At the beginning of this year, Lui Te’o was following the same trajectory as most of his fellow school-leavers.
The 19-year-old had enrolled in a Computer Science course at AUT in Manukau, with the hope of a career in security and programming, and his spare time was spent in the Marist clubrooms, playing lock for the club. Lui has played rugby for as long as he can remember, following in the footsteps of his father and Samoan Rep Aleki Te’o.
Then, on 19 March, 2016, it all changed.
During a Friday night footy matched between Marist and De La Salle, Lui went in for a ruck and received a knee to the back of his neck.
While every rugby player expects to get knocked about while on the ground, Lui knew something was wrong.
“I remember the knock to my neck and feeling my body fall to the ground, but I didn’t feel any pain,” he said. “I realised that I couldn’t move when I tried to get up.
A teammate noticed Lui lying on the ground and alerted the ref who immediately stopped play. His Marist brothers gathered around their teammate and waited until the ambulance arrived to take him away for an MRI.
The results showed no fracture in the spine, but the bruising on Lui’s spinal cord meant he was diagnosed as C2 tetraplegic ASIA – he was paralysed from the neck down.
In the immediate aftermath of a spinal cord injury (SCI), the injured person and his or her family can be left reeling. This is where the Rugby Foundation comes in.
Former All Black Kel Tremaine and former NZRFU president Sir Russel Pettigrew started the foundation in 1986, with the aim of supporting rugby players in need during the amateur age.
Then, with the advent of professionalism in 1996, the focus shifted to taking care of “catastrophically injured players” or those they term VIPs – Very Injured Players.
The foundation makes contact with players, both past and present, who have received an SCI. The support staff helps the VIPs adjust to the new injury, providing community support for his or her family, and facilitating introductions that can inspire VIPs to stay focussed on rehabilitation.
Like the time the foundation invited Blues players Ofa Tu’ungafasi, George Moala and Melani Nanai to visit Lui in hospital two weeks after the accident.
“The Blues players came in and motivated me at a time when I couldn’t walk or stand,” he said. And the players themselves were similarly motivated.
“You never know when something like this could happen, but we prepare as much as we can,” said Ofa.
“Each year there’s a session with Doc about how to respond to a teammate if something happens on the field, we do heaps of strength exercises and neck prehab and the medical team is really serious about concussion.”
The relationship continued: before the Blues’ final home game of the 2016 season, Lui joined two other VIPs in paying a visit to a team training session organised by the Rugby Foundation.
Less than four months after the accident, Lui was able to stand side of field on crutches and watch the Blues train. The significance was not lost on Ofa.
“The last time I saw Lui, he couldn’t move his feet or fingers. He was paralysed from the neck down,” said Ofa. “I was so happy to see him come out the other side, walking on crutches.”
To date, the Rugby Foundation has made contact with 104 VIPs.
What’s interesting to note is the Rugby Foundation’s continued support for seriously injured rugby players. One of the VIPs has been in a wheelchair for 49 years and still receives support from the foundation.
The Events, Digital and Sponsorship Manager Ben Sturmfels, who has been involved with the game for 30 years, said one of their biggest focuses is to provide support for the families.
“While we’re very close to our VIPs, as able-bodied people it’s very difficult to know what they’re going through,” he explained. “But we do know how the families feel and we know how important a support network is.”
Part of Sturmfels’ job is to bring the families and VIPs together at events around the country. Last year, the foundation sent a group of 30 injured VIPs and their caregivers, a total of 90 people, down to the Wellington 7s. There were VIPs who had met in the spinal ward 20 years ago who were meeting up again, as well as reuniting friends and family.
The foundation also prioritises education and reminding young players that while safety is important, rugby is not a game to be scared of. Of the 150,000 registered rugby players, only one to two players receive an SCI each year.
Lui received the injury by playing rugby, but it’s this same sport that’s helping him improve. He’s deferred his studies to 2017 and is focusing on taking his rehab one day at a time. He also hopes to return to the game he loves.
“With an injury like this, it’s mind over matter. I’ve been told to think positive, to keep praying and to cling fast to the faith – that’s an old saying from Marist.”