Jack Brown: From reluctant sportsman to wheelchair rugby league star

The most surprising fact about Jack Brown, to many, is that it was possible for him to be non-disabled and still win the first international Golden Boot in wheelchair rugby league.

Brown, meanwhile, is simply astonished he is playing any sport whatsoever, let alone potentially propelling England to World Cup glory on home turf in just over two weeks’ time.

After all, despite Halifax roots which would suggest a lifetime commitment to the code, Brown’s reality was very much the opposite.

“I was never into sport. I was one of the kids who used to hide at PE whenever they were going outside,” he told the PA news agency.

Wheelchair rugby league Jack Brown
Brown never expected to play sport at elite level (Rugby League World Cup)

“I’d only ever want to do the indoor sports, I hated the cold, I couldn’t handle it. That might be partly down to why I like wheelchair rugby league so much. You get to play inside where it’s warm.”

Brown has chased the warmth all the way to Australia, where he has lived and helped develop wheelchair rugby league, his unlikely life’s passion.

A staple of the England squad since 2005, Brown is also the most convincing poster-man for why his sport could be considered the world’s most inclusive, one of few where disabled and non-disabled athletes compete together at elite level.

Brown, one of two non-disabled players permitted per team, said: “I was allowed to play wheelchair basketball and things like that, but obviously not to international level, whereas wheelchair rugby league have sort of kept their inclusive ruling all the way through the entirety of the sport.

“That stands for men, women, children – there’s no restriction. When we start to think of non-disabled people playing in a wheelchair, when you watch the World Cup you’ll find it very difficult to work out who is disabled and who isn’t.

“Because the wheelchair is such a leveller. There’s some excellent non-disabled players and there’s some even better disabled players. The fact that it is just everyone on the same playing field, it makes it very easy not to see the disability.”

Viewers who find wheelchair rugby, aka ‘murderball’, too much of a departure from union may well prefer wheelchair rugby league, with rules like backward passing intact.

Brown’s younger brother Harry was the first to foray into sport, taking up wheelchair basketball aged 11. As Harry, who lost both legs to meningitis as a baby, tore up the court in his chair, Jack would sit idly in the stands.

One day, someone suggested Jack give it a go, too.

Harry Brown ParalympicsGB
Jack’s brother Harry is a two-time Paralympic bronze medallist in wheelchair basketball (Simon Cooper/PA)

“That was the first time I realised I was allowed to, that it’s OK for me to be in a wheelchair, that’s alright,” said Brown. “We were the youngest ones there and we did everyone’s head in. The old folks didn’t like doing suicides (a training method) and things like that, and me and Harry would drop the ball on purpose so we could race each other.”

The man who initially proposed Jack join Harry was Malcolm Kielty, whose MBE-earning claims to relatively unsung fame include introducing seven-time Paralympic gold medal-winning wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft to para sport.

He was also instrumental in bringing wheelchair rugby league, a fledging game in the early 2000s, to England and recruiting the Brown brothers to play an early tournament in France “in this sport no one has ever heard of”.

“We got absolutely annihilated by everybody, but we had the best time,” said Brown. “After that, it was just all in.”

All in for Jack, at least. Harry eventually chose the more lucrative wheelchair basketball life, and won his second Paralympic bronze for Great Britain last September.

This could be Jack’s time to shine.

England, ranked second in the world, will take on fourth-ranked Australia in their opening match at London’s Copper Box on November 3, with holders France facing Wales at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield the following day.

This is the first time the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions will all be hosted under one World Cup umbrella. It is also the first time the wheelchair competition will offer prize money, something Brown agreed is “groundbreaking for the sport”.

And as for any sibling rivalry, Jack certainly would not mind being the Brown brother with a medal around his neck this time when everything wraps up on November 18 in Manchester.

“We definitely want to come back with some gold,” he added. “We’ve done all the hard work already. We’ve just got to get it done now.”