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‘I just felt like a failure’: Alex McKinnon opens up on harrowing injury and identity difficulties

Former NRL player Alex McKinnon says the life-threatening on-field injury he suffered over six years ago has helped him discover his true identity and “reinvent what it is to be a man”.
Former NRL player Alex McKinnon says the life-threatening on-field injury he suffered over six years ago has helped him discover his true identity and “reinvent what it is to be a man”.

In a raw, revealing interview with Stan Grant on the ABC’s One Plus One — Identity on Monday night, McKinnon opened up on:

— How he initially felt “embarrassed” about the injury that ended his career and left him with an identity crisis

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— The harrowing places he ventured to mentally

— Feeling like an “object”, not a human, when he first regained consciousness after the injury

— The fear his relationship with partner Teigan would end as he felt guilty he’d be restricting her from living a full life, and

— How he’s learnt to “respect” his injury and health.

Alex McKinnon played 49 NRL games. Picture: Colin Whelan
Alex McKinnon played 49 NRL games. Picture: Colin WhelanSource: AAP

McKinnon was playing for the Newcastle Knights in 2014 before he was caught in a lifting tackle that left him with a spinal cord injury. He’s now a quadriplegic who has been wheelchair-bound since.

However the 28-year-old has been a source of inspiration since the injury, returning to the league by joining the Knights’ recruiting team and becoming a well renowned public speaker. He also married Teigan and became a dad in 2018, while he recently announced the couple were expecting twins in May 2020.

But the former Knight still remembers that horror night at AAMI Park vividly.

McKinnon said he knew the damage he’d done “straight away”, hence his request for his phone upon leaving the ground to get in touch with his mother and partner. But he admitted, at the time, he felt a sense of shame.

“I just really felt embarrassed, to be honest … I suppose it takes you back to being a man, you’re your identity is there: Strong, unfathomable, unwavering. I just felt that it was embarrassing that I was laying there unable to move. I just felt like a real failure,” McKinnon told the ABC’s One Plus One program.

Alex McKinnon being carried off in 2014. Picture: Brett Crockford
Alex McKinnon being carried off in 2014. Picture: Brett CrockfordSource: AAP

McKinnon said he was “unconscious straightaway for about three to five days”, with his first recollection being a doctor conducting an assessment on him to diagnose the extent of his spinal cord injury.

“I felt at that point when I was laying there that I wasn’t a human, I was more of an object. It’s something which I’d really struggled with post being injured,” he said.

“It sounds really weird, but when people start to treat your injury and the effect that an injury like that can have on your life and how it consumes you, you start to identify yourself with that injury and not myself, Alex McKinnon. So on that night, that was a really clear reflection, an image that I can still see to this day, of a female standing over me, pricking my body, trying to assess me, not talking to me. It was a really weird feeling.”

During the interview, Grant asked McKinnon to read a passage from the latter’s book Unbroken.

“Alone in my ward, the pent-up anger and frustration had taken over my emotions and I wasn’t willing to fight any longer. I began to yell and sob as tears streamed down my face,” McKinnon read aloud.

Alex McKinnon with Beau Scott, Trent Merrin and NSW's coach Laurie Daley after Game 2 of the 2014 State of Origin series at ANZ Stadium. Picture: Gregg Porteous
Alex McKinnon with Beau Scott, Trent Merrin and NSW's coach Laurie Daley after Game 2 of the 2014 State of Origin series at ANZ Stadium. Picture: Gregg PorteousSource: News Corp Australia

“My parents were outside and down the hall, rushed to my bedside, finding their hysteric 22-year-old son in a state of despair.

“‘I’m f***ing over this! I don’t want to be here,’ I screamed. ‘This is making me sick to my stomach. Why can’t I just die? Why can’t you just kill me? Why are you going to put me through this? How can you let me live like this? Is it just for yourself? I’m happy to die. I want this over. Why, why, why?’”

McKinnon said it was the first time he’d read that part of his book back, suggesting he’d “forgotten about” that point in his life but it was honestly how he felt then.

He said he felt “ripped off”, adding it “took a lot of time” for him to understand what the next part of his life would look like.

“I don’t know how I am in the position that I am today,” he said.

“Mentally, I’m a big believer that sometimes you just need to ride the wave. You just need to trust that over time things will, not be what they will be because you need to be productive and you need to attack it, but time is a beautiful thing. You just sometimes need to give something time – and at that time in my life, I didn’t want to go on.

Former Newcastle Knights NRL player Alex McKinnon. Picture: Paul Miller
Former Newcastle Knights NRL player Alex McKinnon. Picture: Paul MillerSource: AAP

“I felt that my parents were being really selfish that my injury was really serious and I didn’t want to live a life in a wheelchair. That’s what my mind was fixated on. I couldn’t see what my life would be like.”

McKinnon said he was particularly concerned about what his relationship with Teigan would look like post-injury. He said she’d “been life-changing for me”.

“I knew it wouldn’t break her. I thought it would break me,” he said.

“I remember feeling on that night that she wouldn’t leave me or she wouldn’t get sick of me. I felt that I would get sick of her not being able to do what we used to be able to do. So that’s what I was scared of on that night.

“I really lost myself. Lost my identity to rugby league, because that’s who I was. But the beauty is that she’s been with me through the whole thing and allowed me to find myself again. (She’s) allowed me to sit in some dark spots and really self-examine myself.

“You asked me who I am. To some people, that can be a really violating question, exposing, vulnerable, naked standing in front of a mirror. People sometimes don’t like to look at themselves. But for me, that’s where I had to sit.

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“I sat in that spot sometimes for months. Really scared, really dark, really frustrated. But I knew it was a space that I had to sit in to kind of find myself.”

While the short-term mental pain was tough, McKinnon said he now feels “really comfortable with who I am”.

“I really respect my injury … I respect my health. And it’s probably something before that I never did,” he said.

“I hated it. I showed it no respect, I didn’t research it, I didn’t learn how to live with it. I didn’t want to talk to other people in the situations because I was scared of what they would say about living with this.

“I wanted to learn my own way – and that’s the hard way. To be honest, it means that I’ve made mistakes.

“I feel like sometimes when I get in that negative space and I don’t respect the injury, it can make you pay. Sometimes that’s weeks or months laying in bed, sometimes that’s gaining weight or losing weight, sometimes it really affects your mental mindset and cannot allow you to live a life.

Alex and Teigan McKinnon.
Alex and Teigan McKinnon.Source: News Corp Australia

“Something which I say to myself all the time: ‘You need to respect the injury. Otherwise it can control you.’”

McKinnon said he’s discovered “I am who I’m meant to be”.

“I feel the emotion, I feel that I’m not trapped,” he said.

“I cry about my daughter getting older. I cry about being so grateful. I feel like I’m really in tune with my emotions – and I like that, because that’s who I feel like I’m meant to be.

“I believe that before, when I was playing football … I felt like I was really trapped. Anxious, didn’t want to fail. But now I don’t approach life in that way.

“I’m not scared to make mistakes, I want to learn. I approach things with a lot of respect and I’m really in tune with who I am – and I encourage people to do that.

“That’s why I believe that what happened to me was meant to happen. It sounds crazy, but if you could say to me ‘would you take things back and go back to where you were’, I really wouldn’t. I’m really lucky with the position that I am in and how I feel about myself and my life.”

If you or someone you know needs help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78,

For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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