It took a while, but Kevin Hartie has rediscovered his love of rugby union after the sport left him facing the darkest moments of his life.
With this year’s Six Nations tournament in full swing, the 39-year-old is avidly following the fortunes of England – something he doubted he would ever want to do again.
“It was palpable that something serious had happened, and in that brief moment, my life changed forever”
It’s now 16 years since Hartie, then a talented 23-year-old playing for Campion Old Boys in Havering, was left paralysed for life by a tackle that, as he recalls, was nothing out of the ordinary.
“The injury occurred during open play towards the end of a cup match,” he told me. “I was playing on the wing and caught the ball from a clearance kick deep in my own half. Looking to attack, I ran back with the ball and was tackled on the halfway line. It was a fairly innocuous challenge.
“I’d experienced many harder and tougher tackles than the one that injured me. However, on this occasion I fell awkwardly, rolling head first and twisting my neck. I fractured one of the vertebrate in my spine, sustaining a serious spinal cord injury.”
“I immediately lost movement and sensation in my body and was unable to move my legs and arms. It was palpable that something serious had happened, and in that brief moment, my life changed forever.”
Not long after, Hartie was told that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even 16 years down the line, with no movement in his legs and a very limited amount in his arms and upper body, he admits it still hasn’t completely sunk in.
“Prior to the injury I was very fit and active, playing various sports and enjoying a full social life,” he said.
“I don’t think you ever fully come to terms with it, as there are challenges to face every day. However, over time you adapt to life in a wheelchair. It was very difficult in the early days and for the first few years I struggled to adjust.”
Hartie admits the support of family, friends and his former team-mates helped to get him through some very tough times.
“In the early years, that support was vital because my existence had changed and my life was in turmoil,” he said. “But I had people I could trust and rely on.
“As I recovered, my family also felt better. In many ways, it brought us closer together”
“I was visited regularly in hospital by everyone which helped during that difficult period. Financially, my team-mates have supported me by raising money over the years. This means I can buy equipment and have physiotherapy which make my life easier.”
Despite the strain that his life-changing injury put on his family and those closest to him, Hartie believes it also had a strangely positive effect.
“Spinal cord injury impacts not only the individual who sustains it, but also their family and friends. As difficult as it has been for my family, they have always been supportive and as I recovered they also felt better. In many ways it brought the family closer together.”
For a long time following his injury, Hartie found watching rugby too upsetting. It had been his sporting passion since childhood.
“My injury was in open play from a tackle that wasn’t illegal or dirty. It was just bad luck”
“I’d played from the age of eight, through school and university. I loved playing for both the physical and social aspects. It was in me, really, so I struggled to watch the sport for many years.
“But after a time, I started watching it again and I enjoy it as much now as before the injury. I regularly watch live rugby and go to many England matches, home and away.”
Whether rugby union should do more to prevent injuries such as the one Hartie suffered is a perennial topic of debate in the sport, but he insists that his accident was just unfortunate.
“My injury was in open play from a tackle that wasn’t illegal or dirty. It was just bad luck. Rugby is a tough contact sport, although a lot has changed over the years to limit the number of serious injuries. Unfortunately, on rare occasions, they will always be a part of the game.”
Today, Hartie maintains a positive outlook on his future. Having gone back to university, first to do a Masters degree and then PhD, he is now embarking on a career in psychology.
He does, however, think of what might have been – and still might be.
“The injury has stopped me from having a family of my own. Although it’s not a barrier to forming relationships and having children, it hasn’t happened yet.
“I feel this wouldn’t have been the case had I not been injured, but who knows? Anything could’ve happened. Things might change in the future.
“I had hoped to travel the world and live and work abroad. This wasn’t to be. However, I’m happy to be at the start of a new and interesting career as a psychologist and looking forward to what the future holds.”