Stephen's rugby redemption
As a fit 42-year-old Loch Lomond rugby player and mini’s coach Stephen Daly might have seemed like an unlikely candidate for a stroke.
So last December, when he woke up feeling a ‘bit strange’ he put it down to just being under the weather.
Then he had to embark on a ten-month journey which tested his character and spirit to the limits but ended in rugby redemption.
“I was tired and sore in my right arm as if I’d been sleeping on it, but I got up and made breakfast as usual, messed about on my phone checking social media and took it easy.
“Around lunchtime I was aware I wasn’t feeling any better. We’d planned to take the dogs to the park, but I told my wife Caroline that I was still feeling rubbish, so I didn’t want to go.”
Whilst at home with his daughter Rebecca and son Adam, Stephen’s right leg began to feel funny.
“I still wasn’t thinking there was something seriously wrong, but I messaged Caroline to come home. She came back quickly but by that point I found myself unable to get words out and I could hardly use my right side at all, so the ambulance was called.
“I was taken to the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley and, thankfully, by the time I arrived my blood pressure was reducing, and I was beginning to find my words again.”
It was there that the doctors confirmed Stephen had had a stroke caused by a blood clot.
“At 42-years-old (at the time) I was absolutely shocked. I had no underlying health conditions plus I was fairly fit and active.”
Whilst nothing could have prepared Stephen for the situation he now found himself in, lots of people were by his side for the recovery process.
“I was supported brilliantly by a number of medical professionals and stroke specialists, including a stroke psychologist who really helped take the terror away.
“My recovery, like the majority of stroke recovery, hasn’t followed one path to improvement. Some days I felt like I was making ground, and the next day I’d wake up and the symptoms were back."
“It’s so difficult to remember there’s nothing directly wrong with the parts affected and that it’s a brain injury causing the difficulties. But the love and support of my family and friends got me through the darkest days.” Stephen Daly
After being supported to return to work three months post-stroke, next on the list was a return to physical activity.
“I was encouraged by my consultant to ensure I was getting moderate exercise each day. My family and my friends, including the boys from Loch Lomond rugby club, were great at encouraging me out the house for a walk.
“As my health was improving, the rugby boys were making some noises about me being fit enough to get back on the pitch. I wasn’t all that sure initially but the more I thought about it, I realised, the idea of not being at rugby because of something that wasn’t my choice - my stroke - was actually quite upsetting.
“So, I made myself a promise. Nothing will hold me back from doing anything I want to in life. I could keep feeling sorry for myself or I could try hard to get better.”
As lockdown measures began to lift across the country, Loch Lomond rugby club’s activities began to pick up again and Stephen got stuck back into it.
“It started off with socially distanced, non-contact training and I thought, ‘I could do that’. There was a lot of running and circuits involved but I did it.
“In a lot of ways, I found coming back to rugby that I was on a level playing field with everyone. We all had to build our fitness levels back up, and we all had to do it in a phased approach because of the guidelines at the time.
“When it came to contact training though, my confidence was still shattered so once that resumed, I stayed out of it. I just wasn’t ready.”
It was here Stephen suffered a new setback. Following a change in his medication, he suddenly found himself struggling to get back out the door due to anxiety. But again, with the support from his family and ‘the rugby boys’, Stephen was able to find his way back.
“The friendship and support I’ve had from the boys really helped me to get back out there again. I was just so pleased to be wanted and appreciated despite how I felt about myself.”
Stephen continued to train and following the resumption of Scottish Rugby’s Tennent’s league competitions, the idea of returning to play was soon to become a reality.
As the Loch Lomond senior men’s team started to make their preparations and select a team for their fixture against the Isle of Mull on Saturday 2 October, numbers were looking a bit thin on the ground.
“Unfortunately, over the last few weeks players have picked up injuries and a number of guys had work commitments, so we only had 15 players. In the spur of the moment, I told our head coach Stephen Dennison, I’d come along and be their sub.
“Everyone knew that I wasn’t there to make an impact but the team, my friends and my family also knew this was a big deal. The plan was I’d come on with minutes to go, and that would be me.”
But as the saying goes, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley”.
An injury at 20 minutes meant it was time for Stephen to make his return to the pitch much sooner than he had anticipated.
“I didn’t have any time to think about it. I pulled on the famous maroon and gold of Loch Lomond and made my way to the scrum to take my place in the second row. We won the scrum and took Mull for a little walk up the pitch before we broke away in attack. Subsequently I enjoyed line-out action and made a tackle before being cleared out at the ruck.
“I managed 20 minutes of game time, and then our previously injured player was cleared to come back onto the pitch, which was a bit of a relief for me.
“Whilst I definitely had a moment of feeling ‘rugby looks much easier on TV than it is in real life to play’, I didn’t think once, ‘I’ve had a stroke what am I doing here?’”.
Although Mull went on to win 27-0, Stephen expressed that for him the result didn’t matter because he’d delivered on his promise, not to let anything hold him back.
“Whilst we were waiting on the ferry home, I encouraged the boys in for a photo. I was feeling emotional as I knew I’d kept my promise to myself and reached a huge milestone. The trip home was great. We were all together and having a laugh. It was just like a typical Saturday of rugby.
“I had a really great time back on the pitch, so I’ll continue to train and maybe occasionally be a sub when the numbers are short. But for now, I’ll go back to being the best touch judge in Scotland and supporting the Minis at the club.”
Reflecting on the last ten months of his life, Stephen draws many parallels to the sport he loves.
“When my life all turned sour for a moment, the important people all turned up and made sure I was ok. That feels like rugby. It’s a bit like I was on the ground in the ruck and my team stepped over me, not just to secure the ball, but to make sure I was ok because I’m in their team.
“I’ll never forget it and I want to do the same for anyone in the rugby community by telling my story. I know I am not alone as a young person who has suffered a stroke, and I want others in the same position to know that there is hope and that there are people you can turn to for support.”