Friday Profile: Miracle man Thompson hooked again
Published 15/01/2010 | 05:00
You're 28. You have a good living as a rugby player -- more than a good living. A half-century of caps for your country looks a certainty. A World Cup medal sits proudly on your mantelpiece.
And then suddenly it's all over. How you long for the ache of a hamstring pull, the painful tug of a groin strain. Instead, it's a neck injury. Career-threatening at the best of times.
But for a front-row expected to twist and contort his body to extraordinary degrees, while others also weighing more than 100kgs do the same, it is more than career-threatening. You could become a cripple, doctors whisper in hushed tones, spending the rest of your days in a wheelchair. Others, their voices softer still, mention the words "early death".
An insurance company lobs £500,000 into your bank account. How can you put a price on life? In 2007, Steve Thompson reckoned you were never supposed to find out these things while you were alive. So, he took the money and got busy living.
It was when Nick Birch at the Three Shires Hospital in Northampton showed him the scans relating the damage wrought to his neck and spine -- a prolapsed cervical disc that compressed on to his spinal cord -- which convinced him that he'd done the right thing.
"Basically, he told me I was very lucky to still be walking," says Thompson, speaking from his new abode in central France, of which more anon. "It was like getting out of a car accident alive. That's the way I felt, not as if something I dearly loved had been taken away from me."
Even a second opinion from specialist Ricky Nelson, a doctor who had successfully helped England props Jason Leonard and Phil Vickery with neck and back problems, failed to alter the prognosis.
"He told me that even if I just jolted it running up or down the stairs, it could kill me," says Thompson. He didn't want to be a man killed by the thing he loved. So he officially retired, in April 2007, shortly after the operation which would ensure he could live out the rest of his life in comfort.
The fact that his father-in-law was fighting cancer at the time placed Thompson's own travails in some sort of context, rendered his anguish at missing out on a potential 50th England cap in their first Croke Park visit a mere inconvenience.
A projected move to Brive lay in tatters, but Thompson was content to shrug his shoulders with indifference. Given what he'd been through, he was happy just to be able to shrug his shoulders with indifference.
"I'd lost all my hunger for the game anyway," he admits now. "At times, it seemed as if I was pushing myself to so many extremes, I just felt like getting sick. It was horrible.
"So being told I couldn't play anymore was almost a relief in many ways. I'd lost my edge and I was burned out after four or five years playing non-stop. The game I loved was turning into a job, a grind, and I was happy to get out."
He contemplated joining the police but, even though that loose commitment to join Brive as a player was now stillborn, the club's wealthy owner and CEO, Daniel Derichebourg and Simon Gillham respectively, asked him to take up a coaching position. A life in France sounded grand.
He had expected to be pitching up in France with more lofty ambitions in mind. He had dreamed of replicating England's stunning 2003 triumph in the Rugby World Cup, but such dreams had now turned to dust.
And yet the longer he immersed himself in his new French lifestyle, by now scrum coach and quasi-recruitment officer for the ambitious Top 14 outfit, the more he began to subconsciously hanker for that infectious addiction that once gripped him during his playing days.
He watched England reach the World Cup final with a hooker six years older than he. Even though he'd been guaranteed a job for life at Brive, something was nagging him. As his mood sunk lower, his determination to resume his career rose.
Tentatively, he discreetly sought more medical advice from doctors in Lyons and Bordeaux. They sent scans to doctors in the US. They sent the results back. The next thing, Thompson found himself writing a cheque for £500,000 to his insurance company.
It wasn't the price of just any old life, he reckoned. This was a new life. The money didn't matter. He had come from a broken home in a rough part of Northampton town, so having started with nothing, losing a pile didn't matter much.
"Some might say it was a stupid thing to do, but the ironic thing was that the operation was so successful, my neck had now become strong enough to withstand playing the game again," he says now.
What wouldn't kill him would serve to make him stronger.
"Something told me I could still play the game and once I found out medically that it was still possible, there was only ever going to be one answer," he says. "I've spoken to so many players who have retired and would have loved to get the chance to play again.
"Now I was given a chance and I just felt that I had to take it. I've got a family, so it's not something I just jumped at without a moment's thought. But I'd had a good break mentally and it felt like the right thing for me to do."
He made his comeback against, of all teams, Connacht, two of whose former players, ex-Northampton colleagues Christian Short and Damien Browne, he had helped recruit for Brive during his brief retirement.
"It was a bit hairy when I took a knock in that first game back but the moment I could feel my arm, that's when I knew that I was okay. I wouldn't have been able to feel any sensation beforehand, so that gave me the confidence to keep ploughing ahead."
Before his injury, Thompson had been a regular England international since his 2002 debut against Scotland. After the zenith of the 2003 World Cup win under Clive Woodward, Thompson's steady decline mirrored the team and when he trundled on for his 47th cap against Ireland in the 2006 defeat, it seemed like an international swansong.
Now, he has passed the mythical half-century mark. The next Rugby World Cup has become a new target. His life is idyllic. Every scrum is attacked with relish.
"I'm really enjoying life here," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "Living on the outskirts of town, I have the best of all worlds in terms of my rugby and my family life.
"There's no great sense of materialism about the place, which I like. Everything is just so much more relaxed and that helps you day-to-day. The pace of life is much slower and nobody cares what kind of car you drive or where you live. It's all about quality of life."
It's a quality of life Thompson thought he'd never have the chance to enjoy. The fact that he's managing to do so as a rugby player once again makes him appreciate it all the more.