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FEATURE Kelly Brown: 'If I hadn't worn a helmet, I'd be dead'

Kelly Brown: 'If I hadn't worn a helmet, I'd be dead'
1 year ago

As send-offs go, Kelly Brown’s was a whopper. Shirtless and champagne-drenched in the bowels of Twickenham, belting out the Tiki Tonga victory chant with the Premiership trophy glistening before him and Saracens restored to the throne of England.

After 13 years as a rugged backrow and deeply admired coach, Brown is stepping away from the club he loves and the game he has cherished. His sparkling tenure at Saracens broken only by half a season assisting Danny Wilson in Glasgow. Now the league is won, a job in the housing sector awaits.

This past campaign was deeply significant to the former Scotland captain. Not merely as his swansong, but after the salary-cap saga, the brickbats and the rancour, a feverish, obsessive yearning for the title seized the club.

“It wasn’t even the final, it was the whole season,” Brown tells RugbyPass+. “The whole squad was incredibly focused after the disappointment of losing last year’s final to Leicester, we didn’t feel we showed the best of ourselves and we wanted to do that against Sale. We did. To finish off at the end with a trophy alongside guys I’m very close with was pretty amazing. It’s a consequence of everything we have been through.”

Farrell Saracens Premiership final verdict
Owen Farrell skippered Saracens to victory over Sale in the Premiership final. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Saracens’ collective travails, though, are nothing to what Brown has endured personally. When the season began, he was confined to a hospital bed stationed in his living room, reliant on family to perform the most basic, frequently degrading, daily tasks.

In August last year, Brown was cruising down a quiet St Albans hill on his bicycle when a car travelling in the opposite direction turned right across his path. Brown had no time to swerve a devastating collision. He was catapulted violently over the bonnet. Both knees were deeply lacerated, his left kneecap fractured, and his face rendered a passable replica of Sylvester Stallone near the end of a Rocky movie.

I flew over the car, and hit the ground with my knees and then my face, which smashed off the floor.

“I had a split second to go, oh f**k, and just brace. I tensed and ploughed into the car, and went flying over the top. I don’t know if I’ve made this up, but I’ve got a memory of thinking, ‘land on your knees, your knees are hard’. I think I flew over the car, and hit the ground with my knees and then my face, which smashed off the floor. My helmet cracked through the middle.

“I broke my nose and got stitches on the three parts of my face that stick out – my chin, my nose and my eyebrows.

“It was into an ambulance, blue lights to hospital, x-rays and then blue lights up to the trauma centre in Paddington. It was pretty serious. It could have been so much worse. If I hadn’t had a helmet on, I’d be dead.”

A harrowing prelude to a glorious season. Active and muscular in retirement, and only 41 years old, Brown remains a powerful specimen. The injuries stripped him of his independence and mobility and gnawed at his happiness.

“I had to rely on my family to do literally everything, even to wash me. I couldn’t do f***ing anything. It was more the mental side. It coincided with a week when the temperature was in the 20s, and I was just lying in bed.

“I had a double knee brace like Forest Gump. One knee, I could only bend to 45 degrees. I was bedbound for pretty much four weeks and housebound for pretty much eight. It was tough.”

Brown <a href=
Glasgow Saracens” width=”1200″ height=”675″ /> Brown was a fearsome competitor for Scotland, winning 64 caps and captaining the national team. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Nearly a year on, Brown is still not fully recovered. An insurance claim has been raised to recoup the hefty sums spent on rehabilitation. Then there’s the sickening thought that after a dozen years of professional rugby, in the back-row no less, including 64 Test matches, a fall from a bike could be the life-altering blow.

“The police said it was an accident from a criminal point of view because the driver hadn’t tried to hit me,” Brown says. “I had to pay for a lot of physiotherapy; I’m still doing physio twice a week. The big issue is my left knee is pretty gnarly, it still clicks, so I’m trying to get that right.

“I was lucky; I left the game and I was fit. It would be s**t if all of a sudden I’m not fit because of a bike accident five years after I retired. I’m pretty able with the rehab, I’ve done it as a player, and it’s the same now because I want to get back to where I was. I don’t know if I will be able to.”

For several months, his work at Saracens was taken from him too. It wasn’t until well into the autumn he could return, gingerly, to the training paddock. He first fetched up there in 2010, plucked from a burgeoning Glasgow squad as one prong of the fiercely effective ‘Killer Bs’ trident.

