Former All Black front rower Karl Hayman has revealed that he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, aged just 41. Capped 45 times for his country, the powerful prop played almost 450 professional matches.
Hayman has joined a group of players who are attempting to sue World Rugby and the RFU after he was diagnosed with probable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
He believes that a number of successive blows to the head are what led to him now being in an awful situation, whereby over the years he has had memory and alcohol issues, leading to suicidal thoughts.
Once the world’s highest paid player, the former tighthead says that he once thought he was going crazy.
He spoke to The Bounce about how he suffered from disorientation even before his career ended, ceaseless headaches and how he ended up with a suspended prison sentence after a charge of domestic violence when living in France.
“I spent several years thinking I was going crazy. At one stage that’s genuinely what I thought. It was the constant headaches and all these things going on that I couldn’t understand,” Hayman says.
After extensive testing he finally found out the reasons for his feelings and behaviour.
He is now part of a wider group of 150 former players who are taking on authorities, claiming that players were not protected from the risks caused by concussion, despite being fully aware of the dangers,
“I um’d and ah’d for about 12 months about whether I’d do anything about it and find out if something was wrong with me, or whether I would just get on with life and hope for the best. I went to the doctors here before I went to the UK but the process seemed like it was going to take a long time and I was getting to the point where I needed answers,” he says.
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“It would be pretty selfish of me to not speak up and talk about my experience when I could help a guy in New Zealand perhaps who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him and has no support network to lean on.”
Hayman feels that player welfare is still not what it should be.
“When I first started playing pro rugby I remember having a Players’ Association meeting and the conversation was all about having a global window and a shorter season. We’re still having the same conversations about rugby now. There’s a number of changes we can and have to make to help protect the players of the future.
“I look at the NFL again and they have a 17-game season across four-to-five months with the possibility of a couple of playoff games. You compare that to rugby with a 10-month season.
“There needs to be a discussion about what constitutes an acceptable volume of rugby.”
At Toulon, Hayman played 156 matches in five years.
“Basically, if I was fit and available, I was on the field,” he says. “There were times that I probably shouldn’t have played but it was expected – like when I had a root nerve anti-inflammatory injection in my neck during the week and was back on the pitch at the weekend. They worked us hard and I never complained. It was my job and I was paid well, but I doubt it did any favours.”
His memory issues started to affect his home life.
“I started having substantial memory issues. I was trying to get a passport for my son and I couldn’t remember his middle name, which was a significant moment. I was searching around for it in my mind for a good 25 seconds and had to go, ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten’, to the person on the phone trying to do the passport. ‘I’ve forgotten my son’s name’.
“I had temper issues, definitely, and then at this point of my life, it led down the track to what I’d consider alcohol abuse. I always enjoyed a beer with the boys but at this point I began drinking more. I didn’t know what was going on and the drinking brought a little bit of an escape for a certain amount of time. It would temporarily alleviate the symptoms somewhat but then, as you can imagine, the next day things would be back to how they felt before, if not worse. It was a vicious cycle I got caught in.”
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