When pain stops play

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If sport is your life, what do you do when injury ends your career? As Andrew Flintoff contemplates life after Test cricket, Simon Usborne asks six ex-stars how they coped when their playing days were cruelly cut short


Michael Watson, 44, was on the way to beating Chris Eubank in 1991 when an uppercut put him into a coma. After six years in a wheelchair, Watson dedicated his life to charity. In 2003, he ran the London Marathon alongside Eubank and his surgeon.

I remember being in total control – everywhere Chris wanted to be, I was there. When I put him down in the 11th round and went back to my corner, the press asked me to come straight over when I had that belt round my waist. But after the punch in the next round, I went over and everything turned dark. I woke up after 40 days and 40 nights in a coma to find myself in a different world.

When I was at my peak, I was around celebrities. Now, suddenly, I was surrounded by sick people. It became a nightmare. I never knew where I was and I couldn't understand what had happened. After a week I realised and started to come to terms with how sick I was. I knew I wasn't going to box again.

I had been a shy child – a bit soft. My mother said that if a fly came near my face I would start crying. But boxing changed me. From the moment I put on a pair of gloves, aged 14, I was doing something I had a natural gift for. I became independent and confident, and by the time I started competing at championship level, I was the main man. I was unbeatable.

I was paralysed and still semi-conscious when a couple of friends came in and told me I had a visitor. When this large figure walked into the room I could tell instantly it was Muhammad Ali. He looked at me and said, "Wow, are you Michael Watson? Are you really Michael Watson?" His eyeballs were popping out of his head. "You look so good – you look pretty. But nobody's prettier than me." I couldn't hold my expression and burst out laughing. It was the first sound I had made. Ali had been my inspiration and for him to visit me helped me turn the corner and realise I'd be OK.

A lot of people who retire from sport no longer have a goal. They have doubts in their mind. Why did it happen to them? They don't know what their life stands for any more. My goal was first to recover – to prove the doubters wrong – and now my purpose on this Earth is to inspire people. I ran the London Marathon to inspire and raise money for the less privileged.

Of course there have been moments of sadness, when I'm alone in the dark and have flashbacks of how I used to be. But I still have the confidence and self-esteem that boxing gave me. Those dark times can dampen my spirits. But sometimes you have to forget the past and look forward to the future.

***

David "Syd" Lawrence, 45, took 18 wickets in a five-test career as a fast bowler for England. During a 1992 tour of New Zealand, the Gloucestershire paceman shattered his left kneecap. He now runs a nightclub in Bristol and coaches cricket at his son's school.

A lot of people probably don't realise how much strain goes through the body of a fast bowler. You're running at full speed, jumping and landing on one leg before transferring to the other leg and decelerating quickly. It's a very unnatural movement and every fast bowler knows their career is probably going to be shorter. I just wasn't prepared for mine to end at the age of 27.

It hadn't been a great tour. I'd missed the first two tests with a side strain and I could feel my knee a bit in the third. We were heading for a draw but my attitude was always to play like it's your last test. Jack Russell was wicketkeeper and could tell something was wrong [with me] by the thump of the ball into his gloves. He had a word and I thought, right, next ball – I'll show him.

It felt like somebody had shot me in the knee. The pain was excruciating. I can take most things but this was something else. My kneecap severed in two crossways – they reckon there must have been a hairline fracture before I bowled. It just pulled right apart.

At first I thought patch me up and I'll be back. But about a year later I was in the gym and I heard the same crack. It was less painful this time and I decided to ignore it – I told myself it didn't happen. When I got into the car I couldn't put my foot down on the brake. I had to call my wife out to come and get me. A year later I still wasn't right and I told my club I was going to retire.

Nobody can prepare you for a career-ending injury. You just don't talk about that kind of thing. I didn't go to Cambridge or Oxford or anything like that – I left school and went straight into cricket. I had done the hard yardage learning my trade in county cricket and the sport meant everything. There was nobody I could talk to so I bottled it up and went through dark days not knowing how to cope.

But you do come through. I went to night school and did a business course. I fulfilled a dream and bought a Harley-Davidson and opened a bar in Bristol. Three years later I opened the Dojo Lounge, my own nightclub. I coach for my son's school and thoroughly enjoy it. Life's about giving something back.

Ultimately, I consider myself very lucky. Injury cut short my career but you can't sit down and be bitter and twisted because you'll go crazy. I would have liked to have played 50 tests but while I only played five I'm still in a club a lot of people never get in to – I played cricket for my country. I'll always have that.

