“this is the lows” — stevie ward, leeds rhinosBack
“You would struggle to write that in a script,” says Stevie Ward of Leeds Rhinos, as we recall the moment when Danny McGuire kicked the ball towards the touchline at Huddersfield, in the final seconds of Super League XX, and Ryan Hall collected it on the run.
It wasn’t just the end to the regular season. The two seconds remaining on the clock were the end, and the definition, of an era. When Danny kicked the ball, and Ryan picked it up, they were deciding between them whether one of the greatest teams rugby league had ever seen could end its last season together by winning the treble and putting that down in history; or not. Those two seconds contained ten years.
You couldn’t credibly write a script that included a match winning play two seconds from time, but that team, those players, players like McGuire, Hall, Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai, they weren’t scriptwriters. They were different kinds of creatives; creators of their own destiny. By 2015, Sinfield and Peacock and Senior and the rest had created a culture and a mentality at Headingley that meant Leeds Rhinos simply did not lose. Even when they didn’t win — as they didn’t, between winning the Challenge Cup at Wembley and beating Huddersfield Giants on the league’s last night — they found a way that made sure they didn’t lose.
Leeds were off-form in those few weeks, and Ryan Hall was off-form in that final match — “No, he was dreadful!” says Stevie, shaking his head. “But that’s what it’s all about” — he was dropping the ball all over, his mistake led to giving away a crucial try. “But he had it in his muscle memory,” says Stevie. “He knows what it takes to win a game, and even if he’s going through a rough patch, Ryan has that in his tank to go and scream down the touchline and score that try.”
It’s one of sport’s greatest moments. Ten years of rugby dominance distilled and expressed in a few seconds of grit, determination, skill. Watch the video from behind the sticks, as the grin spreads across Ryan Hall’s face, as he races towards the goal line, as behind him Danny McGuire throws his hands up in celebration; watch it and try not to grin yourself, try not to throw your own arms in the air.
It’s a moment that defined a team’s achievements, a moment that will never be forgotten. And it was a moment that led Stevie Ward to start an online magazine, called Mantality, and write and publish its first article, entitled The Dark Side of Sport.
Stevie hasn’t watched the video of that game back. He’s seen Hall’s try, but that wasn’t the only part of that night’s script that you couldn’t write. Other parts you wouldn’t write; you wouldn’t want to. It would be too cruel.
“I watch Hally’s try and I think, that’s absolutely magnificent,” says Stevie, as we sit by the window in Carnegie Cafe one afternoon after training, eight months later. “Everything that happened that year, and then Hally’s try — you can’t account for something like that, for how bizarre it was.
“Sometimes I think back, and think — I was in that game. And I suffered the biggest injury I’ve ever had. So while Hally was scoring, I was alone in the changing rooms, staring at my knee.”
Five minutes before Ryan Hall, Leeds Rhinos and destiny all aligned, Leeds were losing 16-14, and Ward collected a pass from Burrow and was tackled, and he didn’t get up. Rugby league players always get up. Ward tried, but ruptured knee ligaments kept him on the floor.
“It’s a moment when only I will ever know how I felt,” says Stevie. “Not only the injury, but I thought we’d blown the chance to finish top of the league. That had slipped away from me, and then I knew I wouldn’t be playing in the Grand Final, something I had worked all year for. It was really hard to take. Really tough to take.”
A serious knee injury injury, leading to reconstructive surgery and nine months out of the game for one of their best young players, had not been in the script for the Rhinos. But Stevie had been reading from a different script all that day anyway, and for the days and weeks before it.
“That game,” he begins. “That game — I went to my Nana’s funeral that morning, and I was absolutely bawling with tears. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I couldn’t physically not cry, it was that hard.
“Then I went to the wake. Then I had to drive to the stadium straight after that. I had no game prep, I was completely out of my spectrum for how I would normally prepare for a game, the opposite to what I would want to be. But I had to go out there and perform.”
Stevie’s Nana had had cancer, and week by week he’d visited her and, he wrote on Mantality, ‘I couldn’t believe how steely she really was.’ She’d fought it, and that fight, and her example, were what Stevie carried into the start of the game, and had to remember at its end.
