It is fair to say that the journey Cameron Pierce has been on in professional rugby is not the one he envisioned when he was growing up in Canada.
After impressing at the 2011 Junior World Trophy with the Canadian U20 side, the lock was offered a two-year contract in Clermont’s academy. At that the end of that deal, a senior contract was on offer from Section Paloise, which Pierce took and subsequently helped the club in their successful bid for Top 14 rugby.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have the happy ending that, at the time, it felt like it was building towards.
At the age of just 25, Pierce had to turn his back on rugby due to the long-term symptoms of concussions. Instead of heading into his prime as a professional player, Pierce was left without a career, in a foreign country, with little help from his club.
Here is Pierce’s story, in his own words.
“The last game I played was on October 1st, 2016. It was for Section Paloise and in a tackle, the ball carrier’s elbow stunned me, and my head ended up bouncing violently off the ground. There was no doubt that I was concussed, but I carried on playing for another 10 minutes, even when the ref tapped his head three separate times, implying it was a head injury.”
“I had lost my ability to respond in French and I ended up walking off the field of my own volition, because I was very confused.”
At this point, you would expect the utmost care and attention from Pau to make sure that Pierce fully recovered from his injury, but that, sadly, did not materialise.
“The club really didn’t have any plan for me once I was out for more than a month, to the point where I had to look everything up online, including downloading World Rugby’s RTP [Return To play] protocol sheet and just trying to follow it myself.”
“Previously, I had been so keen to return to play and earn a new contract that I had lost sight of my priorities, which should have been my long-term health, so there came a point when I had to draw a line in the sand and walk away from that environment.”
Instead, it was proposed to Pierce that he should sign with one of a few clubs that were interested in giving him quality playing time.
“I just had to focus on living a normal life and getting back to having zero symptoms, and that was impossible when I had the pressures of trying to win a contract and keep coaches happy.”
The symptoms, too, were anything but mild for Pierce, who knew quickly that his rugby career was probably over.
“Not being able to properly read for the first few months was a huge wake-up call. I knew that this was serious and that I’d made the right decision to step away, although that didn’t make accepting it or moving on any easier.”
“Two years on and I still suffer from anxiety, migraines, problems with my balance, insomnia and irritability. It’s been about managing those issues and trying to find medication or other tools that can help, as they vary in severity.”
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Whilst Pierce has had his hands full dealing with the physical symptoms of his injury, the world has continued to spin and he has had to equip himself for a life off of the rugby pitch, an unenviable task considering the issues he was having to deal with.
“I have known Jamie [Cudmore] since 2011, when I moved to Clermont and he was playing with the club. Given the Canada link, the fact we both played lock and that I was just 19 at the time, he became a mentor for me.”
“I quickly got involved with the Rugby Safety Network after Jamie introduced me to it, I helped them set up Instagram and Facebook accounts. It’s been a cathartic exercise for me, as it has allowed me to play an active role in player welfare and highlighting the dangers of concussions.”
“I was coaching in Canada with my home club the Kelowna Crows this spring and there was a better general understanding of concussion risk than in France. I think this is due to the fact that the NHL and NFL have experienced numerous lawsuits and seem to be doing something for the affected players and families. Whether that’s a publicity stunt, I have no idea.”
“Sadly, the priority in France doesn’t seem to revolve around player welfare. I would love nothing more than to make it a full-time job to educate clubs on this all over the world.”
“Sometimes I struggle to watch rugby these days because I’m an ardent believer in that if you suffer a head knock and are removed for a HIA, you should not return to the pitch, regardless of the result of the assessment. It is a well-known fact that concussion symptoms can show up days later, so why risk worsening and prolonging the injury by returning to the pitch? It’s barbaric in my eyes. I’ve taken up voluntary coaching since I left the pitch and I have a strict no risk rule in regard to head injuries.”
That said, it’s clear to see Pierce still embraces the game and has found a new passion in enlightening players within the game about the risks they face.
Since his retirement, he has helped set up an elite 7s team, the Canandian Coos, in the Okanagan region of British Columbia. The team, which boasts an elite senior side and an U20 side, has formed a partnership with BrainTrust Canada and their concussion clinic in Kelowna, and the Coos are able to send any of their players who suffer a concussion to the clinic in order to receive the best possible treatment.
“I’m trying to educate, with my work with Rugby Safety Network, but the issue is that there is no money invested in it at the moment, which ties our hands in terms of how effective we can be with it.”
“I recently took part in a documentary that is set to be shown on French TV in early December, where I talk about the symptoms I faced and continue to face, and also the effectiveness of the concussion protocol that currently exists.”
“I just don’t want people to risk their lives or make the same mistakes that I did. It wasn’t just my eagerness to return to training with Section Paloise, but also pressures I felt to hide my concussion history. In 2013, I had to fill out a questionnaire with the Canadian senior side and one of the questions was ‘how many concussions have you sustained?’”
“I knew that I’d definitely had four at that point in my career and I was panicking over how to answer. I asked a teammate what he thought I should put, and he said, “put zero, they won’t pick you if you have too many” and that’s just what I did, because I would have done anything to try and make the squad, especially with a Rugby World Cup coming up.”
“Now that I have a better knowledge on concussions, I think a more accurate answer back then would have been 10, not four, and I’d say that when I walked away from rugby, I’d probably suffered 15 or more over the course of my life.”
Pierce’s story is not a unique one, either, but hopefully by coming forward and highlighting the struggles he has faced, more players will feel confident about opening up about their own concussion issues.
Whilst his story is a sad one, Pierce’s mindset is a positive and it’s clear he still has a lot to offer the game, even if that is away from the pitch.
The former lock has also co-founded a fundraiser called ’80 minutes to ruck cancer’, where local rugby players in Okanagan have been raising money for their local cancer clinic. The fundraiser was set up in honour to Pierce’s mother, who survived cancer, with the organisation raising over $14,000 in its first year, including a number of donations from Pierce’s former teammates in France and the UK.
“Thanks to my Canadian doctor, Gavin Smart, I’ve learned how to manage my symptoms. As annoying as the migraines are, they’re a reminder for me of why I no longer play and that there are more important things in life than rugby.”
“I’ve rarely taken criticism by speaking out, but when people disagree, I just tell myself that I can’t please everybody. As long as I have good friends playing this sport, I will continue to be a pain in the ass and do whatever I can to make sure they’re safe!”
“I still love the game, but player welfare is a far more important force in my life, now. We need to protect the players because if we don’t, then we won’t have the game that we all enjoy so much.”
In other news: Ali Williams talks about the All Blacks‘ ethos and the lessons learned by the team from the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
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