We do have a brilliant club and a brilliant culture, and hopefully this has shown a few people it wasn’t just words.

He found an industrious, ambitious ethos. A club where hard work was rewarded. A squad on an inexorable ascent towards crowns galore. The Saracens culture is lionised over and over and that grates with a lot of people, all the more so since the financial indiscretions that led to a draconian punishment and relegation to the Championship. Culture is a piece of cake when everyone is earning a fortune, right?

“When the salary cap stuff hit, Mark McCall said, ‘the test is what’s going to happen now. How are we going to be as a group in two, three, four years?’,” Brown recalls.

“Everyone talks about culture, and it’s easy to say that when you’re winning everything and it’s all smelling of roses. But then, if you’re up against it, is the culture still as strong? I think it is. We should be incredibly proud of that. In spite of everything, how we came out of the covid year, won the Championship, and won the Premiership two years later, which is the fastest it’s happened for a promoted team.

“We do have a brilliant club and a brilliant culture, and hopefully this has shown a few people it wasn’t just words, we genuinely feel it and believe it.”

McCall comes up a lot. The softly-spoken Northern Irishman is Saracen’s all-seeing totem, and for a time, Brown’s mentor. His coaches, led by Joe Shaw, run the sessions and man the drills, but McCall, like an eagle circling overhead, is never far away.

“Mark is always on the pitch, always engaged in the session, giving little bits of information to the players,” Brown says. “Off the pitch, him and Phil Morrow, the performance director, really drive everything. They encourage you to go and do your role, look after your area but they’re always there if they feel they need to challenge you or check why you are doing this or that.

“I’ve done end-of-season meetings with him when he’s really challenged me and said, ‘so how much of this are you watching? Which area are you going to specialise in? Is it going to be the contact area, forwards, defence? How good is your knowledge? What are you doing to make sure you are really obsessing and learning about that area?’

“Always on a Monday morning he’d be asking us, ‘did you see that play such-and-such a player did?’ I’d be sitting there thinking, how has he seen that already? He just loves the game and as a consequence his knowledge is vast. The speed at which he picks things up that you might not notice is incredible.”

Brown Saracens
In just under 13 years with Saracens, Brown won a dozen trophies and played alongside rising stars such as Maro Itoje. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

These intense discussions are good for Brown. He thrusts himself into uncomfortable positions to grow in more ways than one. We’re not talking about the bottom of a ruck or standing beneath a hurtling spiral bomb here. Brown’s battle to overcome the stammer afflicting him since childhood is well-documented. The verbal staccato was once so pervasive that he asked for a television interview to be erased because of the embarrassment it caused him.

Many years have passed since then. The stammer never hindered Brown’s capacity to captain his country, nor coach England’s best club. Over the course of a conversation, it is seldom noticeable. He put himself forward for media duties and live in-game interviews with BT Sport. But he knows he must continue to push his boundaries.

“I always need to keep speaking and challenging myself. With coaching, speaking in that environment is easy. One of the challenges I find is doing the commentary and the live interviews. That’s an area I want to try and get into.

“I’d love for someone to pay me to do a commentary. Not because I’m after the money, but because I’ve got to a level where someone actually wants to. That’s my next challenge.”

He will stay in the game, and stay close to Saracens. Such a deep emotional bond has been forged, memories burnished by a twelve-trophy haul as player and coach.

Brown is taking up a role with Places for People, a vast organisation building and managing property. He will head up part of their social housing unit.

“I wasn’t even looking for it, really,” Brown says. “I was approached by them to join in a leadership role, and will be the director of communities for the central region, which is basically the middle of England, and in that area there are 20,000 properties.

“My role is to lead the teams who look after the tenants. It’s leadership, it’s teams, and from that side it’s very similar to rugby.

“Whether I’ll come back to rugby, I honestly don’t know. I’ve loved it. I love the club. It really is a difficult place to leave. But this enthuses me.”

The shirt is back on, the vocal cords soothed, the celebrations subsided. Brown is hauling an old mattress to the tip when we talk, then it’s cricket and netball sessions with his two daughters, before a list of off-season household DIY jobs. You might say he knows all about coming down to earth with a bump. But he’s ready to attack what life has next in store.

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