Night time is the hardest. You’re in bed, looking at the ceiling, and one problem leads into another problem and into another problem. The spiral becomes bigger and bigger. The hole becomes deeper and deeper. You can’t sleep. Then the sweats come. Night sweats. At my worst, five or six years ago, I would change the bed four times a night. You can feel the hairs on your hand and you know the sweats are coming and it just comes out of every orifice, every pore.
His feelings didn’t have a label at the start, though he remembers how he felt. His body was broken. Rugby was his livelihood. He had no other qualifications. He was about to be married. David Corkery was 27. Retired rugby player. Chewed up. Spat out.
He can’t say when the anxiety started. It wasn’t triggered by one event, not that he can say. But it got inside him and it stayed and it grew, until it was wrapped up in him, squeezing.
“The head was constantly going,” he says. “’What if I get injured? What if this happens? What if that happens?’
The one that really gets me is, ‘You knew the risks before you picked up a ball’. We didn’t know the risks
“Just, the body was f****d, like. I couldn’t enjoy myself. I couldn’t see a future. I was always worried about the next injury. The next contract terms and talks. If I met someone that I hadn’t seen in five years they would have seen a different person. More cautious. A scared individual. There was fear all the time.”
He didn’t think he was suffering from depression; he had no idea that his brain had been injured from repeated traumas; he never knew that those two states could be connected. What he knew was that his body had been ripped apart. He could account for that, easily.
“I dislocated both of my shoulders. I have five compressed discs in my back. I have a 12-inch plate in my arm. I broke most of my fingers. I ruptured both of my Achilles. I have had over 20 operations on my left knee. I broke both of my ankles. I broke ribs. I broke my fibula. The body was a car crash. Completely mangled.
“At the start of my career I was fine. Living the dream, I suppose. Capped at 21. You know, flying high. The game meant so much to me as well. It was all I knew. I didn’t have a college education. I didn’t have a third-level qualification. I just loved the game. I loved winning. It was the be-all and end-all. But then, as I got older, I felt myself coming under more and more pressure – especially emotionally. I just wasn’t able to handle certain situations.”
Corkery’s career as an elite player started just as the game was crossing from amateur to professional. At the 1995 World Cup he was named Ireland’s Player of the Tournament; within months offers of professional contracts landed at his feet.
The most lucrative approach came from Wigan, in rugby league, but he didn’t know the game and he had no mind to make that leap. There was more money available in France too, but he didn’t want to “go too far” from home. In the end, he turned down Gloucester and signed for Bristol.
“I probably should have gone to Gloucester – which was more like Munster. Bristol weren’t ready for the professional era. We were given gym programmes to be as big and strong was we possibly could. So, I got up to over 20 stone with a 22-inch neck. But I lost all my flexibility, all my speed. If you ran at me, grand, I’d kill you, but if you ran to the side, I couldn’t catch you. In training it was constant collision, collision, collision, collision.”
In rugby, being indestructible was the most desirable illusion. It was a state of suspended disbelief that depended on how much you could conceal. Where could you stash the pain where nobody could see it? The capacity to keep going, to not stop, at any cost, was integral to rugby’s machismo. It was admired, it was encouraged; it was essential. In the early years of the professional era, those stakes were raised.
“As rugby players, we spent most of our time pretending we weren’t injured. Did the physical side of the game appeal to me? Yeah, absolutely. I loved it. I would have been an agricultural player, that’s the way I would describe myself. You were the enforcer, the hard man, the hit man. [As a flanker] you were the guy put out there to look after the outhalf. You take the hits for him. You were happy to do it. There was no problem.
“And when you carried the ball you were to do exactly the opposite to the opposition – run at the number 10, try to bowl them over and try to inflict as much injury as possible upon them. You were told to go out and run at that f***er and run him over. That was the game. The harder I could run at someone, the better it was. That was my job, to stop guys. A lot of the professional union teams brought in coaches from rugby league for the organisational side of things and then that turned into another s**tfest of hits.”
