At 37, rugby legend Tom Smith - prop forward for Northampton and one of the cornerstones of the Scottish, British and Irish Lions pack– bowed gracefully out of the game. With the same quiet modesty and a fortitude that earned him worldwide respect and an impressive string of victories on the field, Tom decided to hang up his boots and draw a line under a stellar career which very nearly didn’t happen.
At the age of 18, Tom was diagnosed with epilepsy. 'The seizures started totally out of the blue,' he explains. 'There was no warning, no trigger. I had not suffered any head injury in spite of the amount of rugby I played. It literally happened over night – nocturnal seizures. At the time it was quite distressing.'
Tom’s consultant was not impressed with his passion for rugby, a game renowned for its harsh and unforgiving environment, not to mention its trademark scrums, tackles and blood-gushing wounds.
'My consultant’s immediate reaction was to tell me to forget rugby. I was told to give up the game completely. That was quite devastating. At 18 my big dream was to play rugby professionally and to suddenly be told that everything I had aspired to should be forgotten was a definite blow.
Getting a second opinion
'Fortunately we sought a second opinion from another consultant who said there was no reason why I shouldn’t continue playing and that was the advice I took.'
The aspiring star, put on his boots, kicked in his heels and converted a potential obstacle into a springboard for a dazzling career which earned him the reputation as one of the best loose-heads in the business, thriving on physical intimidation and powering up the scrum for the big push.
The fact that he bowed out a veteran among veterans and with sporting accolades to his name that eschewed his epilepsy, bears testament to the player’s personal and athletic achievements.
“I have always wanted to be judged by what I did on the field, not by what I did in spite of my epilepsy,” he says. “There are plenty of people out there playing with epilepsy. They just get on with it.”
Tom played 61 times for Scotland, taking in two world cups and saw eight seasons for Northampton’s Saints at Franklin Gardens, joining them from the French side Brive in 2001. He also played for Glasgow Caledonians and Watsonians.
Epilepsy should not be a barrier
Tom is particularly keen to encourage youngsters with epilepsy who aspire to a professional career in sport or who simply enjoy sport for fun.
'Epilepsy does not have to be a barrier to achievement,' he says. 'You have to see it as a hurdle you just need to get over. People are not always terribly knowledgeable about epilepsy and consequently there are bound to be times that you will come up against a degree of negativity but you just have to deal with it.
'I have not let my epilepsy hold me back. I have been lucky to be judged on my ability to play rugby and to have worked with coaches who do not have prejudices about the condition. The players have been great too. They just don’t care about the epilepsy – they just judge me as their prop and that is as it should be.'
Since his diagnosis, Tom has been on regular medication, although he recalls times that his seizures have marked his game. 'During one nocturnal seizure I fell out of bed and broke my toe,' he recalls. 'That was a bit difficult with a high impact game.
'Then four or five years ago I started having daytime seizures which caused short-term memory loss and pretty nasty headaches. I played a Calcutta match against England after having a seizure on the day of the game, and that was definitely not the best afternoon I have had, nor was it the best game I have ever played.”
No driving due to seizures
Three times Tom has had to stop driving for a year due to seizures which means he has spent a lot of time on his bike. 'I think that has really helped with my fitness levels,' he says, 'so every cloud has a silver lining, although when you are cycling in freezing cold horizontal rain in the middle of December, it is sometimes hard to see that silver cloud.'
Tom admits it would be difficult to say whether his physical fitness has made any difference to his epilepsy, but he believes that being healthy certainly helps the body cope with the effects of a seizure. “It just makes sense to keep your body in peak condition no matter what,” he says.
Asked about his future plans, Tom reverse passes the ball back down the line, although he says there are one or two ideas waiting on the bench. One thing he is certain about, however, is that he will not be following other rugby heroes onto the dance floor in Strictly Come Dancing. For the time being, he is just looking forward to spending more time with his wife Zoe and their two children.
This article first appeared in our magazine Epilepsy Review Issue 2 2009. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
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