David Croft reckons he suffered up to 15 concussions going into battle with some of rugby’s most feared competitors.
“I have my cards that have been dealt,” the Queensland Reds legend says, “and will work through that progressively over time.”
However, the former Wallabies forward has called for an overhaul in concussion education at the grassroots levels, where he has no doubt cases of life-threatening conditions are being missed.
“My interest and passion in it is not because of me – I couldn’t really care about myself, to be honest,” Croft says.
“High-profile people are the ones that will be profiled.
“But I’ve got no doubt it 100 per cent has happened to those in the grassroots who haven’t played professional but the amateur level their whole life.”
The evolution of research finding links between brain trauma and serious health risks has triggered an upheaval of how elite sporting codes monitor and manage the aftermath of head clashes.
Constant blows are associated with degenerative ailments such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and dementia – the likes of former North Queensland Cowboys coach Paul Green, Hawthorn Hawks life member Shane Tuck and AFLW icon Heather Anderson all diagnosed with CTE post-mortem.
Croft says athletes at the pinnacle have the protection of medical scrutiny.
The 44-year-old estimates he suffered between 10 and 15 concussions during a career that spanned eight years, 116 Super Rugby games and five Wallabies caps.
But for those away from the spotlight, not provided the same resources in identifying when it was time to leave the field, he says aggressive education measures are needed.
“My passion is directed through grassroots football. I’ve got mates who still play on the weekend, and they don’t have doctors on the sideline or cameras saying ‘get off the field’.
“They’re reliant on friends on the field, referees, coaches and if we don’t have awareness of the long-term impact or severity or dangers a person could have … it’s a real concern.
“Success is when [intervention] is at that community-based level, juniors or weekend warriors turning up again to train and play the week after.”
Steps have been taken across sport to devise guidelines for symptom identification and recovery management, however a leading brain trauma expert argues there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach.
Queensland Brain Institute associate professor of brain injury and neuroimaging Fatima Nasrallah believes insufficient funding and research into the cumulative effects of concussions in children could be leaving them in the dark when it comes to full recovery.
A senate inquiry, Concussion and Repeated Head Trauma in Contact Sports, this week released its final report and recommended federal government should set up a national sports injury database urgently, enforce return-to-play guidelines and play a greater role in funding and research.
A submission by the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians to the inquiry this May stressed that most concussions and brain injuries occurred in community sport.
Nasrallah says despite the heightened coverage of traumatic brain injuries, there are still huge gaps in the understanding of how sustained impacts at junior levels can alter someone’s life.
Ultimately, she says, the effects of head trauma will differ from athlete to athlete, as will the ramifications of further damage if a full recovery is not made.
“We don’t have clear guidelines that can determine on a personalised level when people need to go back to play whatever the impact – whether it’s medically diagnosed as a concussion or a head knock that’s suspected but is not really taken seriously,” Nasrallah says.
“What we’ve realised from our research is every baseline is different. If you take their individual baseline, what they look like before a concussion if they haven’t had one, say, for 12 months, it will differ across individuals.
“The severity of the impact might vary from individual to individual. It’s not one size fits all for sure, they need to be specific or personalised.
“The funding in this area has been so limited to allow for a lot of research to take place [and] I think there needs to be more evidence around taking extra precaution in keeping these children safe.
“There has to be some help to allow clubs to do what they need to do to address these issues and without funding it’s very hard.”
Rugby league hero Wally Lewis triggered shockwaves when he revealed he was suffering dementia years after a glittering career on the paddock.
In “the King’s” heyday, there was far less vision and technology scrutinising the players, and even less research into the long-term effects of concussions.
Back then, soldiering on through pain was considered a virtue.
It’s a trait, Croft says, that remains at grassroots level and needs to be eradicated.
“As Australians, our heroes are the ones who continue to get up … we’re about being tough and strong [but] society has to accept a change as well.
“We glorify people that continue to get up and go again with injuries or whatever it may be.
“What we’ve got to accept as a society is more around we have to protect our mates, and protect and look after them when they’re injured and at risk knowing that if they get injuries like this they are at risk.
“I don’t want to change sport, I don’t want to change what rugby has always been. That’s crazy – it’s done so much for me and so many people.
“It’s not about fearmongering or changing games, it’s about managing people accordingly.”