It could not have been without consequence. For Corkery, managing his body became a challenge and then an ordeal. He needed to present himself in a fit state to train, in a fit state to play; they needed him. He wanted to be needed.
I’m not going to lie, I did take injections just to go training, let alone play in a game
“I would go back to my bedroom [after a morning training session] and my body would scream at me. That’s the best way to describe it. You’re just lying on the bed and everything is screaming at you in pain. I would lie there and think that I would have to get up again at two o’clock. You’d get out of bed and nothing would work. Everything would be slow. So then, you’d start popping the painkillers and the anti-inflammatories, just to get by. Just to get by.
“Then there was the injections. I’m not going to lie, I did take injections just to go training, let alone play in a game. You were pumped full of cortisone. You broke a finger – you got it shot up and you played. And it was my choice. That was the other thing. I could have said no. And I wanted to play. But, like, you were taking shots just to go training, not alone to play matches.
“Again, maybe it was the way I played. I never held back, ever in my life, foolishly. You went head on into everything. Close the eyes and hope for the best.”
Did you ever refuse to play?
“Never. Absolutely never.”
Did you even contemplate it?
“No. Absolutely not. No. Jesus, I’d play five games in a day if I could. I’d keep going – if I could.”
The physical injuries were easy to see and treat and understand: broken bones, muscle tears, dislocations, cuts. They were the age-old outcomes of combat on a rugby field. But being knocked out, or suffering a concussion without being knocked out; none of that was understood in the way it is now.
The impulse to carry on was just as strong after a bang on the head as it was after a knock to any other part of the body. Carrying on was rugby’s bottom line.
“If you were to ask me the question, ‘Would I let my kids play rugby today?’ The answer is yes. ‘Would I let my kids play rugby [if it was like] when I was playing?’ The answer would be no. It was a different game. It was the Wild West – that’s the best way to describe it. And the lower you went the more Wild West it became.
I remember on one particular occasion I was seeing three of everything. ‘Just hit the guy in the middle so.’ That’s what I was told.
“I was knocked out on a few occasions. I’ve got up and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong with me’. And the whole world would be spinning around me. I know I’m on a rugby field and that’s about the height of it. Back in our day I think there was a six-week mandatory exclusion if you got knocked out. That wasn’t policed. You could be back training the following Monday.
“Or, nine times out of 10, you went off the pitch for 10 minutes, you got a bucket of water over the head and you went back on. I remember on one particular occasion I was seeing three of everything. ‘Just hit the guy in the middle so.’ That’s what I was told. That’s what was said to me. So, you’d go back on – and you were bulling to go back on. You’ll do anything to get back on the field. But that shouldn’t have been the player’s choice. It shouldn’t have been.
“That’s where education is such a massive thing now in this whole concussion thing. If the players understand the consequences, then they won’t act as stupidly as the players in my era did, or as I did – looking to get back on the field. I thought every minute was my last minute in rugby. I just wanted to play, play, play, play, as much as I could.
“The one that really gets me is, ‘You knew the risks before you picked up a ball’. We didn’t know the risks. I knew I could break my fingers, I knew I could break my shoulder. I knew I could get cut or lacerated or whatever – that’s fine. That’s my decision. But no one ever told me that my brain can be injured. Nobody ever sat me down and said, ‘David, there’s a chance that you could injure your brain and have long-term issues’.
“If I had known that at the time, would I have played? I probably don’t think I would have. Why would I want to see myself have a diagnosis of early-onset dementia? Why would anybody do that?”
Corkery announced his retirement from professional rugby in August 2000, a couple of days before he got married. He had amassed 27 caps during the most miserable decade in the long history of Irish Test rugby. Even in that distressed environment he stood out as a player of high quality and endurance.
During his playing days he had the wisdom to take out an insurance policy, in the event that injury brought his career to a premature end. He had just bought a house, and from the realised policy he gave £80,000 to the bank to clear the borrowings.
“I knew my limitations for earning money. I had one opportunity with a cheque in my hand so I said, ‘Pay off your house’. So, I got something out of rugby. I cleared the mortgage at 27 years of age.”
