At the start of January 2020, Will Hurrell and his Bristol teammates travelled to play Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. The centre’s career began at Leicester, but after only making a handful of appearances he left and spent the best part of a decade performing excellently for clubs in the Championship, before getting promoted with Bristol.
He was excited for the game. His Bears side were beginning to build something special under coach Pat Lam and they travelled to the Tigers as the favourites.
After conceding two early tries, Bristol were behind after twenty minutes. The hosts had real impetus and were threatening the Bristol line again. Argentine second row Tomas Lavanini ran a short line off scrum half Ben Youngs and Hurrell tried to combat this.
He sprinted up off the line fast and planned to make a momentum changing tackle. He lined up Lavanini on his left shoulder but at the last moment the Argentinian international shifted his body weight.
Hurrell still made the tackle, but his head was trapped between his right shoulder and his opponent. He span off, falling to the floor while clutching his head. As he slowly regained his feet, the doctors rushed to him.
“I don’t really remember much of it,” says Hurrell “but I do remember being on the floor for a few minutes and feeling a bit funny.
“From watching it back I do look a bit all over the place, but I carried on and it was only when I came off that things deteriorated.”
Hurrell says he ‘carried on’ as a throw away remark. It is anything but. He was not subbed off for a further half an hour and it was a tactical decision rather than a medical one.
“When I came off, I just started pouring with sweat. Obviously, I was playing, but I was literally pouring and it was dripping off me and into my hand.
“I went into the back with the doctor and I started speaking gibberish, slurring my words and then I found I couldn’t stand up. I remember all the medical teams from both sides just staring at me as if I was speaking a foreign language, I was slurring that much.
“Then I started throwing up and that’s when I was taken to A&E near the ground.”
After a rough night in A&E with further vomiting, struggling to stand and feeling very hazy, he had a CT scan in the morning. It came back clear.
His parents still felt there was something wrong and as they still lived near Leicester, Hurrell went back to their house. He did not leave for about a month, sleeping for roughly 16 hours a day and when he did finally return to Bristol he went for further assessment.
“I had a couple of scans and that was when they told me I’d had a serious brain bleed and that it was a stroke.
“I saw a sports head injury specialist and he said that if I had another hit like that I’d be looking at paralysis, memory loss, being in a wheelchair. He then said that if it was really bad he said that it could be fatal.”
The decision was pretty clear, Hurrell retired in mid-April but he still struggled with the decision.
“It’s tough because I would have played till 60 if I could, and I thought I had another six or seven years in me. I thought I was getting to the top of my game and it was everything I worked for.
“I’m adjusting but I still struggle with it now, the other day when the European games were cancelled I was in floods of tears because even watching rugby is my outlet.
“I can’t explain it, it’s worse than losing someone for me.”
Although he still struggles adjusting to life after playing, Hurrell acknowledges that it is slowly becoming easier and lockdown ending will only help this process.
Sadly some of the longer term impacts of his stroke might not recover as quickly.
“My memory is still horrific. I have to write everything down and if I don’t set a reminder there’s a good chance I’ll forget. My reading and writing has gone a bit funny, there are certain times when I just can’t spell a word that I know I can.
“One of the biggest things though is that I’ve started having panic attacks which I never used to have. When they come on they wipe me out for the day, all my energy goes and I get anxious. I am nervous about managing repercussions down the line, that at 40 or 50 I might not be able to look after my kids.”
Despite everything there is one aspect of his life that he still loves.
A self-confessed rugby nause, Hurrell has begun his coaching career alongside an online leadership course at Harvard Business School.
He has already been in touch with a star-studded array of coaches, including England boss Eddie Jones, and had begun coaching down at Plymouth before the country re-entered lockdown.
“I probably didn’t appreciate how beneficial I found it until it went, but I just love it. There’s a great group of lads down there and I love passing on everything I’ve learnt to the boys [at Plymouth].
“I remember watching them and thinking to myself how sharp they looked and how much they’d developed. I was just really proud. I definitely see coaching as a big part of my future.”
As the interview draws to a close, Hurrell is posed with one final question. Given everything he now knows about his own situation and that of others, if he could go back to the start of his career would he still have played rugby?
Without a moment’s hesitation he replies.
“Yeah mate. Absolutely.
“You could have told me that 50% of people die playing rugby and I still would have played.
“I write this blog for the Plymouth Herald about the memories I have from rugby and as I was sitting down going through them, I realised how great it was. I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, UK mental health charity Mind maintain a list of helplines and services.
And if you’re reading this from outside the UK, you can find a service near you at CheckPoint.Org