boys. They were all really concerned and just glad I was back in… and then I actually had to retire over a Zoom call. I had all the boys, all the staff, on this Zoom call and there is me getting emotional doing a retiring speech to them which I would have liked to do in person but at the same point it was a tough day for me as it was.”
Hunkered down at his parents’ house in Melton Mowbray, 150 miles northeast of Bristol, Hurrell has an open invite to visit Ashton Gate whenever rugby does restart to watch some games, to catch up with his buddies in person and to more personally draw the final line under a career he fought tooth and nail to carve out.
He beat the odds in becoming a Gallagher Premiership regular. Cut loose by Leicester in 2011 after being in their academy, he took a very circuitous route – via the National League on £100 quid a game and the Championship – before finding himself running out at Twickenham in a midfield partnership with Gavin Henson for a first-ever Premiership start in September 2016.
Now, though, the odds have beaten him, the drastic injury caused by a January 4 collision at Welford Road resulting in the April 10 confirmation that he is definitely out for the count and no longer a rugby player. It’s been a traumatic experience, to say the least. Yet, he’s grateful for the mature outlook on life he adopted in recent years which is serving him well in managing this major adjustment. He might not have coped so well if his catastrophe visited him when he wasn’t such a positive person, when his mental health might not have been as resolute as it is now.
The moment when it hit Will Hurrell – the now-retired Bristol midfielder – that he had arrived in big-time rugby https://t.co/dRQTuW3CHP
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 25, 2020
“Before I probably dealt with stuff not as well as I could have – I have been through a lot of ups and downs. At the minute I really am in one of those situations where I’m fighting through family court (for access to his baby daughter), that is really stressful. I have had this stroke, I have had to retire and it has all come within the space of about three months. As a youngster I would have struggled with that, probably wouldn’t have dealt with it well and not done all the stuff I needed to do.
“I feel like I have got to position where mentally I’m in a really good, strong position. I’m happy to sit down and go through everything, deal with it all and get it all sorted. That is really close to my heart. I have done my mental health first aid course and mental health has been a big thing. It should be looked at much more in rugby. We do pay credence to it but I don’t think as much as we could. I’ve been at Bristol for four years and had five guys come up and say they are really struggling. I sat down with them, tried to help them as best as I can and went through stuff that I have been through on how to be positive.
“When I first started rugby twelve years ago professionally, you had to be big and tough and strong and just crack on with it. All the boys took the p*** out of each other and no-one got upset. Even if you weren’t playing you just cracked on. There is still a bit of that, that if you show yourself to be ‘weak’ it doesn’t stand you in good stead, but it’s starting to change.
“If you say I’m really struggling, I’m not playing, I’ve been injured, I’ve got this going on, if you say that and work on yourself to be stronger I don’t see how that be a negative. We’re getting much better at it in rugby but it could be definitely worked on more. There could be more of a focus on it. The RPA have been fantastic, really pushing it because they see the importance and the difference it can make peoples’ lives. Two people could be in the same situation but have two completely different outlooks. That is the key to it. I’m actually doing a few talks on mental health and have done quite a few in the past.”
Hurrell will be a valuable resource for players to tap into, not only regarding mental health but for the stoic manner he has now dealt with the fall-out from his traumatic injury. It’s a nauseous story, one where all these months later he’s still learning fresh detail as it wasn’t until RugbyPass told him that he became aware of the celebratory farewell that was afforded post-match on the pitch to the retiring Sam Harrison, his old Tigers academy pal, at the same time he was in a damaging mess not that far away in the visiting team dressing room.
“Was that Sam’s last game? I didn’t realise it was that game. My memory is pretty much gone, my short-term memory. It’s a right mess at the minute, so I’m seeing someone for rehab in that. But I actually didn’t realise that was his last game. He’s a good lad, Sam,” said Hurrell before moving on to the horrible collision that precipitated the damaging end to his own career.
“I have watched it back. It’s quite nasty. It’s kind of my own fault for trying to melt the second row, the big fella. Yeah, it’s quite nasty. I got my head caught on the wrong side and I have watched it back a couple of times. I thought at the time I was alright. I felt ‘I think I’m okay’, but it just deteriorated over the game. I couldn’t understand the calls. I couldn’t remember anything. My speech started going funny. All that sort of stuff. It was a really odd one.
