England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, but Steve Thompson doesn’t remember. The team was invited to a reception with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to congratulate them on their win, but even looking at a photo of that day doesn’t bring back memories. In Head On: Rugby, dementia and me (BBC Two), Thompson explained that he has early-onset dementia, likely caused by a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to the tens of thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head he received during his playing career. .
It was a sad sight to see Thompson going through his medals and memorabilia. It was much sadder, however, to see him cook for his children—still in his early forties—and forget his daughter’s name.
There was something heartbreaking about seeing this great torso of a man who lost his grip and hearing him speak with admirable honesty about his struggles and fears. At the same time, the lack of support Thompson was offered by the rugby authorities was staggering. I won’t bother repeating the statement at the end of the program by the RFU because it was so inadequate. Thompson claimed the sport’s governing bodies had even stopped sending him an annual birthday message when he began campaigning to raise awareness of brain injury.
Rugby gave so much to Thompson, who had had a tough upbringing but found his salvation in the sport. “What’s been the hardest thing for me,” he said, “is that the rugby community that took me in and took care of me when I was a kid is now turning against me.”
Not the whole community. More than 200 former players joined him in a lawsuit against the authorities, who require a trust fund to be established to fund their future care. Thompson’s former teammates, Ben Cohen and Lewis Moody, appeared. Moody was upset when she discussed the likely outcome for Thompson: admission to a care home.
It was impossible to look at Thompson’s circumstances – a modest house, a job fixing the water pipe (arranged by a friend after Thompson could no longer handle his office job) without comparing them to those of football players. Of course the Premier League is awash with money, but Thompson’s lack of financial security – with four young children to support – after so many years in the professional game was striking.
“I’m going to forget so much, maybe even my family, but I don’t want my family to forget who I am,” Thompson said. “Every week I feel a little more slipping.” But his legacy will encompass this brave film.