Former Leeds captain Stevie Ward has revealed the emotional moment he told close friend Rob Burrow that he was having to retire from professional sport.
Ward walked away from rugby league earlier this year aged just 27 as he struggled with neurological issues connected to concussion.
Six months after announcing his retirement, the two-time Grand Final winner continues to suffer with migraines, nausea and dizziness related to concussions he suffered in his final year as a player.
Burrow was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2019 and Ward says his inspirational friend’s journey has had a major impact on his own life. Speaking to host George Riley on the official SOM Talks podcast from award-winning mental fitness charity State of Mind Sport, Ward opened up about his own very difficult period of transition, which began when he told Burrow last October of his intention to retire.
“That was a time I was just starting to say it out loud,” he admits. “It didn’t feel real. I was saying it out loud but it wasn’t registering that I was saying it.
‘Rob was saying it’s the right decision and it’s not worth it, and for a long time I was saying it but not believing it. I had to start saying it and coming to terms with it then. Especially saying it to Rob, someone you’ve shared those experiences with, and who knows the length of my career, and what I’ve been through and what I’ve done and not done. Saying to him I’m having to stop, as he had to, it was like saying goodbye to something that I wasn’t sure I was ready to say goodbye to.”
Ward says he has no regrets about devoting his early life to a sport that has left both physical and mental damage, but admits he is now grieving rugby league.
“I’ve been grieving the game. Grieving the mission of what was there before me.
“I got plunged into something that just wasn’t what I expected or desired and that’s what sometimes can happen in life. You get presented with something completely out of the blue. Another challenge you didn’t expect.
“Grieving that job, that role. James Graham put it pretty well. He said he’s probably not going to miss playing the game but he’s going to miss the man he was playing that game. “
Speaking on episode 4 of the Transitions series of SOM Talks, Ward says he believes a career curtailed by illness and punctuated by injury has allowed him to build resilience through adversity.
“It’s a big thing, self-doubt and self-sabotage. That’s when I woke up. To acknowledge self-doubt and self-sabotage and be aware of the triggers. I understood and saw that my mind could sometimes be my worst advisor and worst enemy. What can I do to make that unnecessary suffering less and less and go away? Accepting how you can feel takes you a long way to piece of mind, accepting situations and thoughts that you have, being aligned with your purpose, knowing your values and acting them out. I’ve been doing that as my mental health training regime.”
Ward now runs his own men’s mental fitness brand Mantality with the aim of bringing men together in boosting their wellbeing. “I meditate every day, practice gratitude every day, and created Mantality to have a group of men on that same wavelength.
“My ‘why’ has shifted a lot in my life and that has had to do a lot with the injuries and turmoil I’ve gone through. I was on a bit of a cycle. I couldn’t really change that cycle. So I had to change myself.”
SOM Talks is the official podcast from award-winning mental health and fitness charity State of Mind Sport.
Hosted by George Riley, each episode explores themes in line with the unprecedented and unique challenges that we are individually and collectively facing right now.
The inaugural series explores Transitions – the mental health challenges associated with major life and career changes.
SOM Talks is available on all major podcast platforms.