Blackouts, migraines and amnesia: why a rugby player gave up the game he loved | Andy Bull
Humphrey Bodington doesn’t remember the collision that led him to give up rugby. He can recall the moments before it, how, playing for Newcastle University, he came hot off the back of the first scrum because he wanted to put in an early shot on the opposition. And he can recall the moments after, the way he woke flat on his back, saw the team’s physio standing over him, and how he thought to himself in that split-second “never again” but nothing in between. He didn’t listen to himself. Two weeks later he played again and suffered another concussion. After that the blackouts and migraines started.
Bodington found he could not concentrate in his lectures and that he was especially sensitive to loud noises. He had also injured his anterior cruciate ligament and had to take nine months out of the game to recover. His doctor told him it was a blessing in disguise because it would give his brain time to heal. With his ACL he could see the swelling go down and feel the pain start to go away, but the concussion wasn’t like that.
“One of the difficult things is that you always think you have recovered, I always used to think: ‘I’m fine’ and then two weeks later I’d wake up with a headache again and I’d look back and ask: ‘How did I ever think that?’ The symptoms go on for so long they start to become normalised.”
He was doing cognition tests online and for those nine months his scores put him in the bottom 1% of the population. But rugby was everything to him. Bodington started playing when he was seven, went to university on a playing scholarship and planned to go and play for a club in the English National League 1 after graduation.
So he tried playing again, in the end-of-summer rugby sevens. And he suffered another concussion. This one was different. Bodington wasn’t knocked out, wasn’t even knocked over, but the hit left him suffering with total amnesia about the incident. He walked off the pitch and hasn’t played since.
Bodington wants to share his story because he is about to run 14 marathons in seven days along a route that links up 10 rugby and football grounds and then top it off with a weightlifting session. He plans to complete a 200kg squat and a 200kg deadlift, followed by all the runs, in 200 hours. The number comes from a study published in the Lancet in 2018 that showed people who had had at least five traumatic brain injuries were associated with a 200% greater risk of suffering dementia after they reached the age of 50.
He is doing it all to raise money for Head for Change, the charity founded by the former Wales international Alix Popham and his wife, Mel Bramwell-Popham, to provide support, care and education for players and families suffering with traumatic brain injuries.
If you remember Popham from his playing days, have read his story or any of the many others the Guardian has covered in recent years and want to help, you can donate here. Bodington read them, too, and says they helped him make the decision to stop playing.
He is about to do something utterly extraordinary, but I wanted to tell his story because of the much more ordinary bit that came before he decided to run 14 marathons back-to-back. The decision he made, weighing the risks and rewards of playing the game, is one more and more players are facing. Studies show that participation in rugby union fell by 13.5% in the five years before the pandemic started and it has fallen even more since. The risks of brain injury don’t explain all the drop-off but they do explain part of it.
Bodington is 25 now and came up through the grassroots as sport was finally beginning to confront this issue. Through the years he was playing at school, the number of reported concussions more than tripled in English professional rugby. Bodington is from the first generation of players who grew up in an age where it was impossible for the authorities to claim, as they had done in the past, that we didn’t know the extent of the risks involved in the sport.
But Bodington’s experiences in the game sound depressingly familiar. He talks about coaches who saw him get knocked out but still told him “carry on and we’ll see how you feel”. How it always felt as though the decision about whether to play on “was in my court”. He talks about a “crack on with it” culture in which players encouraged each other to hide symptoms from their coaches “because otherwise you’ll be off for longer than you want to be” and about how often he was able to kid them into thinking he was fit to play by putting in a big session in the gym on Monday. And he explains how much of this was driven by his own competitive instincts.
It was only after Bodington took himself off for a private brain scan that he began to understand what was going on. Since then, he has devoted himself to doing more research. He has launched a start-up business that is developing a nutritional supplement to aid recovery and has become evangelical about the benefits of diet and exercise for brain health. He has given himself the education the game should have provided for him.
He still gets headaches, still struggles with loud noises. And he still loves the game. “The last thing I would ever recommend is pulling somebody out of the sport,” he says, “especially if they are a boy or girl who absolutely loves it, because it will do so much for them. I don’t want it to go anywhere, I just want it to be safer.”