“One of the lines I said to the boys in the changing rooms before the game was, we have got to put our bodies on the line to win this game. In rugby league you put your body in the way, you literally have to put your body in front of the opponent and stop their momentum. So we had to literally sacrifice our bodies, and sacrifice how we would feel after the game.
“I wanted to articulate that, and obviously I wanted to have my best game, and in the game I felt like I was having the best game ever. I felt like I was leading the team, I felt like I was doing everything I could, I was taking extra steps in the defensive line to get in their face and do everything possible, just because my Nana would have wanted me to do that.
“But putting bodies on the line — I didn’t intend that to mean my knee crumpling beneath me, ending with the worst injury I’ve ever had.”
But not the first injury Stevie had ever had. The reason we’re here talking to Stevie about his experience of one of the greatest nights in rugby history is because he’s been seriously injured before, and suffered not only the physical impact of a dislocated shoulder and nerve damage in 2014, but the mental impact of depression. Stevie has launched Mantality as a platform to explain what lies behind Friday night at 8pm for a rugby player, who might have been at his Nana’s funeral that morning after being by her bedside for weeks, or who might be struggling with depression that the fans and commentators can’t see; and as a form of self-defence, too, to stop himself from slipping into depression again.
“The night I got injured was a dreadful night,” he says, going back to the Huddersfield game. “I was exhausted after the whole day, but couldn’t sleep because of the pain. I had to sleep on the sofa because I couldn’t go up and down stairs, and I struggled to cope.
“Next morning I sat watching television. I was kind of looking at feedback at after the game, and joining in on the social media celebrations that were out there after the win. And then later on… I just couldn’t believe it. I just fell into a bit of despair, about the injury, about missing the Grand Final. That was the main thing that was going through my head. I had a few visitors and people who care about me came round, but there wasn’t much going on, just me thinking a lot on that sofa.”
Stevie pauses, as if he knows what he’s about to say will sound ludicrous, but he’s going to come clean anyway.
“Because I’d had an effect on that game, I was still riding off that. It was silly, but I was still hoping I would get back on the field and play in the Grand Final. That’s what I was thinking. I couldn’t move my leg and I couldn’t go to the kitchen, I couldn’t do anything, but I had this false hope while I was trying to get through that period. Whether it helped or not, I’m not sure.
“I did feel like I’d accomplished something with the League Leader’s Shield, after all that. But I just felt like it got cut short, and things shouldn’t have happened in that manner.
“And I knew that there was another nine month spell of injury ahead of me. It wasn’t an easy time. But I had in my thoughts that what I had seen my Nana go through was a complete test of her, and she accomplished it. So this spell that I was going to go through, I had to have the same response and the same resilience that she had. And I think I’ve managed it a lot better, compared to two years ago.”
‘Two years ago, I had depression,’ Stevie wrote in his first article for Mantality, The Dark Side of Sport. It’s a sentence he could only write with those two years of hindsight, because at the time his mental health was so linked to his physical health that he couldn’t separate the two and identify each problem as what it was. That’s in the nature of depression as an illness, as Stevie wrote: ‘It’s a monster that can stop you getting out of the house just as much as a broken leg. How do I explain what that feels like?’
You can’t, not in the way that you can explain that the nerve damage caused by a dislocated shoulder either hurts, during recovery, or doesn’t hurt, when it’s better. And that was the problem in 2014. Stevie’s body had recovered, but his mind had not, and the two parts that make the person and make the rugby league player were harmfully out of sync.
While surgery and rehabilitation had restored his shoulder, Stevie had developed another serious problem; a loss of identity and self-worth as he faced up to being a rugby league player who couldn’t play rugby league. Hopefully temporarily; but depression is an enemy of hope, and even when physically restored to fitness, Stevie couldn’t find the mental pathway back to who he had been before his shoulder popped out of its socket.
“I had to deal with low moods and stuff while I was out injured, but that was an injury, so that was part of the game,” says Stevie. “The part I couldn’t come to terms with was being back playing, but not being 100% there.
“I would be in the gym and I couldn’t do the weights that I perceived I could do. I couldn’t perform on the pitch to meet my perception — and this goes back to identity — of how I normally play. And I wasn’t getting picked.
