A heartbroken Brian McClennan has opened up on his family's pain at not being able to help his father when he needed them the most.
In an exclusive interview, the former Kiwis coach has spoken for the first time publicly on the battle his father, fellow title-winning league super coach Mike McClennan, waged with dementia, the raw grief his loved ones are now suffering, and how the tight-knit McClennan family want to remember his legacy.
Mike McClennan, 75, was found dead on October 22 near Hatfields Beach, north of Auckland, six days after going missing from a dementia care unit at Milton Court Rest Home.
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His body was found in heavy bush, with his son saying it was almost incomprehensible to stomach what his father would have gone through in his final moments.
"I feel like I have been a pretty resilient person throughout the years. You could ask any of my friends and they will tell you I can crack on pretty strongly," Brian McClennan, who was also known as Bluey, told the Herald on Sunday.
"But this one has really, really hurt.
"Our fear as a family, and what hurts us, is him being there confused, scared, lying in the dark, in the cold and wet. That really hurts us."
Mike McClennan was loved in league communities around the world; he played for the Kiwis in 1971 before embarking on a stellar coaching career including famous Auckland clubs Mt Albert, Northcote, UK glamour side St Helens and the Tongan national team.
He is also a former assistant coach with the Warriors NRL club.
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But for the past five years he had been suffering dementia.
He had lived with his wife of 58 years, Maureen, at their Manly home and was cared for by family before finally being moved firstly into hospital, and then a dementia care unit just 16 days before he went missing.
"Mum had done an outstanding job with him," McClennan said. "By our reckoning he was probably stage five [of the] six stages of dementia."
McClennan said his father's health had "slowly declined" over a four-and-a-half-year period, before it "spiralled out of control" in the six months leading up to his death.
"He didn't realise where he lived. We live in Manly and he was adamant he lived in Grey Lynn and that he needed to get to Fowlds Park because that is where he coached [Mt Albert]," he said.
"He thought he was a mid-20s man, that he was a player-coach and things like that. He would be confused and want to take off. When he was at home we were forever grabbing him. That is one of the reasons why we got him into hospital because we were struggling to control him all the time because off he would go."
McClennan said there were increasingly rare moments when his father did have "clarity" over the status of his health, adding "he was gutted that he was in that state".
"People who have family that have it will know what I mean. Every now and then they will come up for air and their eyes will brighten up and they will know what is going on," he said.
"But just as quickly they are gone."
McClennan said after his father was put into fulltime care he believed he had actually been put in "prison".
He tried unsuccessfully to escape several times, before finally fleeing on October 16.
Police launched a large search in the Hatfields Beach and Orewa areas – and released CCTV footage of him walking on Hibiscus Coast Highway on the day of his disappearance – with the league community rallying around the McClennan family.
The support they received from the sporting community, police and other officials involved in the search, and from other kind-hearted Kiwis would never be forgotten, McClennan said.
"We were really humbled by it. We had so many people bringing us food and people searching everywhere," he said.
"I had a good chance to really know the police and they were just absolutely fantastic, I could not commend them enough."
McClennan made an emotional plea for any information on his father's whereabouts, and sightings, during the extensive search.
But tragically, his body was later found, with McClennan describing the distance his dad had travelled as "mindboggling".
He walked north from Orewa, climbing up a hill overlooking Hatfields Beach, scaling a fence, and then going down the hill through thick bush and scrub.
"There is one lot of footage that the police put out to help and that was going past the dairy and I think everyone could see for themselves that he was off on a very determined walk," he said.
"I have seen further footage of him where he got up the first hill at Hatfields Beach. I could see he was confused and he is starting to get a limp, because his left knee was going."
He said his father had then fallen over, most likely in the dark, suffering puncture wounds due to spikes from palm trees and also breaking his nose.
McClennan said he and his family were broken by what his much-loved father would have endured in his final moments.
"My dad was a sick man and for that I am glad he is at peace now. He hated being in that condition," McClennan said.
"[But] For my family, that [how he died] is what we have to accept and get over ... that sometimes fate deals you a really cruel hand. And that has happened to us.
"We are extremely uncomfortable that he had to end his way like that."
McClennan's death has been referred to the Coroner.
Management of the Milton Court Rest Home did not respond to a request for comment.
McClennan was buried in the clothes he went walking in when he vanished; his beloved St Helens tracksuit top, jeans and his favourite shoes.
"He always loved wearing his St Helens gear," his son said. "My wife washed the gear and it was just caked in mud."
McClennan said the grief was "pretty raw" for his mother.
"She is an incredible woman. She has got a real soft side to her with the people she loves," he said.
"They say behind every great man there is a great woman, and that is true. She is doing it tough. Fortunately because we live so close, she knows if she is not feeling good that she can just walk over or the kids will go over."
McClennan talked a week before him, his wife Julie, and their 19-year-old son Regan and 17-year-old twins Katie and Daniel prepare to take part in the Omaha Half Marathon and 10k events to raise money and awareness for Dementia Auckland.
Mike and Maureen McClennan lived just two houses down from his son and his family at Manly, on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.
And when Brian McClennan coached the Leeds Rhinos between 2008-10, his parents relocated to the UK and lived just a street away.
While many New Zealanders knew of Mike McClennan as being highly successful on the sporting arena, his loved ones would always remember him as being a loving family man.
Both he, his father and Brian McClennan were only sons.
The fact he became a grandfather of three was something that brought him great pride and joy, his son said.
"He was a guy that had a lot of fire in his belly but when the grandkids came along he just totally softened up," Brian McClennan said.
"For us to have more than one child, dad really loved that.
"We were really close. The thing that I really got to love the most about my dad was how he treated my kids. The love that he had for them [was amazing]."
McClennan said as a player and a coach his father had a "burning desire" to achieve and that is why he was so successful.
It was a trait the 57-year-old said he tried his best to emulate in his own sporting career, which included being a star club and provincial player, before going on to coach the Kiwis, Leeds and the Warriors.
"When you have the chance to sit back and reflect on what has happened, everything that he has done I have tried to do. That sums up how much I loved the man," he said.
"You learn your lessons off your dad, and you try to pass them on and that is what I will be doing.
"I always had a good time with dad. He was my dad and whatever he said was gospel to me. And if he wasn't my dad, and I knew him, he would have become one of my best friends."
• Next Sunday Brian and grandsons Regan and Daniel will run the Omaha Half Marathon to raise funds for Dementia Auckland. Donate here .