Mother talks of son lost to rugby

By Dylan Cleaver

Ben Robinson's parents say a guide on on-field injury is ignored, even after their tragedy. Photo / Supplied
Ben Robinson's parents say a guide on on-field injury is ignored, even after their tragedy. Photo / Supplied

During a four-part series on the dangers posed by concussion in sport, run in the Herald last month, we asked for people to share their stories and received several emails. One from a concerned parent who has watched a teammate of her son get knocked out several times only to keep coming back under the exhortations of his father. There was another from a man who was concussed several times in his career, who now has Parkinson's-like symptoms and cannot help but wonder whether the two are linked.

But nothing quite stopped us in our tracks like the following email:

"My name is Steven Walton. I am the stepfather of Benjamin Robinson, the 14-year-old schoolboy from Northern Ireland, who died in January 2011 after a succession of concussive injuries. I am married to Benjamin's mother, Karen. The last year and a half has been unbelievably hard ..."

And so began a lengthy missive that made it clear his reasons for believing the International Rugby Board had failed to mitigate safely against the associated risks of concussion "despite what is on paper a good policy but not adhered to".

It also urged the Herald to talk to Karen.

We did. This is a mother's story.

"January 29, 2011, will be my yesterday, always," says Karen Walton from her home in Carrickfergus, just out of Belfast.

It is 20 months since Benjamin died after suffering a series of head injuries in a schoolboy game. Time does not heal, but it anaesthetises. I believe I will see him again. He's gone ahead to make things okay for his mother".

The Waltons were watching the day Benjamin received his fatal injuries. While he officially died on January 31 - when his organs were taken for donation and his life support switched off - his mother felt him "leave" as she held him on the side of the field as they waited for an ambulance.

"At that moment I had this surreal, calm moment that it was done, it was over. I stood up and backed away from Benjamin and that fleeting moment of acceptance passed and was replaced by sheer panic."

The exact events of that Saturday are subject to a coronial inquest. What is certain is that Benjamin Robinson played centre for Carrickfergus Grammar against the heavily favoured Dalriada School. Before the match finished he had suffered catastrophic head injuries that would prove fatal. By the time he reached hospital his brain had swollen so much it had no place to go but down into his spinal column. On the Glasgow Coma scale - which measures eye, verbal and motor response on a line between 3 for worst-case scenario and 15 - Benjamin scored 3. He was in a deep coma and there was nothing to operate on. Mrs Walton could do nothing but pray for a miracle that mother's intuition told her was never going to come.

"My life pretty much fell apart then," she says.

What is also certain is that the Waltons have spent too much time since then beating themselves up about the things they didn't do that day - that is to say, drag Benjamin from the field as soon as they noticed he was struggling. A friend has testified that Benjamin had told him during the game that he didn't know what was happening. Others have said they saw him clutching his head before playing on.

State pathologist Jack Crane told the inquest he believes Benjamin died from second-impact syndrome. Neurologist Stephen Cooke said it was a "possibility" Ben had played most of the match with concussion.

"They say nobody dies from concussion and that is just wrong," Mrs Walton says. "It's the wrong attitude to take."

It mirrors the attitude that the family of All Black Nicky Allen faced after the talented first five-eighth died after a traumatic head injury during a club game in Wollongong, Australia. After he had spoken out about the risks of concussion, brother Rob Allen told the Herald he received a call from someone at the NZRU informing him that Nicky had not died from concussion. It appeared that somewhere in the fog, semantics had taken precedence over safety.

"There's an old-school mentality in rugby that you suck it up and carry on," Mrs Walton says.

That was one of the things that held her back from simply walking on to the field and taking her son off. At one point, when her distress was becoming obvious, she was told to calm down.

"I beat myself up about this," she says. "I should have gone on but I was surrounded by people with 20 years' rugby experience telling me he'd be okay. Was I intimidated? Yes. Did I run the risk of embarrassing my son in a very big game? Yes."

There are times when Mrs Walton's voice feels like it is starting to float into the ether when she describes the events of that day and the impact that losing Ben has had on her life and others who knew and loved him.

She is a police officer but hasn't been back since the tragedy. The way the initial investigation into Benjamin's death was carried out made her ashamed to call herself a policewoman. The inquest has been adjourned while a new investigating officer seeks more witnesses.

At the heart of the matter is whether referee David Brown and coach Neal Kennedy had done enough to protect Benjamin after his initial injury, or more pointedly, had the tools to protect him.

Mr Walton is adamant more could have been done, not just on the day, but in educating referees and coaches.

Despite what on paper appears to be a good pitchside assessment policy, the Waltons believe the International Rugby Board do nothing to ensure, at levels below the elite, that protocols are being adhered to. The IRB might trumpet its involvement with the 2008 Zurich Consensus on Concussion in Sport but the Waltons noted that four years on, players on Benjamin's team still had no familiarisation with the symptoms of concussion and the risks of playing through such injuries.

"It speaks volumes that pupils involved in a fatality know nothing four years after the IRB is praising itself for its proactive approach," Mr Walton says.

Most worrying for them was that neither Brown nor Kennedy in 2011 had heard of the Pocket 2 SCAT guide for players and coaches to assist with concussion management, which had been in circulation since 2008.

"The referee in charge of Ben's game in January 2011 was only made aware of the guide in August, 2012, and was and still is unaware of the application of the new policy as directed by the IRB in May 2011, 16 months ago," says Mr Walton.

The couple differ over their vision for the sport moving forward: Steven says you cannot take the physicality out of rugby; Karen says unless you can guarantee that concussion protocols can be adhered to, schoolboy rugby should be non-contact.

"People have told me I'm blowing it out of all proportion ... but you're sending your sons out on a Saturday into the care of people who don't know their own health and safety guidelines."

What they agree 100 per cent on is they want Benjamin's story told around the world.

"I don't want anybody else to have to go through this, because it's hell," says Mrs Walton.

Mr Walton noted the bitter irony that in December 2010, the Irish Times ran a story about Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman who admitted he played through repeated head injuries for fear of his place. The report issued a warning to the Irish Rugby Football Union that if it did not address the issue of concussion it could be dealing with a fatality.

"One month later our son Benjamin was dead."

- NZ Herald

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