“I was back playing and I should have been getting picked because I was fit. But I couldn’t get that last 20% that made me the player I should have been. And was. So I had a situation where I couldn’t physically do the thing that was my identity, that I had learned to do since I was six years old. I struggled with that. I struggled big time with that.
“In a sense, I could pinpoint why I felt how I did, because it started with my injury. But depression is something that can happen to anyone, to someone who is having the best time. And I did have some really good times back then. But the thing was, they didn’t matter to me. It wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t have any use for them because of what was happening with rugby. Something good might happen, but I didn’t value it for what it was, because I wasn’t going great with rugby, so the identity of me wasn’t there.”
Good times are fine, but when your entire life from the age of six has been focused on playing rugby league, what use are good times when you can’t play rugby league? And if you’re a rugby league player that can’t play, then who are you? And what use are you? What use is a player who can’t play?
“As a rugby league player, you get manufactured into a rugby league player, but what’s beneath all that is a drive and focus that you’ve had to develop. Some might have it naturally. But to make it as a rugby league player, you’ve got to be constantly trying to attain something or work towards something.
“It’s one of those things where you’re happy doing it when you’re doing it, because playing rugby league is a brilliant thing to be doing, and I’ve had some great experiences. But when you’re not doing it, it’s really hard to deal with.
“I couldn’t bench press 60kg without getting a pain down my arm, and then I would think, why am I not able to do this? I had that thought: am I ever going to get back to the stage where I can play again? This is a serious injury, this is serious nerve damage. Am I going to play again? And what am I going to do if I can’t? All those thoughts were running through my head.”
Elite team sport is a hyper environment in which to deal with depression, but the high contrast example of Stevie’s experience makes it easier to see the universality of the depression he’s talking about. One of the barriers to understanding mental health is that it isn’t visible the way a bodily injury is visible, but it can restrict your physical capability as severely — as Stevie wrote, and knows well — as a broken leg. That’s true whether you’re trying to explain to your boss why you can’t get out of bed to go to work in the morning, or whether you’re trying to explain to Jamie Peacock or Kevin Sinfield why, now you’ve recovered from your bad shoulder, you still can’t play rugby the way you and everyone else expects. And the response in both cases is the same: you duck out of explaining and try to pretend everything is fine, a pretence that only plunges you deeper into depression, especially when that depression has to do with identity. What is a rugby player who can’t play rugby? And what is a rugby player who can’t play rugby, and can’t be honest, to the people who trust him, about who he is?
“I kept it very much under wraps,” says Stevie. “I didn’t deal with it as I should have done. I just coped with it, and moaned, and did things that weren’t productive. I put all the energy that was stemming from depression into a negative way of doing things. I wasn’t doing anything that could help me get out of it, because when you feel that way, you don’t.
“The hardest thing was people telling me I should be alright, when I wasn’t feeling alright. That is a tough thing to handle, because everyone perceives you, with your status and profile, to be living the dream. That was one of the main reasons I was muddled up, because I’d be sat around having a coffee with everyone, where I should be feeling alright, but I’d have these flashes of anxiety about not playing; I’d feel like I was running late for something, or like I should be doing something to get better. And everyone would be telling me I was alright.
“In that state of mind I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t get anything positive out of it. The team had their own focus, which was winning the Challenge Cup, and I felt that while I should do what I could to get back into the team, I shouldn’t… I felt like I shouldn’t put any strain on the team.”
You didn’t want your problems to get in the way, we suggest.
“Exactly. Exactly. That was my thought process, which wasn’t right. When you look at the dynamics of a team, what you notice with people like Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Jones-Buchanan is the honesty. That is a massive thing in the culture that all the players here have created, the honesty and respect for each other to go for the same cause.”
Rugby league is a sport that is built on that; on honesty, respect and transparency. The way the game is played, all about possession and positioning, means that most errors are individual, and are scrutinised as such by fans, commentators, coaches and players. If you don’t concentrate and you’re caught offside, then you weren’t doing your job, and that’s on you. If you misplace a pass and the opposition score, that’s on you. Even the referees are mic’d up; decisions are made using big-screen replays, frame-by-frame. There is nowhere to hide, and that kind of exposure can be brutal.
But that means the game is played by brave people who understand redemption. If you make a mistake, you work hard to put it right; and as long as you’re putting the effort in for your team, your team will forgive you and help you, and respect you for not hiding from the error.