Starting again in life, though, was difficult. He had no plans. He would have continued if he could, but in the end it was just impossible. He had come through a six-month rehabilitation from an Achilles injury when the other Achilles ruptured off the bone at a Cork Con training session.
“Retiring from playing was a weight off my shoulders, but the subsequent years were horrible. Just the void between being a pro – or even playing sport – and having nothing, was cataclysmic. I had nothing ready, nothing prepared. There was nothing back then, no support for finishing up. It was the day the phone stopped ringing. And then the black dog in the corner [depression] was barking all the time.”
If I was showing someone how to lift in the lineout I’d nearly start crying
Around that time his Dad, Seán, died by suicide, a day after being released from care. Over time he had changed profoundly, in front of their eyes.
“He was a fitter in Beamish and Crawford. He could bend steel with his hands. He was very much a worker, a hard worker. He just crumbled away. I’m 99.9 per cent sure it was the drugs. Anti-depressants. They destroyed him. They tried this one and that didn’t work. Then they tried another one. Then they upped the dosage. To see the way he ended up. He had this stare that looked through you, not at you.”
Corkery tried to get on his feet. For two years he worked as a development officer with the Munster Branch of the IRFU, and after that he started coaching teams in his spare time. But in his day-to-day interactions with other people he was often ambushed by his emotions.
“No matter what I did, or what success I had [with teams], there was always just a deep, dark hole. There was no positivity. There was nothing there. My emotions, I couldn’t control them at all. If I was speaking to someone on the street, I’d feel my eyes well up and I’d say, ‘I have to head away there,’ or whatever.
“The coaching aspect of it really cemented with me that there’s something not right here. I couldn’t make a speech [to a team] without crying. You’re doing a prematch speech and you’re breaking down. If I was showing someone how to lift in the lineout I’d nearly start crying. It got worse and worse and worse and worse. I coached for 10 or 15 years, but two or three years ago I just said, ‘I can’t do it any more’. Even driving home in the car I’d start roaring crying because we lost or I might have had an argument with one of the players.”
A man in Cork Con called Hugh O’Donovan spotted something in Corkery and reached out. Corkery really only knew him to see and to exchange small-talk. He didn’t even know his second name. O’Donovan had retired from the Army after which he pursued a career in psychology and as a life coach.
“How are you?” was how the conversation started, simply, and whatever Corkery said in response, or whatever O’Donovan saw, it prompted a follow-up phone call. O’Donovan invited Corkery to his house for a 10-minute chat that went on for an hour-and-a-half. He had found somebody to listen and understand. To this day, that contact continues.
Very few things in his life, though, were simple. He went into business with his brother, but that ended badly in the brutal recession that followed the global banking crisis. He was out of work for a while until he got a job as a compliance manager with a major supermarket chain. But he couldn’t cope in that environment and after a year he left. During that time his feelings of depression grew more intense.
“Did I often think, driving to work, ‘I’ll pull the wheel to the side and just plough into something?’ Yeah, loads of times. I didn’t. I suppose you kept going for the family and the kids.
“It’s the questions, they just go around and round and round. You’re there, ‘Why am I like this? Why is this happening? Why can’t I come out of it?’ Did my quality of life disintegrate? Oh completely – completely and utterly.”
He was desperate for an explanation. He didn’t know where to look.
In 2020 it was announced that a new law firm, Ryland Legal Limited, had been established in London by a solicitor called Richard Boardman and was in the process of putting together a class action on behalf of rugby players who had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and other irreversible neurological impairments. That class action has grown to 380 former sportspeople, almost half of whom are retired rugby players.
Last year a Dublin-based law firm, Maguire McClafferty (in tandem with Rylands), picked up the thread on behalf of Irish players. It was put to Corkery that his long-term depression was consistent with symptoms exhibited by other former rugby players in the UK class action. He was invited to go for tests. What emerged was incontrovertible evidence of brain injury, caused by repeated blows to the head.
“I went for MRIs, neurological testing, psychological testing and the results came back positive for CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], and all those concussion-related injuries. From those results I was told I was going to have ongoing, long-term issues.”