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Today is the day I announce my retirement from rugby. I suffered a stroke after a tackle in the Leicester game which has ended my career. It is much sooner than I would have liked, I felt I had much more to give. Rugby has been everything to me and I will miss playing more than I can express but new challenges await which I can’t wait to start. Every club I have been at has left something special with me and that I can never lose. Leicester, Coventry, Stourbridge, Doncaster and Bristol, I love them all. I have made friends I will never lose and that is priceless. I also want to say an enormous thank you to Matt Leek and the RPA who have been unbelievable support through this time. Also Bristol who have given me 4 immense years, all the coaching, s snd c staff and medical staff that have helped me through this journey, the fans too have been amazing. And my parents, who have helped me through everything. Again thank you to everyone who has made my journey successful and enjoyable. My new instagram and my new journey (@williamharryhurrell). Thank you everyone, see you soon ?? Hurricane x
“I didn’t have a HIA. I guess from my responses I seemed okay. I don’t really remember, but it’s just one of those things. As a rugby player you just always want to crack on. It was just unfortunate… basically, I got hit in the first half and I came off 20 minutes to the end and I was gone, just throwing up everywhere and was falling over.
“Luckily my parents were there and took me to A&E after the game. I stayed in for a couple of days and then I stayed with them pretty much for two weeks solid. I was sleeping a lot, couldn’t speak properly, so I was really lucky it happened there (in Leicester near their home) because if that had been anywhere else I would have been on my tod.
“There is all the technical jargon but the medics describe what happened in layman’s terms as kind of whiplash. I got my head caught the wrong side and as I whacked my head, the back of my brain smashed into the back of my skull and that caused the main artery to my frontal lobe to burst. That sort of bled everywhere and it got progressively worse as the game went on.”
Calling it quits became a decision simplified for him by his specialist. “He dealt with a boxer from Bath who had a similar head injury and dealt with a lot of these high profile head injuries. He said if you carry on you can have really negative repercussions and be in a right mess.
? @whhurrell will retire from professional rugby with immediate effect ?
Thanks for the memories, Hurricane. ?? pic.twitter.com/OqSKBZmrSG
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) April 10, 2020
“He just said, ‘look, if you play again best-case scenario if you get hit like this you’re going to lose all your memory and have some problems. Worse case you’ll end up in a wheelchair or you’ll die’. So, that for me, especially having a daughter, I just can’t take that risk. It’s awful because I love rugby. I’d play it until I was 65 if I could. It wasn’t a tough decision but it’s a hard one to make.
“I’d like to think of myself as quite durable, get stuck in and brush stuff off quite easily. But he had examples he went through with me and I just went ‘this guy knows what he is on about’. When he was telling me I can’t play any more I was happy to just go along with him. The other thing is the way I play is really abrasive. I always try to melt people or run straight, I don’t really step. It just doesn’t go with having that injury, being worried about it.”
Memory loss is a current issue but he’ll take that over some of the scare stories heard from people who suffered strokes similar to his. “I have been in touch with this clinical psychologist who did a load of tests. One was a maths test and I was in the top two per cent in the country, but then my short-term memory was in the bottom one per cent. That is how badly it has dropped.
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) October 10, 2019
“I have started writing everything down and have reminders on my phone, about 20 reminders, different stuff, and I would write everything down in my book just to reference it. It will get better as the brain finds different pathways basically to figure things out. But I’m quite lucky as I did have some worse symptoms early on.
“I started having really bad anxiety and panic attacks and was worried that might be ongoing, but they have pretty much sorted themselves out. I do have some language issues like spelling and some words I just can’t read or write sometimes down and when I’m speaking sometimes I can lose where I am, but it’s improving.
“I’m lucky really because a lot of people I have spoken to who have had this sort of stroke have had issues with their hand or their leg. They are times when they just get really frustrated or aggressive. I have been really lucky with where I have ended up and the fact that I’m already looking at some pretty high profile jobs, I feel quite lucky I can just crack on like that.
— Tom Armes (@TomArmes_) May 14, 2019
“There is no rush but at the same time, it is busy. I’m doing a load of planning and networking at the moment which is going to set me up to then move into something. I have got courses (personal training, nutrition, maths) that I’m in the middle of. Unfortunately, family court I’m in the middle. And (injury) rehab. It’s all good, mate.
“Rugby is a really busy schedule and my parents came to all the games but you’d only see them for a couple of hours whereas this time together has been invaluable, absolutely invaluable. We’ve not really had this time together for quite a long time, so I’m actually quite grateful for it.
“It’s one of the positives in the sticky situation I have been in the last few months… I do miss rugby but by the time it does start again I will be in a good position to enjoy going to the games to watch and potentially even coach, which I’m looking at as well.”
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