Last Updated: 01/10/22 2:40pm
As a player, James Graham epitomised all the perceived qualities of a rugby league forward; the toughness, the fortitude, and the willingness to carry on playing through the pain barrier with the same levels of intensity.
It was those attributes which ensured he became one of the most respected and feared opponents on these shores with St Helens, where he won every honour available, in Australia, where he now lives, with Canterbury Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons, and on the international stage with Great Britain and England.
There are therefore perhaps fewer people better placed to speak out on one of the biggest issues facing both rugby league and other contact sports, concussion and the devastating effects brain injuries have had and continue to have on participants past and present.
“I guess we’re products of our environment where I was who I was because that’s the environment I was in,” Graham, who suffered over 100 concussions during his 17-year professional career, told Sky Sports.
“The environment within contact sports is never show you’re hurt, get up, continue, and go on – and when it comes to brain-related injuries that can’t be the case.
“It’s not a badge of honour – it certainly used to be. It used to be seen as a badge of honour to be stumbling around, regain your feet, get back in the defensive line and go make the next tackle – or be removed from the field of play, be around some senior players and say ‘I want to continue’ for them, the coach, the fans, or the sense of meaning my sport gives me.
“That environment and how we talk about things like concussion and treat it will have a really significant difference in how people approach it in the future.”
Since bowing out from the sport as a Super League Grand Final winner with St Helens in 2020, Graham has become heavily involved in campaigning to raise awareness of concussion and its effects, and for better care for former players of all sporting codes who are struggling.
The 37-year-old admits during his playing days he would have only considered himself concussed if he was knocked out and feeling groggy after coming around, but educating himself through the Concussion Legacy Foundation after making contact with co-founder Chris Nowinski in America has changed his viewpoint.
Along with working with the Foundation’s Australian arm, Graham was recently commissioned to present a podcast series called Head Noise to delve more into the effects of brain injuries, which has included speaking to experts and former players of both codes of rugby.
Among his interviewees has been rugby league icon Wally Lewis, who recalled the frightening story of once suffering an epileptic seizure on the field and how he defied the advice of doctors to continue playing the sport he love, which is something Graham can easily empathise with.
“I get asked a lot ‘are you surprised by what they told you?’, and truthfully I’m not because I understand the reason why you would continue on,” Graham said.
“I understand it because I’ve been there myself when people have said I’ve had one or two concussions too many, but there’s that will and determination to carry on.
“I certainly don’t want sympathy for the way I used to play or the person I used to be, I want some solutions to my future health outcomes, and I think that starts with an annual brain, body and mind check-up.”
The latter point is particularly personal to Graham, who is open about the fact that he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety following his retirement but was fortunate to be able to contact his former St George Illawarra team doctor to get the help he needed.
He is aware of many other former players who are left with no idea where to turn to get help with mental health or other issues when their playing days are over and is equivocal about his belief sports governing bodies need to do more to honour and help those who have played.
As far as helping current players around concussion issues goes, the Liverpool-born prop has seen technological solutions being developed which will take much of the subjectivity out of head injury diagnosis and aid with recovery to reduce the effects of concussions.
Graham is driven by his love of rugby league as well, wanting to ensure the sport is as safe as possible for future participants and that it can continue to thrive by changing attitudes around concussions.
“Sport has given me so much in my life and I owe pretty much everything to rugby league,” Graham said. “It has had such a positive impact on me and so many of my friends as well, and we know the benefit of sport to the individual, the community and society as a whole.
“But it comes with an element of risk, and we should look to minimise that risk as much as possible, and there are things we can do in order to make it a little bit safer.
“Everybody will win at the end of the day if we can make some positive change. Not everyone is open to change and people like things the way they are, but we need to convince them this is the right thing to do.”
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