Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

A smoothie operator: Hoeata's journey back from concussion

By Dylan Cleaver

Over the past year, the Herald has been investigating the potential link between head injuries suffered in rugby and long-term cognitive difficulties. Dylan Cleaver talks to a player who pulled the plug on his career after a season blurred by concussion.

Riki Hoeata would rather not be talking about this. Handed a better set of circumstances he'd be talking about the next step in his rugby career.

He'd be preparing for the upcoming Super Rugby season. He'd be wondering, perhaps, if there was still hope that a 29-year-old with the ability to play the hybrid lock-flanker role could find a home at the highest level, or perhaps there'd be a club in Europe or Japan that could offer some post-career financial breathing space.

But he's not talking about that. He's chatting instead about why he has turned his back on the sport he loved, and the business venture he hopes will fill that void.

RUGBY AND DEMENTIA SERIES - OVERVIEW

Hoeata played his last game of rugby in the final game of Taranaki's 2015 season.

He shouldn't have played that game. He shouldn't have played that season.

At the start of the season he had been doing a tackling drill in training. As he went down, another player who was coming in to "clean out" planted his knee into the back of his head. It hurt, but it didn't knock him out.

In hindsight, it might have been better if it did.

"Someone asked me if I felt all right and I said, 'Yeah, I'm sweet'," Hoeata recalls.

He wasn't sweet, but like many elite sportsmen and women, particularly those who play contact sports, Hoeata had an in-built aversion to showing weakness.

"I put pressure on myself to perform," he says.

"I was coming back from a broken arm and wanted to make an impact."

Greg Smith, the former Waikato hooker who now works in sports science human performance, articulated this phenomenon perfectly in a piece for the Herald, when he wrote: "I had told myself that I was invincible. Rugby was my identity and I derived self-worth out of being Greg Smith the rugby player."

Smith retired at 30 when his symptoms, including partial seizures, started to scare him.

Over the past year, the Herald has been investigating the potential link between head injuries suffered in rugby and long-term cognitive difficulties.

Taranaki's Riki Hoeata is tackled during ITM Cup Rugby. Photo/ Photosport
Taranaki's Riki Hoeata is tackled during ITM Cup Rugby. Photo/ Photosport

In March last year it was revealed that at least five of the Taranaki Ranfurly Shield squad of 1964 had died or were suffering from dementia-related illnesses, which the families believed could have been the result of multiple concussions suffered in their playing days.

Four of the 1967 All Blacks that toured the UK had suffered the same fate, including legendary flanker Waka Nathan.

There is a growing suite of evidence that points to concussion and sub-concussive blows as a cause of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease discovered post-mortem in many retired NFL players. New Zealand Rugby has commissioned research to determine whether rugby players were more likely to be afflicted with dementia in later life.

"It scares me now reading about some of the retired rugby players for sure, but at the time I didn't realise how bad concussion was."

Hoeata would play the remainder of the 2015 season, kidding himself that a more relaxed training schedule and rest between games would mitigate his own worrying symptoms.

He was constantly fatigued. His ability to concentrate had evaporated.

"I was living in a fog.

"We would have whiteboard sessions and I would literally sit in the back of the room and hope nobody asked me a question because it was all going over my head."

Riki Hoeata talks about living with the effects of concussion. Photo / Mark Dwyer
Riki Hoeata talks about living with the effects of concussion. Photo / Mark Dwyer

Worse, the symptoms weren't easing.

He couldn't hold conversations. The ability of his brain to process even the simplest conversations seemed to be set to slow-motion.

He removed himself from social situations whenever possible and even now, nearly two years after the event, endures tough days. "Your brain feels like it's getting overloaded," he says.

"Quite often I will have days where I can't find the words, go blank mid-conversation and start stuttering."

By the end of the season, Hoeata reached the point when the symptoms were, to use his word, unbearable.

The rugby dream died.

"I was totally gutted."

To this day his exercise is limited to walking and even that is followed with the need for a lie down. He uses blue-light blockers when using computer screens and on his worst days being in the light outside can cause headaches and dizziness.

His ability to work was severely compromised. He couldn't pull normal shifts.

He had to think outside the square and to that end has started a smoothie business.

"The idea for Craft Smoothie came from my personal battle with balancing a nutritious diet with a busy schedule.

"I found smoothies to be most convenient way for me to get a decent breakfast.

"Too many people I knew were skipping breakfast or making poor meal choices."

I was living in a fog. We would have whiteboard sessions and I would literally sit in the back of the room and hope nobody asked me a question because it was all going over my head.

Hoeata is an expert in poor choices but he has a good excuse. After the knee that caused him such grief, he became a part of a vicious circle. The sensible thing would have been to remove himself from the game then and there, but his damaged brain wasn't feeding him the right information.

"Because a part of my brain was injured, I was making bad decisions. I kept thinking it was going to come right.

"I now understand the connection between a brain injury and my decision-making processes. For someone who was well educated about how to recognise and manage concussion symptoms, I wasn't thinking rationally.

"This is why it's so important to have people around you who can pick up on signs of concussion."

Rugby recognises this. It might have been slow to turn the light on but there can be no question that it is moving in the right direction in its concussion protocols and the stricter interpretation of the tackle laws.

Players are no longer in the dark about the potential dangers of brain injuries, even ones that do not appear traumatic at the time.

In another era, Hoeata might not have possessed the wherewithal to walk away when he did. Throughout his predicament he says Taranaki Rugby has been hugely supportive and have looked at ways of keeping him in the game through coaching.

He might not feel this way now, but when he's old and happy he might just consider himself to be one of the lucky generation. The ones who cottoned on just in time.

"It's a funny one, I never really understood what it was to have a bad concussion until I had one myself. I used to think I've taken some big knocks and felt dazed before, but ... it's hard to understand without being in the situation yourself."

- NZ Herald

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