Ged Stokes has been more than just an influential part of Ben Stokes' life. As a father, he guided him not only in life but down the path to becoming one of the best cricketers in the world. Now, Ben is taking a break from the game to spend time with Ged as he battles brain cancer. Patrick McKendry talked with the Stokes family to learn more about the league legend, coach and family patriarch.
Gerard "Ged" Stokes played his last game of rugby league on Saturday, June 15, 1991. He was 36, received a late call-up for a lower-grade club match in Christchurch, and, Stokes being Stokes, put his hand up despite the punishment he had already put his body through over two decades.
The game was at Centennial Park, a suburban ground near the foot of the Port Hills, which rise suddenly like a bookend at the eastern edge of the city before dropping into Lyttelton Harbour.
Stokes and Deb, his wife of nearly 30 years, know exactly when and where the indestructible forward last ran with the ball in anger because their son Ben was 11 days old. Stokes' teammates watched her wrestle the pram out of the car and make her way to a worryingly still and silent field.
"All of the players were too scared to come and see me," Deb says with a clarity undimmed by 29 years. Eventually one of them did. "Oh, Ged's just been taken to hospital."
Hospitals have become a recurring theme in Ged's life.
Born in Christchurch with West Coast heritage, which partly explains his desire to play league despite boarding at rugby school St Bede's College, Stokes had run the ball up in his no-nonsense style and straight into a defender's forearm, which jerked his head backwards and sent him face-first into a freezing puddle of mud.
He didn't lose consciousness and, knowing something was badly wrong, was able to shout, "Don't move me."
In another fortunate twist, an ambulance carrying a trauma team was driving past at that moment and he was safely taken to hospital. His broken neck – two fractured vertebrae – went undiagnosed for nearly a year, however, during which time the plasterer and builder was up and down ladders and Lord knows what else.
"They knew there wasn't something quite right but they sent him home," Deb says. "It wasn't until nearly a year later that he went to a specialist. It was our last appointment and just before we were leaving he said, 'Do you have any tingling in your arms?'" Gerard said, 'Yeah, I have it all the time.' Days later he was in surgery."
Ben Stokes returning to New Zealand for family reasons
Rushed to hospital: Ben Stokes' Kiwi father in critical condition
That was the worst one, but the man who represented Canterbury and New Zealand in every age group including the Kiwis six times (though never in a test, an omission that irks a little) has also broken his jaw and his nose. He's fractured his skull three times. Almost inevitably, he has a bad hip and bad knee.
What should be the longest finger on his left hand was amputated at the first knuckle after he dislocated it, a ruthlessly pragmatic operation which is recognised by Ben, who grew up to be England's cricket captain and one of the best all-rounders in the world, with a special three-finger salute whenever he celebrates an on-field milestone. Ged had it removed so he could keep playing without the fuss of having to look after a dislocation.
James, Ged's oldest son and Ben's half-brother, was always aware of his dad's toughness on the playing field and, as a kid, admits to being worried about what sort of state Dad would end up in at the weekend – Kiwi club league matches in the 1970s and 80s were not for the faint-hearted.
"I remember him smashing the ball up without any care for his body," James says. "He got a few uppercuts here and there and was known for his hard, almost brutal, type of play.
"So I used to get very nervous when he stepped out on the field, knowing he would get a stitch or two, or a black eye, in most games."
A hint of a smile comes to Ged's face as he sits in his armchair and, covered by a blue blanket in the lounge room of the Halswell, Christchurch, home he shares with Deb, recalls the days before he took up coaching; a journey which took them to the United Kingdom and put a 12-year-old Ben on the path to cricket stardom.
Remembering the good old days can do that – they are almost always less complicated than the present, and time can dull most pain into near insignificance.
He had some good times as a coach – from the early days with Canterbury, Wellington, New Zealand "A" and his professional gig with Workington Town in the north of England, along with a brief and challenging, albeit rewarding, stint with the Serbian national side - and a few tough times too. While coaching isn't as hard on the body, it can be ruthless in a different way.
But Ged, whose high pain threshold and incredible stoicism allowed him to carry on regardless no matter the beatings life handed him, wonders whether all of those head knocks in the days before concussion protocols, the days when it was acceptable to remain on the field despite being dazed and clearly not well, when a shake of the head and a splash of a water bottle was the only treatment, may have contributed to his condition now.
It started with a severe headache when the family was in Johannesburg last Christmas watching Ben represent England in a four-test series against South Africa.
Six months earlier Ben had helped his side win the World Cup at Lord's against New Zealand in one of the most dramatic one-day matches in history. His man-of-the-match performance in the tied game meant he was a shoo-in for the coveted BBC sports personality of the year and he was also honoured with an OBE for services to the sport.
Now, sitting in the armchair in which he watched Ben send one nation into euphoria and another into a uniquely painful sorrow, the 64-year-old Ged can't remember much about being admitted to hospital in South Africa on December 23, three days before the first test at the Centurion ground.
