Tuesday 24 October 2017

Legends gather to remember Mangan and his unbreakable spirit

David Kelly

David Kelly

"He was just a one-in-a-million bloke," says Matt Hampson down the phone. Takes one to know one, you reply.

Hampson was once a promising young rugby union prop with England's U-21s. He is now quadriplegic. Stuart Mangan was an Irishman in England, playing rugby for fun with a London club when he also suffered a serious spinal injury which left him paralysed.

Mangan passed away last summer after suffering respiratory problems, cruelly cut down despite defying disability with the sort of thunderous grace and courage which has marked Hampson down as a true hero.

They will gather at Twickenham Stoop this evening -- the great and the good, the ordinary and extraordinary -- to watch Shane Byrne and Martin Corry lead the respective Ireland and England Legends teams out for the Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup.

"I've never met anyone like him," continues Hampson, whose own life dramatically changed when a scrum collapsed in practice four years ago. Since then, he needs two full-time carers and will probably need €8m to fund his welfare for the rest of his life. "He gave me a lot of inspiration really. I was a bit of a brute really, but Stuart was one of the most intelligent blokes I ever met. The way he spoke about things, he really backed himself.

"He inspired me because he wanted to do things and move on with his life. I've met a few guys in situations like myself who say they can't do anything. But Stuart was very, very positive.

"It's the fight-or-flight syndrome. You either get on with it and deal with it or else you just curl up in a ball. Stuart was one of these guys who wanted to travel the world, conquer everything even though he had this tragic accident.

"I've met the family and they're very like mine, they're very strong and supportive. But they want to still carry on working to make things better, which I find is extraordinary. It's a testament to the family. I've been speaking to Una (Stuart's mother) this week and she's a remarkable woman."

Hampson's favourite movie is 'Shawshank Redemption'; Red his favourite character. Infamously, another rugby player who succumbed to horrific injury opted for suicide. Hampson and Mangan chose Red's motto. "Get busy living."

Hampson is a regular at Welford Road, where his beloved Leicester play. He writes for their programme and 'Rugby World'. He has completed a Level One coaching course. He runs a website and works tirelessly for charity. He is writing a book.

He only sees the 'able' in disabled.

But every second brings a constant reminder of his physical disability. It takes him three hours to shower; just as well he has a waterproof plasma in the bathroom. Strangely, he feels the life-changing experience has made him a better person. "Everything happens for a reason," is an aphorism writ large in his specially adapted home beside his parents' house. "I think it makes you appreciate things a lot more. You also think about people a lot more, which is a strange thing to say. I have to have 24-hour care, there's a lot of emphasis on me and what I'm doing.

"You just get bored talking about yourself and what you're doing. So it's nice to talk about that other people are doing, it deflects from you and sometimes you can see that there are other people worse off than you."

If you see him tonight, say hello. For to meet this human being is to wallow in the limitless resolve of the human spirit. "When you meet him," says Geordan Murphy, "you think to yourself, 'no matter what happens, what's said, how badly I play, what happens in my private life, there's a positive slant you can put on things'."

And, as Hampson laughs, it will be hard to miss him. Risking a David Brent moment, you tell him you were unsure whether or not he would be able to use a telephone. Hell, this guy is writing a book, coaching kids and raising millions for charity.

"I've always said it's just my spinal cord that's knackered really, everything else is fine. I'm just trying to keep a positive mind and getting out and about. Sometimes I wonder what would I have been like before my accident, how would I have viewed someone like me. I can't answer that because I didn't know anybody like it.

"I don't know how I could have coped with it. But it is strange, there's a bottle hanging from your neck, in this big wheelchair. It's not exactly subtle. People look at you differently. You just have to come to terms with it really."

Stuart Mangan had come to terms with his life. The tragedy was that he didn't live long enough to experience the true joy wrought by his good friend's existence.

"He was a one-off," says Hampson softly down the phone. Takes one to know one.

Tickets are £10 for adults and £5 for students, under-12s and OAPs. Kick-off tonight is 7.45pm and a highly enjoyable evening of post-match entertainment is also promised at The Stoop. For further details, check out www.englandirelandlegends.co.uk.

Irish Independent

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