Last summer, Corkery agreed to join the class action against the IRFU and World Rugby, along with Declan Fitzpatrick, who had played for Ulster and Ireland, and Ben Marshall, who had played for Leinster and Connacht, and who retired at just 26 years of age. In recent months they have been joined by Tony Buckley, the former Munster and Ireland prop.
Corkery, though, wanted the investigation to drill deeper. He sought an appointment for a MEG scan. No hospital in Ireland offered this service, and it was only available at three locations in the UK. After months of waiting he was given an appointment at the end of March in Birmingham. A 14-page report was produced by the specialist and about three weeks ago Corkery had a 90-minute conference call to explain the results in detail.
“I had gone for all the other tests, but I wanted to be certain. I wanted confirmation that there were issues there. I wasn’t going to do this [the class action] lightly. There are parts of my brain that are abnormal compared to the average person my age, as a result of impact. They can tell me that now. I have clinical proof that there is damage there.
“The doctor [in Birmingham] was able to show me the parts of my brain that had been injured through impact. I said is there any chance it could be genetics, or something else? He said, ‘Have you ever been in a car crash?’ I said no. He said, ‘Did you ever fall off a horse?’ No. ‘It has to be rugby.’
“I was telling him about my emotions and he said ‘That’s the part of the brain that was damaged’. He said, ‘See the red mark on the brain? That’s where you’re injured and this is going to have long-term effects’. He mentioned early-onset dementia. They can’t predict when.
What I worry about now is not knowing my kids in the future
“They can slow it down with drugs, but these drugs are very much in their infancy. There are a couple of trials going on at the moment. I’m not going down that route. If they could say to me, ‘Look, it’s going to have no [adverse] effect on you, it will slow everything down, and you’ll have a better quality of life,’ then I probably would. But I’m not becoming what we were in the 1990s, which was guinea pigs for the professional game. That’s what we were.”
Was there relief in knowing? “There was, yeah. It’s kind of sad to say, isn’t it? But it’s because you have an answer. The part of the brain that’s affected relates to the feelings I have.”
Being involved in the class action, though, has been rough. He has felt isolated from rugby people. He felt that people were suspicious about his motivation, and disparaging. He absolutely knew that people didn’t understand what he had suffered for more than 20 years, or what had been at the root of that pain.
“I feel like I’m being villainised by the whole rugby community because I’m taking this action. That I’m jumping on a bandwagon. Has that been expressed to me? Yeah, on social media – more by people that I don’t know than by people that I do know. Rugby gave me so many friends and some of those friends have now disappeared since the whole concussion thing broke and the names were publicised. They’re just gone.
“What I worry about now is not knowing my kids in the future. Being able to provide for them. It’s about safeguarding my future. Will I need care? [I worry about] what other people are thinking. There’s definitely a guilt thing there.
“Bringing down rugby is the last thing I want to do. I want to make it a safer and better place. I want people to enjoy it, like I enjoyed it in my younger days. Rugby has given me so much. I’ve seen the world because of rugby. I’ve had unbelievable experiences.
“I don’t want to scare anybody, but there is an educational piece that has to be done. It has to be rolled out for every player from the age of 10 – from when they can understand what concussion is and the consequences. And educate, educate, educate. Let the player understand. That’s the big thing – education.
“If someone said to me, ‘How would you fix the game?’ Put a line on every single jersey in the world, below the nipple line. That’s your tackle area. End of. You go above that, you’re gone. It’ll probably take a generation or two to learn that zone. For the referee it’s a case of, ‘Can I see the tackle line while a tackle is being made?’ Yes or no.”
He gets by, day to day. Years ago he was prescribed antidepressants, and he takes one a day, but no more than that. He thinks of his father and still blames the medication he took. One tablet is enough.
“Look, I take my tablet every day, and it helps. The reason I know it helps is how I feel if I forgot to take it. The dreams that I have on those nights are f***ing incredible.”
He spends hours working in the garden. Working with his hands. Being busy. It tires him out. Helps him sleep. “It’s my therapy,” he says.
Day by day.