England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, but Steve Thompson doesn’t remember it. The team were invited to a reception with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to congratulate them on their victory, but even looking at a photograph of that day triggers no memories. In Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me (BBC Two), Thompson explained that he has early-onset dementia, likely caused by a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of the tens of thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head he received during his playing career.
To see Thompson going through his medals and memorabilia was a sad sight. Far sadder, though, was watching him – still in his early 40s – cooking for his children and forgetting his daughter’s name.
There was something heartbreaking about seeing this great hulk of a man losing his grip, and to hear him speak with admirable honesty about his struggles and fears. At the same time, the lack of support being offered to Thompson by the rugby authorities was staggering. I won’t bother to repeat the statement provided at the end of the programme by the RFU, because it was so inadequate. Thompson claimed that the sport’s governing bodies had even stopped sending him an annual birthday message once he started campaigning to raise awareness of brain injuries.
Rugby gave so much to Thompson, who had a tough upbringing but found salvation in sport. “What has been the hardest thing for me,” he said, “is that the rugby community that took me in and took care of me when I was a kid is now turning against me.”
Not the entire community. More than 200 former players have joined him in a legal case against the authorities, demanding a trust fund to be set up to finance their future care. Thompson’s former teammates, Ben Cohen and Lewis Moody, appeared. Moody was upset when discussing the likely outcome for Thompson: being admitted to a care home.
It was impossible to look at Thompson’s circumstances – a modest home, a job repairing water mains (arranged by a friend after Thompson could no longer cope with his office job) without comparing them to those enjoyed by footballers. Of course the Premier League is awash with money, but Thompson’s lack of financial security – with four young children to support – after so many years in the professional game was striking.
“I’m going to forget so much, perhaps even my family, but I don’t want my family to forget who I am,” Thompson said. “Every week I feel a little bit more slips away.” But his legacy will include this brave film.