To hell and back

JD Schickerling made his Super Rugby debut for the Stormers 546 days after breaking his neck in an U21 match. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.

JD Schickerling was 2mm away from being paralysed when he broke his neck during an U21 match for Western Province against the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on 30 August 2014. The then 19-year-old lock sustained the injury in the fourth minute of the match when he went up to take a shallow kick-off. Usually, his props would turn him in the air and they would set up the maul. On this occasion, though, he came straight down and had to tuck his head in. As he did so, Bulls lock Irne Herbst lowered his right shoulder, which collided with Schickerling’s head – causing two vertebrae in his neck to break – while the other lock, Marvin Orie, put Schickerling in a head clamp and took him to ground.

‘It happened so quickly that at first I didn’t know what was wrong,’ Schickerling tells SA Rugby magazine after a Stormers training session at the High Performance Centre in Bellville. ‘There was pain not only in my neck, but throughout my whole body. When the medical team turned me on to my back I felt a lot of pins and needles. I was scared because I didn’t know what was happening and I struggled to move.’

The medical team quickly stabilised Schickerling’s neck and put him on to a stretcher. While he was lying there, Herbst and Orie came over to find out how he was and apologise. Schickerling told them not to worry as it was a rugby accident and he was not angry with them (Orie, though, would receive a one-week suspension for his role in the incident).

Schickerling was carried off the field into a small medical room at Loftus and given something to ease the pain. His sister Margaret and her husband, who live in Pretoria and had been watching the game, joined him there. Margaret did her best to stay calm and composed although her brother could tell she was upset.

Schickerling was then taken to the ambulance, which drove him to the nearby Little Company of Mary Hospital. After Margaret had filled in the admittance paperwork, he had an MRI scan.

‘The doctor then came to see me and my sister,’ Schickerling recalls. ‘He told me I had broken the C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck and that I would need an emergency operation. I would not be paralysed, but the doctor said had the injury been 2mm closer to my spinal cord I would never have walked again. That gave me a big fright.’

In the bed next to Schickerling was a 16-year-old boy who had also broken his neck during a rugby match that day. The doctor later told Schickerling that his and the boy’s injuries had looked identical on the MRI scans. The boy, though, would be paralysed.

Schickerling was operated on that Saturday night, and when he woke up on the Sunday morning, his parents, Cornelia and Dave, were there, having been flown up from Villiersdorp (105km outside Cape Town) by the Western Province Rugby Football Union. 

The doctor then asked him if he wanted to play rugby again, because that would require a second operation to insert a plate at the back of his neck, and he did not hesitate to say yes.

Schickerling spent just over a week in hospital, during which time he experienced a range of emotions – frustration, disappointment, sadness, fear, anger and happiness (when he was told he would be able to play rugby again). After telling the doctor several times that he wanted to go home – ‘I really hate hospitals’ – he was finally cleared to fly back to Cape Town. Schickerling travelled in business class, which made it easier, and once he arrived at his parents’ house in Villiersdorp he had to lie down again. Then the 16-month rehabilitation process began.

‘I had been told I would be able to play rugby again, but feared I wouldn’t be the same player and wouldn’t be able to play professionally,’ he says. ‘The biggest challenge for me was to overcome that mindset and realise that what happened to me from here on would be up to me. I could either go through the motions or give 100% and get back to where I was. I decided on the latter. People often ask me how I did it … I think I was just emotionally strong throughout the process.’

The day after his second operation, Schickerling was visited by a physiotherapist, who helped him to sit up for a bit. It took him three or four days to start walking slowly again and he had to do specific exercises to get rid of the pins and needles in his fingers. After three months of physio, which helped to strengthen his neck, he was able to do some upper-body gym exercises.

‘It was tough at the beginning,’ admits Schickerling. ‘The whole Western Province U21 team and [coach] John Dobson came to visit me in Villiersdorp when I had just started to walk again and we would go out to eat and chat. It was great to see my friends again, but it was a frustrating time for me, because I felt like I had to start from scratch again. It was hard to go watch my teammates play, as I wanted to be on the field with them, but I was able to work through that and things got better.’

Schickerling started training with the Western Province U21 team last year as soon as he could take contact again and made his long-awaited return to the rugby field on 2 October, as a 55th-minute substitute against the Lions U21s at Ellis Park.

‘I was very excited and a bit nervous before the game,’ he says. ‘I had overcome most of my fear of taking contact again during the training sessions. Someone cleaned me out on my neck early in the match, which was a good thing because then I knew everything was fine. I didn’t hold anything back in contact; I decided what would happen would happen.’

Schickerling’s comeback was completed when he made his Super Rugby debut as a 75th-minute replacement against the Bulls at Newlands on 27 February and received a huge ovation from the crowd of 40 000. With his first touch of the ball, he was high-tackled by Bulls lock Grant Hattingh, which upset and angered his mother Cornelia but didn’t bother him too much.

‘It was an amazing feeling to run on to the field; I can’t describe it,’ he says. ‘I was a bit nervous beforehand, because it was against the Bulls, and I had suffered the neck injury against the Bulls U21s. But I decided it was my time again, and I was going to go full out. It was a great day.’

VIDEO: How Schickerling's neck was broken

– This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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