The headache was a brain bleed. He required emergency surgery and remains hugely thankful to the medical staff in Johannesburg and for the support he and his family received from the England and Wales Cricket Board and their South African counterparts.
It was described at the time as a "serious illness" and Ben was given leave from the England camp to be at the bedside of his dad who was in intensive care. Once Ged was stable, Ben returned to the team and, remarkably, played in all four tests, including the one at Centurion that started on Boxing Day. The Proteas won that one but England won the next three, with a man-of-the-match performance from Ben in the second test in Cape Town putting them back on track. Ben called his dad "tough" and "stubborn" after he got the all-clear to leave hospital, traits that clearly run in the family.
"I got a hundred in Port Elizabeth and I didn't get a chance to get emotional at the time but afterwards, sitting in the changing room, it all came out," Ben says. "Having something like that happen to your dad is pretty tough to deal with. It was a total shock.
"I was carrying a knee injury in South Africa but I felt my attitude change. What's a sore knee? I can bowl another over or I can bowl another spell. I decided an injury meant very little compared with what Dad was going through. That has been there since because I felt Dad might not see me play again."
Once back in Christchurch, further examinations at Burwood Hospital's neurological unit found more issues.
"They had to assess how I travelled and from that, they discovered I had a couple of tumours on my brain as well," Ged says. "So, basically brain cancer. How that came about nobody knows but obviously I've had a few bangs on my head through my life so that's probably contributed to it.
"It wouldn't have helped."
Ben adds: "Even when I left South Africa to get back home, I had a feeling something else would happen. I felt like I was constantly preparing myself for another phone call, so when it came it wasn't necessarily a surprise but it didn't make it any easier."
Ged's illness has knocked him. He looks frail but still has the energy to go on regular walks and he still gets down to the pub when he can to see his mates.
"I try to get out and about as much as I can," he says. "It's a long day if you don't."
Ged has had chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We don't discuss a prognosis. He's fighting but he tires easily and friends say he's sometimes in bad pain. We talk for about 45 minutes and there's not a hint of a complaint: he's not one for a sob story.
He's happy to reflect on his life because there could be a lesson in it for someone. Taking concussions more seriously is one.
"It's now taken a lot more seriously than it was," he concedes, but the trends in both rugby and league towards harder and more direct collisions worry him. He wonders where it will all end up and it's not difficult to agree with him.
Our conversation takes place on a Wednesday in late July, a few hours after Ged stayed up most of the night watching England beat the West Indies in the third test at Old Trafford to take the series 2-1.
Ben was easily the top scorer for the series with a total of 363 runs (including one knock of 176) at an average of more than 90. A week later he played the first test against Pakistan, again in Manchester, with England also prevailing thanks to his late golden spell, despite bowling with an injury. On August 10, he announced that he was returning to New Zealand to be with his dad.
Being away from his wife, Clare, and their two young children in a squad bubble environment became untenable. "I didn't sleep for a week and my head wasn't really in it. Leaving [the team] was the right choice from a mental point of view."
Ben arrived, alone, in New Zealand this week for a fortnight of quarantine in a hotel given coronavirus restrictions.
There is little doubt that young Ben's countless hours on the sidelines watching his dad coach, persuade and cajole his players, time during which the youngster took in more than he probably realises about team dynamics, made him the player he is now. He thrived with county side Durham in England's north and made his one-day international debut in 2011, his test debut two years later, and has that rare ability to alter games at any level almost by his force of will alone.
"I think it probably did lead me down a path to becoming a professional sportsman," Ben says. "I was around a group of professional sportsmen from such a young age – I'm sure that's had some influence."
Having one of the most famous cricketers in the world as a son has made Ged and Deb two of the more well-known sporting parents in New Zealand. Deb has been known to call radio stations to defend her son. But their pride clearly extends to their whole family. "I'm extremely proud of both my sons," Ged says. "Obviously Ben's known throughout the world but I don't think anything less of James because of that and he's very proud of Ben as well."
Ged's notoriety, if it can be called that, as a player and coach extended to his career as a tradesman and, once he and Deb returned to Christchurch from England seven years ago, to his work at Rolleston Prison.
Those who have worked with him and James say he was never one to suffer fools. "Hard-nosed", was one description.
It may have been just the sort of quality the prison was looking for and why it appointed him principal instructor in charge of about 90 inmates and more than 20 tradespeople.
The prison takes state houses from the Christchurch earthquake red zone and refurbishes them, providing prisoners with experience in building, carpentry, painting and plastering, and therefore hopefully giving them an outlet, skills, and possibly an apprenticeship on the outside. It's a privilege for the inmates to be involved and if they work hard there is a certain symmetry that is inescapable; like the houses, they're improved too. It's about adding value but also strength and in some cases character.
"It was very rewarding," Ged says. "It was very similar to coaching - it's man-management. I really enjoyed it out there. I miss it now."
