Former Bok prop Julian Redelinghuys’ life changed when he suffered a serious neck injury in a 2016 Currie Cup game. This is the story of how his career crumbled and how his life was rebuilt. Interview by RYAN VREDE.
What did you feel and what went through your head after suffering your neck injury?
You know what pins and needles feels like? I had that throughout my whole body. Then it starts to feel like electricity is coursing through your body. The worst pain was in my left shoulder. That eventually felt like fire. At first, I thought it was concussion, nothing too serious. But I could hear everyone around me. In a previous head knock, I hadn’t been able to hear people, so I knew it was serious. I tried to stand up but my legs wouldn’t move and my left arm was lame. That’s when I just went quiet and started praying. At the Lions we have a medical confession. One of the parts of it goes: ‘Everything that happens to me, happens for me …’ I was reciting that and praying. I was helpless and my prayer came from that place. But at the same time I wasn’t panicking. I truly felt a sense of peace.
Did your perception of time change while you were lying there?
I went into a bubble. Everything around me was drowned out. In that sense, time slowed. I was thinking about a lot of things all at once. My family was top of mind. My wife was going to give birth to our first child any day. When I saw her in the hospital, I touched her tummy and asked if everything’s OK. I was worried about the stress this caused her and I thought about what this injury could mean for us as a family. Also, I knew the injury was bad, but I’d hoped it wasn’t going to stop me from jolling with the Boks on the end of year tour, which was two weeks away [laughs].
Did you ever get to a point where you accepted that you may be paralysed?
I always hoped I wouldn’t be paralysed. But that’s all I had – hope. I never surrendered that hope and when I got a little feeling back in my legs while in the ambulance, that stirred more hope.
Describe the moment the doctors gave you the all-clear.
There wasn’t a moment like that. It took three months for my left arm to get back to normal functioning. As long as there was progress, I stayed positive. I had a crisis of confidence in the days after the incident when the doctors looked at my scans. They looked very concerned but they didn’t talk to me about it. In hindsight, I’m grateful they didn’t because when I healed completely, the doctor told me in 80% of the cases like mine, the person’s arm is partially or completely paralysed. A lot of the time we limit ourselves based on what others tell us our limitations are. I never thought for a minute that my arm was going to stay paralysed.
You’d earlier had a spinal fusion. While you were lying in that hospital bed, did you ever regret going back to play?
Not at all. I was desperate to play after the injury you mention. Things were going well. All my dreams were starting to come true. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wanted to play again, and I never thought about it after the second one.
In which significant ways is the man lying lame on the grass different from the one who is speaking now?
In many ways. You realise what’s really important in life. I was forced out of my comfort zone and that gave me opportunities to grow as a man in many areas of my life. It gave me more gratitude for things I took for granted. Look, I miss playing rugby, I really do. But when I’m playing with my kids, that all fades away.
How do you manage to deal with the feelings of ‘what if?’, especially since the eight Tests you played for the Boks were very good?
I think it’s good to go there, to confront that head on. I was sitting in the stands when the Boks played Australia at Ellis Park in July, and after the anthem I turned to my wife and said: ‘This year could have been the year I played in a World Cup’. That hurt. In fact, the Wednesday before my second spinal injury, I got a call from my agent to say that my new Bok contract was ready to be signed and it ran until after the World Cup. But then I catch myself and remember I could have been paralysed. Who knows, maybe what’s in store for me is far better than what could have been had I kept playing.
Someone once asked footballer Stan Collymore whether, given his talent, he regretted playing just three times for England. His response was no, because three times is more than he ever thought he’d play for England. Does that sentiment resonate with you?
A bit, although playing for the Boks was always the dream. A lot of things have to go right for you to play for the Springboks. So in that context, I’m happy with my eight caps, although I wish I could have played more. But I played eight Tests for one of the greatest teams in the history of sport. That’s an incredible achievement.
Rugby has a reputation as a game that is underpinned by a toxic brand of masculinity. There’s no question that your mental health would have been affected by this, but I’m not sure if the environment is conducive to players speaking about mental health issues. Is it?
This is a tough one because there’s no question that there’s an old-school brand of masculinity in the game. ‘Cowboys don’t cry’ and all of that. But to a certain extent you need that to survive and thrive in that environment. So I’m torn on this one. There’s definitely movement towards a focus on mental well-being. I can tell you that more and more players are making use of the MyPlayers hotline that was set up to help them deal with the mental, emotional and psychological demands of the game. I’ve never felt I’ve needed professional help. I said earlier that I’m generally quite an optimistic guy with a positive outlook on life, so I don’t get too down. But I’m not discounting the value of mental health. It is critical that we continue to push it as a massive help to professional players. If you bury all your feelings, it is going to show at some point and in ways that could be destructive. There are too many former players suffering from mental-health issues that could’ve been dealt with if the stigma wasn’t there when they were playing.
Does your injury make you think differently about the safety of the game?
I’ve looked at similar situations to the one that ended my career and the player involved was fine. My previous injury undoubtedly played a role. I don’t think that the game overall is hazardous. Technique is critical in staying safe, especially at scrum time because of the force your neck absorbs. So technique is a focus of my coaching at the Lions. I’ve got two girls, but if I had a son I’d encourage him to be more fearless and physical in contact than me, but also teach him the importance of technique.
You’ve been working as a scrum coach at the Lions. Do you want to build a career as a coach?
I never had any desire to coach while I was playing but that’s changed a lot in the last two and a bit years since the injury. I love the technical side of the game, and I’ve also developed a passion for the commercial aspects of it, which Lions CEO Rudolf Straeuli has taught me a lot about. But more than anything, I love helping people build the best versions of themselves. That means I don’t only want to help them become better rugby players, but better husbands for their wives or better dads to their kids or better businessmen. That fulfils me.
*This Q&A first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine