A case of Devine intervention for brave Steve
How bad did it get? How black were those dark days? The tears well up in Steve Devine's eyes as he ponders the lowest point of a rugby career eventually ended by one head knock too many.
He struggles to find the words, and the memories are clearly still too painful for public consumption.
The now 34-year-old former All Black from Auckland doesn't really have to respond. The answer is in his eyes, even if the words don't come readily.
"Mate, could I give you an exact example? I wouldn't want to. It was tough. It was horrible for me and people around me to see how I was struggling. People come around and you put on a brave face and chat and then they leave and you go to bed for four hours because you're exhausted.
"A lot of people didn't see that side of me, they didn't see the fatigue and that sort of thing because when they there I wouldn't want to show it. But the energy I'd used would just blow me away. I'd be in bed for two days so the toll was really on my family and my life I suppose."
That toll Devine speaks of was significant. That becomes clear as he tells the story of his abbreviated career. This is not a tale for the faint-hearted, but in relating it Devine hopes to raise awareness of an issue confronted by hundreds, possibly thousands, of young Kiwis at all levels of the game.
Devine suffered repeated concussions throughout his rugby career. At the extreme end of the scale, for sure. His size, style and fearlessness seemingly combined to make him a target. At times it was as though he was running around with a bull's eye on his forehead. Wham! The thud of sinew on bone played out like a sickening soundtrack to his career.
At first he would just shake them off. Get on with it. As you do. Then he would take time for his mind to clear, the headaches to fade. That period would grow with each additional impact. Until, finally, the last one left him in a haze for 2 1/2 years. That final recovery sent his life into a tail-spin.
No one told him it would be like this. And now this amiable, gregarious Australian (the boy from Boggabri, in northern NSW) who crossed the Tasman and become an honorary Kiwi – 10 tests for the All Blacks being about as honorary as it gets – wants to warn others.
Not so much the professionals he looks over in his current role as manager of the Auckland ITM Cup team. But the schoolboys and club players who don't have the same checks, the same protocols and the same medical professionals in place.
Devine is telling his tale not because he wants sympathy – far from it – or because he's bitter and twisted about the hand dealt him. Again, far from it. He just hopes that by reading his salutary story the message will get through to a player, a coach, a referee or even a parent somewhere. Be careful. Be aware.
He can only hope.
Rugby, with its crunching collisions, power and size and ferocity, is going to take a physical toll on many who play it. Knees, hips, shoulders, and many other body parts are at serious risk. "A lot of those other things you can fix," notes Devine. "You can throw in a new hip and be up and going again in four or five months. Unfortunately one brain is all you have and you can't sub in a new one."
WHEN DEVINE picked the ball up off the back of the scrum and went for one of his trademark darts, he didn't just run slap-bang into a vicious high tackle that knocked out two front teeth, but a living nightmare that would take him the best part of three years from which to recover.
That was back in the first game of the 2007 National Provincial Championship against Counties Manukau, with the halfback playing his 78th, and final, match for Auckland in nearly a decade's sterling service for them and Super Rugby offshoot the Blues.
Devine's rugby had been peppered with head knocks. He catalogues them like career highlights – monuments to his commitment, his fearlessness, as well his vulnerability.
There was the 2003 Super 12 semifinal when he was knocked out, and forced to miss the final. In his first test for the All Blacks, in 2002 at Twickenham, he was KO'd twice – in the first half. He never made it back from halftime. And so it went on. Intermittently the knocks would come, and invariably Devine would shake them off and get straight back on the horse as soon as he felt right.
But around the 2006 Super season, things took a turn for the worse.
"I started to notice something was wrong," he recalls. "I'd taken quite a few in a row, like three in three weeks, and one time I got home from training and woke up in the hallway. I couldn't even make the bedroom or lounge. I was so tired I lay down and went to sleep right where I was."
Soon after even the hallway proved beyond his reach. He pulled the car into the garage, and just slumbered there at the wheel. "It was just fatigue and headache-type symptoms. I remember another time I opened the car door on my head. I just wasn't in sync with what I was doing. I knew something was wrong."
The final straw came when the Blues had a game in Brisbane. They were down halfbacks and the pressure was on Devine to front. They travelled Thursday and he slept pretty much every spare moment through until the game on Saturday. Then played as though he'd never awoken.
