Ackerman family look ahead after tragedy
Working in sport I am often quarantined from the horror stories that many of my colleagues in the Nine newsroom have to cover daily, but this week was different.
I sat down with the family of Sunshine Coast footballer James Ackerman, who tragically passed away last week after being injured during a game in Brisbane.
Wife Saraa, children Milly and Ollie, parents Michael and Sonya, brothers Andrew and Thomas, team mates, friends and the entire Queensland rugby league community have been devastated by the loss.
I never knew James but now, privileged to have learnt a little about this exceptional young man, I am also devastated by the loss.
Michael and Sonya are two of the most impressive people I have ever encountered but I wish, given the circumstances, we'd never met. Sitting down with grieving parents less than a week after they farewelled their 25-year-old son in the most tragic of circumstances was confronting, but their strength, resilience and absolute compassion was so inspiring. Being invited to help tell their story is an absolute honour.
They feel no anger, just sadness. They are shocked and overwhelmed by grief, but also by love and the outpouring of support since the accident.
James was playing for the Falcons when he suffered fatal head injuries during a tackle. He was taken to hospital but never regained consciousness.
His family were all at the game, as they have been every single week since James was seven years old and fell in love with footy. Defining all that being a loving and close-knit family encompasses, they were always there. His two young children - Milly, and mini-me Ollie - were both at the game. James had run over to the car to give them a quick hug before running out against Norths Devils, and they didn't see the tackle as they were playing games... a small mercy.
I asked James' mum Sonya about the last thing she'd said to him before he played, and her response was instant and assured: "The same thing I'd said to him before every game - play hard... play tough".
James only ever played hard and tough. He was a man of few words, who did all his talking on the field. He always gave the game he loved everything, and he was still chasing the NRL dream. His dad Michael told me about the pride he took in the jersey - it didn't matter what team he was playing for, what level, what type of match, or what was on the line. He was passionate about pride - he thought every player should have their socks pulled up, he thought that kind of stuff mattered and that says a lot about the kind of man James was.
He wasn't perfect by any means, no one is, but he cared about people. His brothers recalled James' reaction to the poverty he had encountered on a trip to play against the Kumuls over in Papua New Guinea - profoundly moved, he was affected for days afterwards.
He was always trying to help those less fortunate - the battler, the underdog, anyone experiencing any kind of adversity - that's just the kind of bloke he was.
And that's exactly why his dad called Frances Molo - the young Broncos player involved in the tackle - just an hour after his son passed away. Michael spoke to Frances, assured him that it wasn't his fault, and offered further reassurance that the family doesn't blame him - indeed that he has all their love and support.
Saraa expressed to me a very emotional and sincere hope that Frances makes it in the NRL and that he has a wonderful career and is happy. This sincerity and care for others is also why the family made the decision to donate all of James' organs, tissue and skin. Twenty people will live better lives because of James' and the family's decision - how wonderful.
I asked the family how they felt about rugby league now. Whether they could muster the physical strength and emotional fortitude to watch a game. Yes they can and they already have. Whether they wanted to game to change? They said not at all. They said James would be appalled if anything changed after his death or because of him. He loved the game he played, just as it was.
The road to recovery for the entire Ackerman family will be incredibly difficult with unimaginable challenges, sad and long.
A trust fund has been set up to help support James' wife and two children. If you are able to assist these incredibly deserving members of our rugby league family in a financial way, please give what you can. Every contribution will be gratefully received xxx
James Ackerman Trust Fund
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Erin's full story on James Ackerman and his family will be shown on The Footy Show from 8.30pm Thursday on Channel Nine.