In Good Conscience

Returning to sport, after accidents at breakneck speed

Three weeks ago, the crowd at an English football match was silent and afraid. Jonathan Hogg collided with a Huddersfield team-mate, and many heard the almighty crack.

For 10 minutes, three members of the club's medical staff lay beside him, fearful of attempting the slightest movement. Gingerly, they applied a neck brace. But he, and they, feared the worst.

He was conscious. He had shooting pains down his left side, and numbness, as well as a sensation of burning.

Without him, afraid for him, his Huddersfield colleagues who are chasing promotion to the Premier League, were beaten 4-0 at Bristol City. His wife was at home hundreds of miles away, trying to console their two daughters, aged six and nine, who had been allowed to stay up and watch daddy on TV.

The next morning, the bulletins confirmed that Hogg had broken his neck. When he was released from intensive care, he spent two weeks at home in Middlesbrough. He felt the "incredible love" of those around him, but feared that, at 28, the damage was life-changing. Then, last Friday, a specialist re-examined the neck and cervical cord.

"It would be a lot easier for me to say don't train," said the doctor. "But you're fine."

Declan Murphy determined he wanted to be "now", not past tense. Describing it as the line between sanity and insanity, he decided to ride again, for one last race.

Huddersfield are known as The Terriers, and Hogg personifies that aspect. He was back in training, and four nights later, again in front of live television, he ran for 80 minutes, helping his side to a 3-0 home win over Norwich before his manager reckoned the player had been to hell and back, and deserved a rest.

"It was nice resting at home," Hogg said, "but the thought of missing the business end of the season devastated me."

Cap that, as they say.

Actually, there is a story that is capable of doing exactly that.

Today is the Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool. It is, deliberately, the most daunting steeplechase in the world - a 6.9km cavalry charge on horseback over 30 of the most daunting fences in the sport.

There is, often, carnage at Aintree. But National Hunt racing in England and Ireland leaves a long litany of broken men, and crippled horses, not simply at Aintree.

On April 27, a book, Centaur, will be released. It is the memoir of jockey Declan Murphy, but he needed the help of writer Ami Rao to piece together the lost years of the aftermath of a crushing fall he suffered 23 years ago.

Britain's horse racing bible, The Racing Post, published his obituary back in May 1994. He was to ride again, just once, after that.

Murphy, now 51 and an investor and property developer in New York, is as loquacious as Irishmen can be. Between him and his biographer he brings vivid recount, including the part of his life that he says is still missing.

"Joanna (his girlfriend at the time of the accident) and I had been together for five years," he relates. "But when they cut open my brain to operate, they'd torn out the pages of our love story. When I woke from my coma, I couldn't remember parts of my life. There is a period of four years, six months and four days that is still missing."

He puts into words the sensation of riding over fences at 55kmh to 65kmh, the sense of adrenaline, the concentration of trying to calculate the exact pace to deliver a horse at its strongest at the finish.

In 1994, he had won all the major races. That May, in the last big chase of the season, he was riding the favourite, Arcot, at Haydock Park, across the Mersey from Aintree.

"About 200m before the final hurdle," he says, "I sensed my horse did not have the energy within him to sustain the stride pattern he was on. I made a tactical assessment to shorten his stride to clear the last jump. But he took off too soon. His pelvis cracked with the hyperextension and he crashed on the hurdle. My head collided with his head, knocking me unconscious before I hit the ground."

The horse following up landed on Murphy's head. His parents and girlfriend Joanna were watching back in Ireland on TV. They waited for the commentator, the famous BBC broadcaster Peter O'Sullevan, to say as he often did that "Declan Murphy was on his feet after the fall".

Those soothing words never came. O'Sullevan signed off the programme with: "We have no news of Declan Murphy. We will bring it to you when we have it."

Joanna flew over to be at his bedside. Three times she was told that it was time to turn off his life support. His parents were making their way, but slowly because Murphy's father had a morbid fear of flying, so they crossed the Irish Sea by boat.

In that time, he regained consciousness. He was confused. He thought he was 12, not 28. There were many moments of despair.

"I couldn't walk. I couldn't eat. I was paralysed, tubed up in bed," he recounts. "But belief is self-fulfilling. The more you believe, the more you give of yourself to achieve."

When finally he came out of hospital, others did not believe.

"For quite a long time, people always referred to me in the past tense," he says. "You were so great, so good at riding horses. You were so stylish, so eloquent."

He determined he wanted to be "now", not past tense. Describing it as the line between sanity and insanity, he decided to ride again. He did, for one last race.

"I rode at Chepstow, thinking, 'I have to do this'. I wanted to win, and fortunately I rode a good race and I did win."

And then he retired from the saddle. Retired to America, eventually to marry a Spanish woman and, like Jonathan Hogg, to discover the joy in having a young daughter, Sienna.

"I see my youth in her," Murphy said on BBC radio this week.

Men of sport, but fathers revelling in their daughters and thanking God for their sound lives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Returning to sport, after accidents at breakneck speed'. Print Edition | Subscribe