Updated: Mar 5
The impact of head injuries in professional sport has never been more publicised with more early onset dementia cases coming at the hands of retired Football, Rugby, or other contact players.
Alix Popham is one of the unlucky ones, having been diagnosed with this in 2020, playing rugby union for Wales at international level and his clubs sides Newport RFC, Leeds Tykes, Llanelli Scarlets and Brive over a 13-year professional career.
Head For Change is a foundation to help those that have been affected by this, and this weekend sees Popham along with a team of other people including Wyn Evans, Geraint Thomas OBE, Will Greenwood and Thierry Dusautoir, take on a 24 hour virtual bike ride to not only raise awareness about the neurodegenerative disease but to raise money for much needed research into the causes and helping families plan for the future.
‘After my diagnosis, and very quickly realising, how do you tell two teenage kids about this, there was nothing out there for somebody of my age to be going through something like this’ Popham explained. ‘As we all do when we get something like this, you Goggle it, whatever it is and realised there was no information’
‘Everything was for 60 plus year olds and nothing for 40 plus year olds and realised quite quickly that I wasn’t the only one going through this, and now there are over 400 ex-players, men and women, who are struggling, and I’ve spoken to about 250 of them, so we knew we needed to set something up pretty quick’
Another vital cog in the Head For Change foundation is Dr Judith Gates whose husband, Bill, is an ex-footballer and she had seen the effects of this herself. ‘She’s (Dr Gates) been amazing helping set up the foundation, coping with three keys areas in once place’ Popham said. ‘one of those is the support for the ex-players and their families. Education, and that’s all the way from grassroots up to the amateur and professional game. Parents and everybody can understand what concussion is, I didn’t even as a professional player’
It's easy to forget that this could affect you in later life as Popham says. ‘It was more of a joke if you took a knock on the head, when I was playing, and you were walking like bambi, that was laughed upon’
The bike ride is helping to fund independent research into concussion, which Popham is keen to point out is needed urgently ‘There’s research that has gone on that isn’t independent, and that’s a key word as that research hasn’t been the best. We’re going to give the facts of what the results are because that hasn’t happened over this before’
It wasn’t just in a game situation that these injuries occurred ‘The majority of the things we want to do, and the changes we want are through the week because 90% of my damage was done in training’ explains Popham ‘Because we were doing so much of it. This is what needs to be changed’.
Popham wants to use the examples set by other sports to help rugby and football, which he makes references to when talking about Luke Cowan-Dickie, England & Exeter Chiefs hooker, who was out cold for 45 seconds ‘He got on a flight to South Africa and was doing live scrummaging on the Wednesday and played on the Saturday’. ‘In boxing, a boxer wouldn’t be allowed to fight for six months, so I just don’t know the difference between a rugby players brain and a boxers’
Research that the Head For Change foundation have already encountered says that a brain can take between 24 to 48 days to get back to a normal function ‘And we’re playing after 6’ Popham adds.
With the bike ride being virtual again, with the inaugural one being during the COVID pandemic, Popham is looking forward to having more people involved as they’ve had more time to plan this one. ‘I used to hate preseason when I was playing rugby, but this is why we’ve put it in this time. The three rides happening on Sunday mornings hopefully helping to get us in shape. We had over 100 people take part in the first one and it’s all building up to the event’.
With the event taking part this weekend, getting a message out across all social media is key to help fundraise. ‘It’s all about raising vital funds for Head for Change, setting up a JustGiving page, we’re going to be giving cyclists who raise over £500 a LeCol finishers jersey, there’s going to be a yellow jersey each day as well for the person who cycled the furthest distance’ Popham continued ‘The event is split over the Saturday and Sunday into six, two-hour sessions. Each two-hour ride is a competition itself’
There are also plans to get outdoors and this rugby ride challenge will be something that happens every year. ‘We did something similar to this for the Doddie Weir Foundation where me, Colin Charvis, Ian Gough cycling for team dragons. Something similar would be on the cards for Head For Change’
Popham is clear in his idea that it all starts from the training ‘I would like to see a qualification in concussion if anybody is coaching, like a British standard. I think people who are involved with coaching sports all the way up to elite level need to understand what concussion is and what the symptoms are’. This goes back to training when he mentioned that there wouldn’t be any medical team on the touchline, just the coaching staff. ‘Multiple choice, like your driving theory, if you get it wrong, you can’t go on to the next level of coaching. You’ve got to understand it to a level where you are as knowledgeable as possible before you take to the field to coach’
The long-term goal for foundation was also something that Popham was keen to point out with contact being made and full support from Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Kevin Brennan. ‘We’ve called it Head for Change and not used any rugby balls or footballs in the logo purposely as we could go off into other sectors. The military to help them support those that have concussion from being involved in the army’.