***

Andrea Jaeger, 44, reached the Wimbledon final in 1983, four years after bursting on to the professional tennis circuit at the age of 14. But a shoulder injury forced the American former world number two to retire at 19. In 2006, she became a nun. She now runs the Little Star Foundation in Colorado.

Tennis was never the only thing in my life. I'd achieved great success – not many people got to beat Billie Jean King on Centre Court at Wimbledon – but I wasn't one of those players who wants to be number one from the moment they pick up a racket. I loved tennis and trained hard but I always appreciated it as a sport – a game – and never took it to the level where it can damage the soul.

When I went for a serve at the French Open in 1984, my arm felt like it was going to keep going across the net with the ball. I'd suffered a severe shoulder dislocation and knew it could end my career. But even then I felt like I had done everything I was supposed to do. Yes, I was number two in the world and had only got to the final of Wimbledon and the French, but it didn't feel as if it were a loss – I had no regrets. We never even had a Bible in the house when I was growing up. Yet, for reasons I can't explain, I always felt God was part of my life. I used to visit churches and take toys to children's hospitals while I was playing. So when I retired, I decided that my whole life would be about helping children and getting closer to God. I wanted religious teaching to back me up, so I got a degree in theology and ministry training, where I had to start with the real basics. Launching my foundation and joining the sisterhood was about following that calling.

In the early days, nobody could understand what I was doing. People told me I would never amount to anything – that I could no longer contribute to the world. Other players would say, "Oh, too bad, Andrea had a great life going for her." I did an interview about missing Wimbledon right after my injury. I explained that I was OK because I wanted to help children and that I loved animals. The story said I was going crazy and was opening a pet store. I stopped listening and ended up isolated.

My injury was most difficult for my parents, who wanted a better life for me and couldn't comprehend that I was going be fine doing something else. My father once asked me why I'd given all my money to the foundation – I'd worked so hard so I wouldn't have to do a nine-to-five job. Then he came to see a talent show we were having for some kids. For the first time he could see who I was. He told me that, above all the matches he'd watched me play, this was his proudest moment. That meant a lot to me.

I fear for kids in sport for whom the emphasis is on results, and I can see why a lot of athletes have a hard time leaving the applause. People don't have the opportunity or vision to see that sports stars can live happy and fulfilling lives after they retire, however early. I was making millions and everybody loved me, when suddenly it was taken away. But for me that wasn't the end of everything but the beginning of something else.

***

Derek Redmond, 43, limped into sporting legend when his father helped him across the finish line at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The former British record holder, who is now a motivational speaker, had torn his hamstring and never raced again.

The plan was to win a gold medal, not to become a hero. I had coasted through the heats and as I approached the semi, the final was a given – I was in the form of my life and there was no way I wasn't going to qualify. But something popped on the back straight and for a split second I thought I'd been shot – that this was Munich all over again. Every stride was like someone sticking a knife into the back of my leg. But the frustration was more powerful than the pain.

After a couple of seconds I remember thinking I was in such good shape that I could catch up and still qualify for the final. So I started hobbling. But then I realised everyone else had finished. I knew it was over but I decided I was not going to pull out. I would go through the pain and I would cross that line.

I have no idea how my dad got on to the track. At first he wanted me to stop in case I could recover for the relay, but the only thing in my mind was getting back into lane five and finishing. I didn't really notice the crowd on their feet. I was in tears, and the last thing on my mind was that the footage would be played over and over on YouTube and end up on those "greatest moments" shows.

I left the Games early to get treatment so I could be in shape for the World Cup that year. But the injury didn't heal in time. Meanwhile problems with my Achilles were getting worse. I'd train, break down and have an operation. I'd get over that and do the same thing. I had 13 operations in four years. By the end of 1994, the surgeon told me he'd run out of options.

It wasn't the way I expected my career to end. I wanted the world to stop and wait until I could get back in shape. Athletics had been my life. I'd sacrificed so much. Nobody sees you when you've passed out after training or you're throwing your guts up only to wipe your face and get on with the next rep. I did it because I wanted to win and when I was told to call it a day, I thought, hold on, it's all I've known since I was 16. For a couple of years I was really bitter about the sport. I felt it owed me something, and I'd look at other athletes I used to beat and think, that should be me. You feel sorry for yourself, and there's nothing anyone can do or say to make you feel better.

It took a couple of years of licking my wounds before I realised life goes on. At the end of the day, I pulled a muscle in the middle of a race. There are people out there losing lives, loved ones, limbs – men and women with terminal illnesses. I realised how many people would take my dodgy Achilles for some of the cards they'd been dealt. And I moved on.

