Rugby and dementia: Frustrating lapses warned loved ones all was not well

By Dylan Cleaver

RUGBY AND DEMENTIA SERIES - OVERVIEW

The first time it happened, Brent Rowlands was a little confused and more than a little peeved. The second and third times, though still only in his early teens, he recognised there might be something wrong.

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There he'd be, dirty and sweating after rugby practice, waiting for his dad to pick him up.

There was dad, Bay of Plenty rugby legend Greg Rowlands, pulling up the driveway of their Te Puna home, alone.

"Mum would be like, 'Where's the kids?'" Brent, now 36, says. "I've got two sons ... and you don't forget to pick your kids up unless something's wrong. There was multiple instances of that."

How old was dad at the time?

"He would have been 50 at the most."

Greg Rowlands, who toured Argentina with the All Blacks in 1976, playing four games, is 68. He is in a Tauranga care home for dementia patients. He has, Brent believes, suffered a long, slow Alzheimer's decline for at least the past 18 years.

Clearing out some stuff from the family home recently, Brent came across letters his dad was essentially writing to himself, outlining how he was dealing with his symptoms and prognosis. It was tough reading.

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"From my early teens I knew something wasn't right. It wasn't just the forgetfulness, but also he'd become very reserved and withdrawn."

Rowlands' absent mind caused him issues at work, where he was a general manager for the Radio Network. About 10 years ago he left, forced on to the sickness benefit after failing to reach retirement age - a bitter blow for a proud man.

After that he didn't leave the house much, except for the footy on Saturday, where he would watch either his former Otumoetai Cadets or Bay of Plenty teams with old friends.

"He's got a group of close mates and they're really supportive, but it was hard for them. They knew long before the diagnosis that there was something wrong," Brent says. "Dad would go to the clubrooms and tell the same rugby stories over and over and they'd sit there listening again and again."

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Repetitive behaviour is one of the most common traits of Alzheimer's patients.

Even by the comparatively diminutive standards of the 1970s - Rowlands played his first game for Bay of Plenty in 1969 and his last in 1981 - he was a small player. Usually a goalkicking fullback, Rowlands was the sort of player that fate refused to protect. If there was a ruck, it'd be his head that would catch the stray knee. And as for that nose, well it was broken so often that he would eventually need sinus surgery just to allow him to breathe properly.

"They played so much, too. If you were on tour you'd take a head knock in the weekend and be playing a midweek game a few days later. There was no rest time," Brent says.

There is no history of dementia in Rowlands' family. They believe the knocks he took playing rugby were the reason he started showing symptoms so awfully young.

"We can pretty much guarantee it [Alzheimer's] came from rugby," he says. When Rowlands was still cognisant enough to discuss his situation, he confessed to the family that he wouldn't have changed a thing.

"He was adamant about it," Brent says. "Rugby was his life. If he had his time again, he'd do it all again."

It is an existential nightmare for Rowlands' children: Why was dad the one whose number was called?

"We are very proud of dad and he has created a legacy for the Rowlands family," says Brent, "but the price dad has had to pay for his love of rugby has cheated him out of his retirement and cheated his family of having a father and a grandfather.

"I've got two sons and they love their poppa to bits, but he doesn't know who they are."

Head-injured All Black had 'no regrets'

John Buxton never counted the number of times he got concussed playing rugby. To be perfectly frank, it wasn't really a "thing" when he made two test appearances for the All Blacks - against Australia in 1955 and a year later against the Springboks.

"I do know he had a couple of doozy head injuries during his career," his daughter, Anna Brealey, says. "I can remember him showing us a scar when we were children."

It was the invisible scars she thinks about now when she remembers her dad, who died in 2007 aged 73.

The Buxton siblings recalled their father retiring from rugby at 23 in part because of the head injuries.

He became prominent in the meat industry - his autobiography was titled Blood & Guts - but he was hit by a four-punch combination of ill health that badly affected his later life.

He contracted bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis and was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 52, Brealey says.

"Along with the Parkinson's came the dementia which was serious enough for him to have to retire from a successful business career at 60, well before he would have wanted to."

Buxton was then felled by depression which, along with the dementia, worsened significantly.

"As a family we have long wondered whether the head injuries in his early life contributed to the later brain-related illnesses," Brealey says.

"In his later years we asked him if he had regrets and would he have avoided rugby if he knew what was in store in years to come.

"Interestingly he said 'no regrets' and that he would do it all over again," his daughter says.

"The experience of being an All Black was that precious."

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
The Word
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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