It’s the same with injuries. No sport has more respect for bravery than rugby league, because bravery is an expected and understood part of playing the game. A game doesn’t even stop for a player to get treatment; look behind the play, and you’ll often see a bleeding player getting patched up on the field while the game goes on, so that he doesn’t delay getting back into the middle.
When we ask Stevie what he misses about not playing at the moment, while he’s injured, he answers with enthused animation: he misses getting injured.
“I have not been out there on the field getting the feelings you get in rugby league,” he says. “Where sometimes you’ll get a big whack in the stomach, and it’ll be a big hit, but you’ve only got a second to deal with it and you’re on to the next play. That feeling you get, it can be like someone’s put a vacuum cleaner down your throat and it’s getting to your stomach and your liver, and you think, I’m struggling here; and it’s not easy, but quick as a flash you’ve got to deal with that and go make another tackle for the ball. I’m not getting those feelings.”
And that’s what rugby league is built on; the injury and the recovery, and the honesty and the respect for how hard you’re hurt, and how everybody knows it, and how bravely you battle and come back. And that’s why it’s a perfect sport for the discussion of mental health.
In football, the sight of millionaires rolling on the floor and being stretchered off crying, all faked to try and get an opponent sent off, has drained empathy from the game; nobody believes that anybody else is really, honestly hurting on a football field anymore.
But in rugby, people are honest about how they feel. My stomach hurts, because I’ve just had a big hit, but I’ll carry on, and the team will help me, and the opponent will respect me. That support network is in place in rugby league to treat mental health exactly the same way. My stomach hurts, because I’m anxious about the unidentifiable feelings of despair that are making my life difficult every day, but I’ll carry on, and the team will help me, and the opponent will respect me.
But to benefit from that support network, and to build it outside of rugby league, first, like Stevie Ward found out, you have to be honest about it.
“Jamie Peacock,” says Stevie, when we ask about the interview Stevie did with his former team mate for Mantality. “What you’ll find in that article is that he puts out there how intense he is, how… everything he is.”
‘Intense’ and ‘everything’ are good adjectives for Jamie Peacock. Colossal is another; a physically imposing presence, with hands as big as your head; a defining sight in the later years of his career at Leeds would be of JP marching grimly to the goal line, while mere rugby league players tried to clamber up his torso like Lilliputians taking ladders to Gulliver.
In the interview he gave to Stevie, there’s a moment when Jamie is talking about how he copes with the intensity he brings to everything he does by finding other perspectives, by watching the ten o’clock news. And he adds: ‘And then a good nights sleep is as good as anything, Stevie.’ And writing it up, Stevie adds: ‘I think he might have thought I looked a bit ill at this interview. You can always tell where you are at with JP.’
“He’s learned along the way,” Stevie tells us. “He’s learned the formula about what it takes to be a winner, and to command a team to win.
“He’s delved into my character before. He had a good chat with me in 2014, when he could see I wasn’t firing; he asked, and he had a good chat with me about what was causing it. He knew, like many people who’d seen me, that when I was eighteen I’d had a magnificent year, when I was completely blown away by what I’d achieved. And JP sat me down and delved into what makes me tick, and anything we could do to get that ticker going again. He was good, JP. He’s a champion bloke.”
They were all champions in the dressing room at Headingley when Stevie became part of the squad; it was the engine room of one of the greatest machines in rugby league, housing a power that could intimidate and crush you. At Leeds, though, the machine was calibrated to smoothly accept new parts.
“I was sixteen years old, and I was absolutely starstruck,” says Stevie. “First session, sixteen years old, they’re all there. Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Kevin Sinfield, Keith Senior, JP. I was just starstruck, going through the sessions, doing my best and having my best shot at it. And I remember Kevin Sinfield coming over and putting his arm around me, and saying, ‘Mate, if you ever need anything, just give me a call.’ And he gave me his number.
“They were great for bringing people through. There was this culture about the squad where as a young lad you could fit in and it would be perfect; but then also, like anything, it was a test of whether you could do it. I went in there and mentally I had to be strong, physically I had to be strong to play rugby league; and there was also this sense of an aura, of a way of doing things that you had to learn.
