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Engage: a harrowing story brilliantly told

By Jon Culley


No one can know whether Matt Hampson would have played in a Rugby World Cup but he was established on a path towards full international recognition when a commonplace incident on the training field changed his life forever.

It was March 15, 2005 and Hampson, a 20-year-old tight-head prop from the Leicester Tigers club, was in a practice session with an England Under-21 team that included Ben Foden, Toby Flood and James Haskell, who was directly behind Hampson in the second row.  All are currently in New Zealand with Martin Johnson’s England squad.

The forwards, under the supervision of Tony Spreadbury, an international referee, were in full, contested scrum practice. Not unusually, during such sessions, the scrum would collapse from time to time.

Thankfully, despite the risks inherent when 16 hefty men engage in a head-first shoving match, such collapses seldom result in serious injury.  This occasion, however, was different.

By some freak of physics, the full force of this collapse ended up being borne by Hampson’s neck. In an instant, he suffered a dislocation that trapped his spinal chord.  He was saved from dying on the field because Spreadbury happened also to be a paramedic, but the damage done paralysed Hampson from the neck down.

Paul Kimmage, the Sunday Times journalist, visited Hampson as he recuperated. His brilliant piece -- headlined ‘One Tragic Day’ -- won him the Sports Journalists’ Association interviewer of the year award for the third year in succession.

They struck up a friendship and now Kimmage has told Hampson’s full story, in all its harrowing detail, from the build-up to the fateful day, the drama of the accident itself, the incredibly long rehabilitation, to his struggle to adjust to what passes for him as a normal life.

The result has been hailed as a story that reveals the true hellishness of personal disaster on the scale that befell Hampson as well as the astonishing capacity of one human being to make the best of what little he had left -- in a physical sense -- but does so without sentimentality or by seeking pity.

Hampson now lives in a converted barn in a Leicestershire village, a home custom made for him by his father, Phil.  His team of 10 carers have everything they need for the daily routines necessary to keep Hampson alive, most importantly ensuring that the ventilator attached to him by a pipe does its job by breathing for him 21,600 times in every 24 hour period.

Engage takes its title from the last word Hampson hears, from the lips of Tony Spreadbury, before the life-changing moment on that cloudy March morning.  It conveys the sense also that here is a young man determined not only to stay living but to engage with life and Kimmage is widely credited with putting it across superbly, drawing in particular on the sense of humour that Hampson has retained despite his unthinkable situation.

Kimmage, the former professional cyclist, has already won one William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for Rough Ride, which exposed drug use in his sport and made his name as a writer.  He surely has another contender here.

Matt Hampson now works to offer help, advice and support to the victims of serious injury and disability, in particular in a sports context, through his charity The Matt Hampson Foundation.  To learn more or make a donation, visit www.matthampsonfoundation.org

Engage shortlisted for William Hill prize. Read more...

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