I recently had a conversation with a former teammate who informed me of his decision to retire on the advice of a brain injury specialist.
The formal descriptor is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - brain damage about covers it for the layperson. My mate’s glittering career (which included more than 50 test caps) has come to a jarring and rather disturbing close.
But life rolls on and he’ll now turn his attention to the inevitable first stages of life post sport. It’s rarely a completely smooth transition, and there are obvious reasons for this.
To begin with a retired athlete is often left trying to establish their raison d'etre, their why. Professional sport has a way of simplifying life by constantly making athletes aware of what matters - and what matters in professional sport is performance.
Not last year's or last week's performance - instead the focus is always forward. Always. Towards the challenge of the next match. Robbed of this clarity it can be difficult to find one's feet in the slower paced world of less intensity and thrill.
Which isn’t to suggest there aren’t often a litany of opportunities for retired players, particularly those fortunate enough to build a valuable profile. Get a finance degree and one of the big banks will snap you up.
They’ll roll you out at fat cat luncheons so often you might even learn to enjoy the dancing monkey act that’s required of you.
If you’ve got a head that doesn’t resemble road kill you might find yourself on television. This sounds pretty cool until you realise that you’re a talking head on some horribly predictable platitude generator.
At this point you might be wondering if you can pick up one last gig in Japan, or a quick dash for cash in France. You might even make a go of these procrastinations before you have to face up to the grey suit hanging in your cupboard.
Perhaps I’ve painted too stark a picture. Perhaps there really are ex-rugby players that genuinely love being whatever it is you become when you wear a suit five days a week and catch up on Game of Thrones in the evening.
Here’s the thing - and I’m talking to the guys and gals still playing or recently retired: Rugby is a tough job. Now I know there’s an entire blue collar nation that are about to request the worlds tiniest violin, but hear me out.
I’m an entrepreneur, or at least I’m trying to be one. It’s a difficult job at times, there’s the risk that you could be burning through your life savings chasing an improbable dream.
And there’s certainly stress involved in solving a ceaseless tidal wave of problems. But despite all this, and despite constantly being told how tough entrepreneurship is, my post-rugby life has never included being kneed so hard in the face that I required titanium plates and a bunch of screws just to get back to work.
As an entrepreneur I’ve never thrown up, as a rugby player I threw up every Monday for three months during pre-season training. My point is that surviving pro sport over a long period of time equips people with the kind of skills that transfer well into life.
Too few players seem to recognise that they will depart rugby with abilities that can given them a real edge in the workplace. I suspect it’s this lack of confidence that results in so many seemingly timid post rugby career decisions.
The truth is we only get one life, and until AGI infused robots wise up we’re going to spend a great deal of our precious waking moments working. This realisation alone should push us to forge our own path and test ourselves in new uncomfortably uncharted spaces.
As the late, and truly bloody great Hunter S. Thompson said “So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”