“And that was created by those players. They created a culture and set that winning mentality to be able to do it, so that coming up as a young lad you could fit in and understand how it has to work to win Grand Finals and be top of the tree.
“They very much set it and then you had to come to this party, so to speak. You had to deliver what you can, and deliver different stuff that other people can’t, because that’s all part of a team. What I noticed with JP and Kev was that they had both sides covered. JP was very much about hurting people and being dominant, and Kev was also about the physicality but was more about the brains behind discovering what the opposition was struggling with, and the gameplan side of things. It was about different circumstances, and taking different roles that other people couldn’t.
“I am absolutely lucky, so blessed and lucky to have come through and had that set for me, had it there for me to understand what it’s all about and then feed into. To have picked anything up from those players, it is an absolute pleasure to have done that.”
What Rhinos fans might wonder, in 2016, with JP and Sir Kev retired and the team bottom of Super League XXI, with a record of four wins and fourteen defeats, giving away an average of almost thirty points a game and several times conceding more than fifty, is what has happened to that winning culture?
“I know,” says Stevie. “It’s tough. And it’s tough for me to sit here injured and not be able to have any effect. That’s the main thing that’s annoying me at the minute. Whether we’re winning or losing, I can’t have a substantial effect on the team. I go into the changing rooms after games and I feel like I’ve been out there with them mentally. I feel so sapped of energy, and it’s tough. I want to help, and I can’t.”
What Rhinos fans are also wondering is, what’s going wrong?
“I have a bit of a different perspective from being injured all year,” says Stevie, “I have a different kind of inside-outside perspective. Nobody wants to make excuses, but I think it stems back to when we got flooded out of our training ground on Boxing Day. That completely changed the whole vibe of the club.
“We spoke about Kevin and JP and how there was always consistency with that team; they were always there, and the players around them were there. This year we have had such a lack of consistency in the team. There will be people coming up in a lead role, and then they’ll fall back because they get injured. There will be someone else changing position because another player got injured. There has not been any form of consistency.
“And not having a consistent training ground has been a big factor in that. It’s simply because you no longer have one place. You have to find different places to train, you’re always moving about, people end up being late because they don’t know how to get there, and you end up physically not being able to train as hard as you know you can.
“Lately we’ve had Leeds Uni for pitches, and the Kirkstall gym is back up so we can start to use that. But in the first stages we were training in completely random gyms, and it’d be a gym in Pudsey and then a pitch in Stanningley. You never knew where you were going to be. It’s a very small detail but it grows from that, because to play Super League you need to be 100% in the gym, 100% doing the fieldwork together, but when you’re using public gyms, you can only do 80-90%.
“There’s nothing wrong with public gyms, but when you’re a team, you need to be going through the pain together. You need to be able to exert the maximum amount of energy, you need to completely immerse yourself. But in public you can’t just pick some equipment up, or pick the heaviest weight, because somebody else is using it. Somebody you don’t know. You can’t just be dropping stuff, you can’t be causing noise or acting how you would normally — you just can’t be yourselves.”
Leeds Rhinos, without a space to be themselves, are struggling as a club with what Stevie struggled with as an injured player: a lack of identity, no way to feel like themselves, when everybody keeps telling them — the treble winners, who shouldn’t be affected by something so minor as losing a training centre — that they should be fine.
“If you think about it, about the aura and the culture we created here, it’s impossible to implement that when you’re moving around all the time,” says Stevie. “It’s just not that easy. And it’s tough, especially when we’re in a transition period with older heads leaving and younger players coming in. It’s hands on for them now, this is their time to learn.
“It’s not all about learning how to lift the Grand Final trophy when someone has passed it on to you. That’s the highs of it. This is the lows. This is when you do most of your learning, and set the ground work for where you’re going to be in the future. This is a period we have to look at as part of Leeds Rhinos’ journey. This is definitely something the players will look back on, from where they are in two years’ time, and think, that was an integral part of my career.”