His parents had travelled up for the game and Devine recalls staggering up into the stands after the game. "I could hardly even talk, I was just so exhausted. After about 20 minutes I went down to the sheds, sat on the doc's table and said 'mate, something's not right here'."
Dr Stephen Kara – the man who would eventually end Devine's career – agreed and he was sidelined for six months. He consulted neurologists and was put on medication to help with the migraines. That piled even more fatigue on top of what he was already feeling.
Then Devine came back and played the back part of the '06 NPC, before going off medication for the '07 Super season. He took a "big shot" in the semifinal in Durban – the last game of the Blues' season – and then in the NPC opener came that crunching blow as he darted off a scrum. It was to be Devine's last act as a rugby player. "Doc just told me 'that's enough'. I was a competitor – I don't think I could have made that decision."
For the next 2 1/2 years he would pay the price for that final blow. Between fatigue and intense migraines, the little Aussie battler spent much of that time struggling to participate in a life passing him by. He became "horrifically" worried about when, and if, he'd come out of it.
"For the first eight months it was a matter of lying in a room and sleeping," he says. "Our second child had only just been born, my wife was running a business and looking after two kids and myself. I was truly a waste of time.
"My concentration was shot to pieces. Holding a conversation was incredibly difficult – just to talk like we are now, I'd need a sleep afterwards. If there was background noise I couldn't cope. Often I couldn't concentrate enough to even hold conversations."
And so it went on. His vision became badly affected by bright light, he became almost intolerant to loud noise – remember he had two youngsters in the house. The headaches continued, decreasing marginally but never abating. All the time he was searching for solutions. "I trialled 40 to 50 different drugs to try ease the migraines, but nothing seemed to work." He asked plenty of questions, but no one could give him any answers.
"A lot of my doctors thought I had depression. I just think I was so tired of having a migraine. I'd wake up in the morning with a migraine and go to bed at night with a migraine. I guess it's depression because you can't function as you normally would. I've been to some pretty dark places. It almost cost me everything."
NOW, FINALLY spat out the other side of this prolonged nightmare, it's interesting to gauge perspective in hindsight. Would he have done things differently, knowing what he knows now? And surely there's some bitterness towards rugby?
"I'm not blaming anyone," says Devine. "If I could I'd play again tomorrow. I'm not bitter. I did a lot of it myself. I was the one who put myself back on the field. Would I do it again? Most definitely, up till that last one. I wouldn't put anyone through that again. But I had a great time, I'm a competitor and sometimes the competitive bug is bigger than anything else."
Devine has two young boys (Will, 6, and Mac, 4) and the oldest is already playing rugby under his dad's tutelage. "He's a good little player. Rugby has been awesome for me and I'm proud of what I achieved. I just wish my boys, whatever they do, get the same enjoyment I did out of rugby."
BUT HEAD knocks happen. And Devine hopes there can be a heightened awareness about them, especially at the lower levels of the game.
"I cringe when I see head collisions and kids stay on when you can clearly see they're not well. It will catch up with you at some stage. At some stage it will bite you in the arse. You're not going to stop it because it's a contact sport, but let's give a bit more power to referees. They see it, and they need the power to say that was a big collision, you may or may not be [concussed] but with the benefit of the doubt we'll put you on the sideline."
Devine is loath to put too much onus on players and coaches to make the hard calls, though he sees a greater awareness now at the higher levels. Unions understand players are an asset and risks shouldn't be taken. Compulsory stand-downs and rigid testing procedures are in place.
"It's a competitive sport and people compete. When I was young, if a coach asked me if I was all right, I would have said yes and played on. That's what competitive kids do. As a player the pressure was on to get myself ready to be back on the field. I wanted to compete and when I was out it was `what do I need to do to get myself ready to play again'?"
But this story has a happy ending, it would seem.
Devine feels fully recovered (Botox proved his magical elixir) and a battery of recent tests back that up. "I don't know if the brain has fixed itself or learnt to deal with it, but I find now I'm starting to be the person I was before the head knock," he says.
He counts himself lucky to have "come out the other side" and has a message for others battling similar problems.
"As bad as it gets, you do come out of it. There are things to help you too.
"Nothing worked for me for a long time and then things did. I guess keep asking questions and keep trying to find people who can give you answers."
In other words, keep reaching for the light. It's there.
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