***

Brian Robinson, 28, won gold in the long jump at the 1997 Youth Olympics in Lisbon, smashing the British under-17 record. But the cameras missed the feat, so Team GB's big hope for the 2000 Olympics jumped again – and destroyed his knee. He now manages a branch of Co-op in Walsall.

I'd have been running at about 20mph and coming down from a height of about 6ft, but it felt like I was going in slow motion. I missed my stride and had to extend my leg to get to the board. That knocked me off balance and I rotated in the air, slamming all my weight on to one leg. The doctors later told me it was as if I had jumped off a three-storey building on to concrete. It was the most excruciating pain I've felt.

I was still ranked as a big prospect for the next championships, and I kept an eye on what everyone else was doing through my rehabilitation. About two years later I competed again at a minor event. I didn't jump poorly, but my leg wasn't 100 per cent and it was just constantly going round my mind – what if I land on it again? I made the decision to cut all ties with the sport. I threw my tracksuits and medals into the back of the wardrobe, destroyed the video of the jump and stopped going to training.

Athletics meant everything to me. I lived for the sport, but I knew I would never get back to my best. For somebody as competitive as me, that was a massive thing. But I had to sort it out in my own head, so I didn't tell my mum that I wasn't going to training. I knew she'd would try to persuade me to go back. I didn't want that.

I'd been to college, but I wasn't set to go to university or anything. I was 19 and had no idea what to do, so I went for a bit of self-destruction to see if I could find happiness away from sport. I stayed out all night, smoked weed and got pissed with my mates – all the things you do when you're a teenager. But I took it to another level and started hanging round with the wrong people. It was a way to get my mind off what had happened – part of getting over it.

In the end I realised it wasn't me. I had a word with my mum, who told me to get out of the rut I was in. I started working at a pub where some of the area managers from the local Co-op drank. They liked the way I worked and offered me a job as a trainee assistant manager. I've been there for six years and now manage my own store.

Sometimes I think about what might have been – it all came flooding back when I watched the World Championships because I used to compete with some of those guys. It makes it hard, but I've got to treat this second part of my life with as much positivity as I did the athletics. I've got a house and a decent job. I'm getting married soon and am looking to start a family. My goals are just different now.

***

David Busst, 44, was a defender for Coventry City for four years before a tackle during a match against Manchester United in 1996 resulted in horrific compound fractures to his right leg. Busst, who works for his old club as community manager, endured 22 operations before hanging up his boots at the age of 29.

I can still picture the tackle. I remember a huge pressure on both side of my legs and then freezing on the pitch, not wanting to move because of the pain. The reaction of the players told me it was pretty bad. There were stories about Peter Schmeichel [the Manchester United goalkeeper] being sick and needing counselling, but most people talk about how they had to delay the match to wash the blood off the pitch.

If anything I felt optimistic in the next few days. I had a pin put in my leg and there were no complications. Then I caught MRSA, and doctors were talking about amputating my leg below the knee. At that stage you're not worrying about your career – you just want to be able to walk again.

They had to cut away four tendons in my foot and when they took the fixator off after six months I realised I couldn't pull up my right foot. I was already having doubts about the future, but that but was when I knew I wasn't going to be able to play football again. I was devastated. You go into defence mode. I had a mortgage to pay. My wife was pregnant – how was I going to provide for them? I had a few dark weeks on my own realising I was never going to play again and trying to work out what to do next.

Even if someone has gone through a similar experience, you don't want to hear it. You just want to deal with it yourself and block everyone out. I stopped going to the club because I couldn't be around players any more. They would come in moaning about a tweak in their ankle. It wasn't their fault, but I would think: my career's finished, and you're talking about a little tweak.

I've been working with Coventry for more than 10 years now. I organise after school clubs, holiday courses – that kind of thing. The kids always come up and tell me they've seen the tackle on YouTube. I watched it six months after it happened to find out what had finished me, but I had to look away at the moment of impact. You could say I'm famous for my leg, but in a way I'm just happy to be remembered for anything. I played with guys who did 400 games and now no one knows who they are.

I was lucky. I worked in insurance before I started playing football when I was 24. I think that life experience helped a lot. I look at the academies today and they're all doing BTECs, but they don't take them seriously because they only have eyes for football. The Professional Footballers' Association does a great job helping people get into careers, but the agents should be held more accountable for what players do afterwards, because you never know when it's going to end.

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