The calm, cohesive confidence of a treble-winning team transformed into weekly losers has been one of the noticeable characteristics of the tough times the Rhinos are going through. One of the best performances this season came from Jamie Jones-Buchanan, but it was after a game had been lost to Huddersfield, when he was asked to stand between Sky’s cameras and their video touchscreen to do a play by play analysis of where the night had gone wrong. Instead he delivered a passionate and confident statement of his belief that the club’s young players would improve and come through. Jones-Buchanan has been through it, with Sinfield and Peacock, and he knows it took years for them to become the players they became, and that it will take years for the new players to reach — or exceed, he said — that level. There was no question, for JJB, of losing confidence in the players, of getting loans in to cover. Which is part of the culture: be honest about the faults, and the team will help.
“I call Jonesy a prophet,” says Stevie. “When he speaks I listen to every word. I think he’s just brilliant in how he thinks differently, and how he backs up his points. And it’s right; it doesn’t come into our agenda or thought process to replace someone, because we’re all here for a reason. We’re here to earn our stripes, in whatever manner that is.
“So for some of these young lads, that manner is to go out and face up to teams that are absolutely hunting us up because we won the treble last year. That is just a certain type of learning process that they are going to have to go through, that is different to people in the past.
“It is very much in our DNA to go out there and feel the full force of what the game can throw at you. That is how learning is done. Whether you like it or not, to become a rugby league player, it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. Just like in games when you go through some tough patches and you just have to come out the other side, prevail and win the game, this season is a tough, tough patch, but the players are going through it. How they manage it now will stand them in brilliant stead going forward, for how to deal with things mentally and physically, to get that muscle memory in them to say: this is how we do it, this is how we manage things, this is how we win a game.”
There’s a strong analogy between the tough battles Leeds Rhinos are learning from now, and how Stevie has learned from his tough battles to manage depression.
“There is no certain time when I’ve thought, I am not depressed,” says Stevie. “But the formula of stuff I needed to get back to being myself came. It was a gradual release, a gradual thing where I was doing my job, I was happy, and I came out of that cloud. I gradually began to have a sense of worth again about what I was doing.
“My shoulder got better with time and the off-season break, and when I came back in pre-season 2015 I said: right, I’m having a go at this. My shoulder was feeling better and I could put size on my arm again, I could do everything I needed to do to get back and get my identity back. To get back to that rugby league player that I was, to get some substance back to what I was doing.
“It’s hard to pick out a date for when it switched off because it doesn’t. Depression isn’t a thing that just switches off. It’s something where you just need to gradually feel better about yourself, and also know that there are triggers where you can know that you shouldn’t feel like that, and can do something about it. Hopefully I’m in a better place to assess that now.”
It was an assessment Stevie had to make of himself before the end of that 2015 season, when he had his identity and his mojo back; that ended with him on the sofa at home, facing another nine months of not being himself again, back to being a rugby league player who can’t play rugby league.
“Last time I didn’t have any external thing to focus on. What my life entailed was rehab for two hours a day, and then going for a coffee. That was it. This time those flashes of anxiety prompted me to think, okay, I am not going to go down that route again. I need to do something, even if it’s in a different arena completely.”
Which is how, in a quick burst of work, helped by some good friends, Stevie has launched Mantality, an online magazine and platform for Stevie and trusted others to share thoughts and experiences, from Stevie’s launch article about the dark side of sport, to accounts of travel and music, to interviews with inspiring people.
“It’s something that has been building up for a few years,” says Stevie. “I listen to different kinds of musicians who have expressed their interests or whatever they’re thinking through different kinds of art, people like Rakim or Nas or A Tribe Called Quest, people that put the reality of life through a different art. So I’ve been thinking, let me try and put something different out there that people can grab hold of, and put their hand up and say, I can relate to that.
“I think rugby players need to do that more. I’m a rugby league player, and I’ve got to do everything I can to be the best rugby league player I can be, but from my personal experience that hasn’t been healthy because I’ve had two nine month spells now when I have not been able to be a rugby league player, when my identity is not there because I’m not physically playing rugby league. People have a perception of the profile of a rugby league player that, well, he’s injured but he’s still getting paid; but that doesn’t wash with me. I need something else where I can express myself or make a difference. I can make a difference on the field, now I’m looking to make a difference off the field and do something with Mantality that is uncharted territory for a rugby league player.”
It might only be one sentence, but Stevie Ward has bravely crossed several taboo boundaries simply by being a high profile male sportsperson and writing on his website, ‘Two years ago, I had depression.’ But Stevie thinks it’s a sentence and a message that more people are ready to hear, and need to hear.
