When the child who goes down in a tackle is your own

COMMENT: When I saw it was number 22 who didn’t get up, I didn’t panic. He’s winded, I thought, as I started walking towards the goal post where several players were huddled around my son. Some seconds went by.

I started to stride.

Trainers treat Alex McKinnon following his injury. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Trainers treat Alex McKinnon following his injury. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

A goal umpire suddenly stood up in the huddle and beckoned frantically to the officials, coaches, parents. Dog walkers dotted around the park stopped to watch.

I ran. Someone was wiping his face. Someone was holding my hand. He was groaning, spitting. There was grass in his mouth. A doctor friend – also a footy parent – was telling him to be still.

‘‘Are you in pain?’’ she asked. ‘‘What do you ... feel?’’

A tram rattled in the distance.

‘‘Pins and needles,’’ he said. ‘‘Pins and needles all the way down.’’

I touched his hand amid the huddle’s hum as someone rang an ambulance, told him he’d be right, recalled where the stretcher was and sent someone to get it.

I listened too as the huddle regularly insisted he keep still.

Yes, don’t move, I whispered as I tried to make myself believe in the scene in front of me. Then as my 15-year-old son was lifted carefully, silently, onto a cobweb-covered stretcher and lifted, my mind began searching for something benign to latch onto. That dad should not wear shorts ... why don’t I get the tram to work ...

A tap on the shoulder. I turn to see the stricken face of a 16-year-old umpire.

‘‘I just wanted you to know,’’ he gulped. ‘‘I gave him the free kick.’’

‘‘Thanks,’’ I managed. ‘‘That’s great.’’

The horrifying farce continued as the huddle propelled me slowly toward the clubroom. There he lay, strapped to the stretcher on the floor as we waited for an ambulance.

‘‘They said to keep him still ... he can’t move,’’ I heard one terrifying voice whisper.

This was not supposed to happen. In years of at least one, sometimes three games of Aussie rules a week, we had never seen a serious injury. It was bad luck. A fluke. I ring my husband, who is at another ground with our youngest. He heads to the ground.

I sit beside our teenager. My doctor friend speaks calmly, about the game, about how well he played and why it would be a great idea not to move.

Every couple of seconds the door flies open. Someone wants chips; another needs to swap boots. As word spreads worried friends, parents, teammates duck their heads in to see how he is.

John Howard – a then footy parent and actor of All Saints fame – wanders in to grab a drink. Several parents automatically jump up, looking relieved, only to slink back embarrassed, realising instantly that he was a medic on TV only.

‘‘Are you OK, mate?’’ a parent at the door asks our son.

He nods.

‘‘DON’T NOD," we scream.

‘‘OK," he whispers.

And nods.

An ambulance officer arrives and we watch as our boy is put in a neck brace. There is a horrible minute as the stifling heat of the clubhouse mixes with fear, pain, foul-smelling linament and the constriction of the brace. He begs us to remove it, struggles. I can’t look.

The ambulance officer yells at him. ‘‘Listen. Be still. Do as I say.’’ He stops moving and so does everyone in the room. Thank you, I whisper.

Hours later and I’m holding my son’s long, curly hair as he throws up by the side of his hospital bed for the 10th time in as many hours.

I am dog-tired but euphoric. An X-ray taken minutes after we arrived confirmed that his neck was bruised, not broken. Much the same as his parents.

A CT scan also brings good news.

The vomiting? A reaction to morphine.

This happened seven years ago, but the cold fear of that day will never leave me. I still shudder when I think of our good luck. And of others, like Newcastle Knight forward Alex McKinnon, who have not been as lucky.

Jane Richards is a Fairfax journalist.