Wednesday 13 December 2017

‘My girlfriend left me after I broke my neck playing rugby, but I still love the game'

David Ross won't dwell on the accident which left him paralysed. Instead, he's setting his sights on the Paralympics

David Ross is defiantly upbeat about his future
David Ross is defiantly upbeat about his future

Claire McNeilly

David Ross lay in hospital wondering what on earth he'd done to deserve this.

He was 18 years old, believed he had a whole active, adult life ahead of him - but now he could no longer feel any sensation in his legs.

It was several months since the accident and David was still in that hospital bed, still getting used to being paralysed from the chest down.

The life he had envisaged for himself had, effectively and instantly, ended the moment his neck snapped during a rugby match.

A freak accident, a one in a million chance... a collapsed ruck that everyone except David walked away from.

That was three years ago, but the man from Moira, co Down, who is currently single, does not look back in anger.

Indeed, if you're thinking that the terrible, life-changing event of February 27, 2013, ended his love of rugby, think again.

And if you're looking for someone to champion an urgent review of the game's more physical side at junior and schools level, look elsewhere.

David Ross is a young man who approaches his life with remarkable, refreshing optimism and pragmatism.

It's a fulfilling life too... one that has kept him half an hour late for this interview.

He drives up to the door of his south Belfast student flat, flustered and apologetic. "I am so, so sorry," he says. "Things have been hectic."

There is nothing to indicate his physical circumstances as he proceeds to park his specially adapted car round the back of the elegant apartment block.

It's only when he appears at the main front door of the building while sitting in his wheelchair that you are made aware of the extent of the catastrophic damage caused when two players fell on top of him that fateful day.

He'd been turning out for Wallace High in a third XV School's Cup tie against St Columb's College in Derry... a game he shouldn't even have been playing in.

"I remember the day really well," he recalls, without a trace of bitter irony.

"I wasn't supposed to be playing for the thirds; I'd been in the seconds and firsts the whole season but missed a game for the seconds because I'd gone to my girlfriend's formal. So, as a favour to the coach, I said I'd play for the thirds that day. Things were going well. We were leading, and I'd scored the first try. Then, about midway through the first half, I was on the ground trying to get back up when two players, one from either side, came down on top of me..."

Horrifically injured, David could only lie on the ground while the game went on around him.

"After about a minute people realised I wasn't moving," he says.

"I was conscious the whole time. I knew straight away that there was something seriously wrong because I couldn't move - but the shock and adrenaline were numbing the pain at that stage. Then I started to panic.

"So many thoughts were running through my head; 'What does this mean? How bad is it really? It might not be as bad as it seems...' Then I told myself not to think too far ahead.

"I was conscious from the moment it happened until I was put on the operating table."

David had sustained a dislocated neck - the sixth and seventh vertebrae - and underwent an emergency operation at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

He was in hospital for five months in total; six weeks in the Royal and then, just after the Easter break, they moved him to Musgrave Park, where he remained for a further three-and-a-half months.

He learned he was going to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair shortly after coming out of theatre.

"The realisation slowly dawned on me," he recalls.

"I could move my arms, but I couldn't move anything from my chest down."

David, a Sports and Exercise student at Ulster University, said his parents Maggie (52), a nurse, and Kenny (59), who works in sales and marketing for a pharmaceutical company, "haven't quite accepted" what happened to him that day.

And it was ultimately too much for his girlfriend. He'd been with her for a year when the accident happened.

"When she first came in and saw me, she just burst out crying," he says.

"At the time she was having a tough time at school and she was trying to focus on her A-levels. It was very stressful for her. We split up just before I got out of hospital. It was kind of gutting. Getting out of hospital was daunting. My friends had gone off to uni, she was going off to uni.

"We haven't spoken for a long time."

David realised early on that being an angry young man wouldn't help.

"At the start, after I got out of hospital, I spent the first few months thinking, 'Why me?' But you have to get out there and start building a new life," he says.

"It was the break-up that really pushed me to get out and about. I knew I had to. The first thing I did was join a wheelchair rugby club in Dublin and I found that really beneficial. I'd been out of hospital less than two weeks."

This time last year, David switched from the Irish wheelchair rugby team to the GB equivalent; he couldn't get an Irish passport because he was born in Rutherglen, near Glasgow, but has lived in Northern Ireland since he was two.

He was long-listed for the Paralympics just before Christmas, but missed out when the final squad was cut from 19 players to 15. Typically, he wasn't too disappointed.

"I wasn't expecting even to be in that squad in the first place," he says.

"The fact that, within a year, I'd gone straight through to the GB elite squad was incredible. I'm back with the development squad and my goal now is the Toyko 2020 Paralympics." David maintains he has no regrets about what happened three years ago.

"It could happen to anyone doing anything; I don't think, 'If I hadn't have been playing in that match I wouldn't have broken my neck'," he says.

David also insists his life "hasn't changed that much" since the accident and that his family - he has two brothers, Neil (22), a politics graduate, and 17-year-old Jack - and friends have been a source of great strength for him.

"All my friends are fantastic," he says. "They don't see the wheelchair, they just see me."

And they still see a rugby-mad youngster.

"If I had a son, I would encourage him to play rugby; if he didn't, I'd be disappointed," he says.

"Kids, however, need to be taught from a young age about the dangers of rugby, the proper tackling technique and how to safely look after themselves and the person they are tackling."

The future for David? He'd like to have a family - and to coach rugby.

For him, it's pointless trying to think what would have happened "if I'd done this or that differently".

"I'm probably going to have to use a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but it doesn't really bother me now, because I'm very independent," he says.

"I think more about where I am now... and how to go forward from there."

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