“I think nowadays we’re going down a route where everyone is concerned about how they appear to other people, what they wear, what gym they choose, even what kind of gym they choose. For me it’s a natural progression for people to be concerned about how they feel.
“I was looking through the feedback after I put my article out, and it was so positive. Other players from Super League and the NRL saying they’re so glad I put it out there, how it resonates with them. And I got one email from a seventeen year old lad that I don’t know, who said he’d seen the article, and that seeing the feedback and support I’d had made him feel like his depression is something he can overcome, and become stronger for doing it.
“And that one email from this young lad… look, I was worried about doing this. Because it’s uncharted territory. But then this young kid emails me to say that depression now looks to him like something people can go through. And it is, it’s one in four! One in every four people go through this. So that just makes me glad that I’ve put this platform out there, for people that may need help, who hopefully will see it and see that positive feedback and think, it’s not all bad. It’s not unattainable, to get better.”
Stevie Ward is getting better.
“I’m looking at July 10th, that’s the proposed date to play again,” he says. “Today I ran at 80% bodyweight on the AlterG treadmill, so that’s a process that was good. And a symbolic moment the other day was, I was doing ladders on the field, so I laced some boots up. That was a massive thing. From doing two six week spells on crutches after operation after operation, to putting a pair of rugby boots on for the first time in nearly nine months… I don’t sit back and make a massive thing out of it, but in my head I think, well done. You’re nearly there.”
There is an extra incentive to get there now, as if one was needed; when Stevie Ward is a rugby league player for Leeds Rhinos again, he’ll be the player for Leeds wearing the number 13 shirt, that was worn with distinction for nearly all of his fifteen-year Rhinos career by Kevin Sinfield.
“That’s a weird one,” says Stevie. “When I was awarded that, I’d woken up in hospital, after I had just had my second operation — and it was my birthday. And it came out in the press that day that I was being made number 13. And that was massive, and I had a flood of messages and congratulations, but I still had the thought: but I’m injured. I can’t play.
“So there has been this prolonged period where I have not been able to put 13 on. I’ve been wearing it in training, and for the first couple of months that was great — but I need to wear it on the pitch now.
“When I run out at Headingley wearing number 13 for Leeds Rhinos, that will definitely tick off a goal for me, after everything I’ve had to come through. And that’s going to make it even more special. It’s something that I couldn’t have predicted when I was seventeen years old, or that all this would go on in between, but I know I’ll be able to look back on that after the game and think: good effort. I’m quite restrictive with praise, and I always have been, but that will be some moment, a moment when I can think, I’ve done well to get to this stage.”
It’s easy to forget that Stevie has got to this stage aged just 22. That last custodian of the 13 shirt, Sir Kev, played until he was 35; JP until he was 37. He has won the Super League, the League Leaders’ Shield, and the Challenge Cup twice, but the best years of rugby league are still ahead for Stevie Ward. And it’s a telling part of Leeds Rhinos’ culture that the club will judge a player not by his age, but by what he’s been through, and by his maturity, and give them the responsibility that their efforts, not their age, have earned.
“I feel like a forty year old now,” says Stevie. “I’ve been through the mill and I’ve been through a lot, whether it’s been great or not so great.
“In one way I have achieved my dream; I achieved a dream at eighteen, when I was still in the dreaming phase. I look back and it’s hard to decipher if it was dream or reality, but I’ve done that. So I’ve figured out that I need to reset myself and reset my goals and targets. One dream is Mantality, to be able to do a magazine and offer that to people, to change their perceptions or help them.”
Another is simply to play rugby league again, and to be Stevie Ward: rugby league player for Leeds Rhinos. To be the player he’s been learning to be since the age of six, and the person that the culture at Headingley, and everything he has been through, has made him.
“I’m nervous,” he says. “I am nervous. Because it has been so long. With the way that I am, everything is fully focused on me being back in the best shape possible, to be the best athlete I can be after this injury; which is to be the best. And to play rugby league, and to be one of the leading players. That’s my aim. To implement something for the team instead of just talking, and to prove it with with some action on the field.
“I’m excited, and really getting the sniff for it. I can’t wait to delve back into the world of rugby league, getting smashed about, and picking myself back up off the floor.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 37