One of Ged's favourite photos is of him and five Kiwis who played for him at Workington Town. They're arm in arm in the middle of a field in front of an old grandstand and smiling for the camera after beating their local rivals. Ged's in his tracksuit and is as powerfully built as the younger men on either side of him; a happy snapshot of success and the camaraderie that comes with it. That's not easy to replicate away from the pitch but Ged went pretty close with his team at the prison.
"Sport being what it is, it's a great leveler," he says, before adding: "A lot of the guys [inmates] I knew anyway through sport. I know their dads.
"They follow Ben's career avidly. He's got quite a fan club there - he has come out and visited a few times."
Ged, the no-nonsense league man, admits the experience of working with prisoners has altered him for the better too. He's not given to grand verbal flourishes, but is passionate about his work because it's for a collective good.
"It's life-changing. I'm a live-and-let-live type of person. It has been a very good learning for me as well. Since I came home and started working in the prison system I've learned there's a very fine line between right and wrong; a very fine line between people who want to genuinely help you or genuinely want to be helped as well. I think that's really important.
"We were all very motivated to making it work and helping these blokes because every prisoner we've got – there's another 10 people affected [outside]. Prison is hard. A lot of people say prison is easy, but prison's not easy at all. Prison is a very, very difficult environment and if we can make that better and get a better result for people who have been through the system, that's what we were aiming for.
"Prisoners have exactly the same situations in their lives as we have in ours, except theirs are compounded by the fact they can't do anything about it. It's difficult for them and it's quite frustrating for us as well when you just can't quite break through, but you do eventually.
"It's very encouraging when you see projects like this working.
"You only have to take a wrong turn in the road and all of a sudden you're on the wrong track that you can't get back from."
This became clear to the family when Ben was before the courts after being involved in a fight on a night out in Bristol two years ago. He was cleared of all charges.
"Everybody is redeemable somewhere along the line and there's ample opportunity for people to change their lives now," Ged says. "It's not as if they chuck you in prison and throw away the key."
He adds: "Lockdown [due to coronavirus] was probably a good lesson for me. Solitude and being separated from your family can be very difficult to deal with, so you develop a bit more empathy with how prisoners feel when they're locked up and away from their support structures. There's a reason why they're in prison and no one can deny that, but it doesn't make it any easier for them."
The league fraternity has always been the natural home for the underdog. There is an egalitarian side to the sport not present in others, which has probably come from its working-class roots, but, if it's not already evident, Ged is by no means a soft touch.
"He has his moments," Deb says when asked about her husband's reputation as a bit of a hard man. "In the work environment you have to set standards and if anyone steps outside the line – particularly in that environment…"
She adds: "If you stuff up then 'see you later'."
Everyone can change, as Ged has come to learn through his work on the other side of the high fences, and he's not the hard man he was.
"As Dad has got older he's softened and put his hard days behind him," says James, a tradesman who has two daughters with wife Rachel. "His loving and softer side definitely came out, and it is obvious he loves spending time with all the girls in the family.
"I could not have asked for a better father. He has always been firm but fair, honest, fun-loving and hard-working and is well respected by his peers. He has never taken a backwards step in life and never lost his sense of humour, even when life threw him a few curveballs."
"His reputation sort of speaks for itself," says Ben. "You speak to anyone who knows him, played with him or worked with him, they'd all say the same thing. Most people acquire a softer side with age and sometimes with Dad that has been quite weird to see. What he's going through has brought that side out as well – we all knew he had it, he just didn't show it that often. But now with where he's at, it's coming out a lot more. It's been nice to see after growing up for 29 years with a pretty tough and stubborn father.
"As I got older and got to the stage where I was taking more responsibility for myself, he was hard on me, especially as a teenager – 17, 18, 19, when you're a bit rebellious – he was tough. But as I got older I realised it was all for a reason. He knew I wanted to be a professional sportsman and he was drilling that into me as I started to make a career in cricket. I didn't realise it at the time but when I look back I know he was doing it for the right reasons.
"Those two or three years when I was living at home in Cumbria and spending the summers in Durham, having him around me – obviously being a professional sportsman himself and having coached for many years – he showed me the way. He used to get me out of bed early to go to the gym with him when I didn't want to… all that kind of stuff you don't appreciate at the time but looking back now I do.
"It's served me well in life in general – not just cricket. I've spent so much time away from home having to fend for myself at such a young age, it was really character building."
In early July, to mark 30 years together, Ged suggested he and Deb reconfirm their marriage vows. About 50 people attended and it was live-streamed to friends and family around New Zealand and the world, including England (where Ben tuned in), Australia, South Africa and Japan.
As part of the ceremony, a video of their first wedding was played. The significance of the moment and the memories stirred up by the flickering images meant there were tears. No wonder. But that's not all.
"It was emotional and sad but it was funny too," Deb says. "There were some great laughs."
It was a late night. They smile at the memory of it and are smiling still when I get up to leave.
With an uncertain and suddenly finite future, the Stokes's find comfort in shared memories.