Matt Gillett: 'I thought I shouldn't be walking'
It was three o'clock on the morning of Matt Gillett's meeting with the neurosurgeon in April.
A meeting that would decide far more than the fate of his season. He rolled over and picked up his phone. He couldn't sleep.
A quick Google search of the potential risks associated with surgery to repair a broken neck and suddenly Gillett's mind began to wander.
Damage resulting in stroke. Damage resulting in paralysis.
"I just started running all those scenarios through my head," he told NRL.com.
"Just preparing for the worst."
His wife, Skye, asleep next to him. His kids Harper, four, and Hunter, one, in their bedrooms nearby.
An agonising reminder of what was at stake. "I was just shocked," he said.
"I was thinking about what could have been. Missing out on those little things … If things were a lot worse I could have been in a wheelchair.
"Not being able to enjoy running around with the kids and helping them grow up and enjoy their lives. Those couple of days between finding out and going to see the neurosurgeon, I was thinking the worst."
That night, Gillett was ready to retire. But what began as the most feared day of his life ended far less severe than the 30-year-old had prepared to face.
"My wife was crying," he said. "She was just so relieved."
It all began on the opening night of the season at Kogarah against St George Illawarra on March 8.
Under the weight of Luciano Leilua, his neck gave way. Not that he knew. "I just thought it was a nerve or muscle in my neck," he said.
The next day, following the loss to the Dragons, the Brisbane players had a get-together.
"I was moving around like a robot. I couldn't turn to have a look," he said.
A few painkillers and anti-inflammatories later, Gillett was preparing for another game of football the following week.
Unaware of the stable fracture in his neck, the Queensland and Australian international played every minute of the next four games, albeit a shadow of the player he was.
"I was shying away from my usual self," Gillett said. "I like to be pretty aggressive in defence. But in my head I was thinking 'just make the tackle, hit, stick and hold'. I was taking it a bit easy.
"Taking hit-ups I was just taking it in and turning my back in for some reason. It was my body telling me something just wasn't right."
At the airport returning to Brisbane after the club's round-five loss to the Knights at McDonald Jones Stadium, hooker Andrew McCullough and assistant coach Jason Demetriou confronted Gillett.
They could see what Gillett didn't want to admit such was his commitment to the team – that something was seriously wrong.
The next day, after a scan of the neck, his life was turned upside down.
"If you ever get a chance to look at the scan, it wasn't too far from going right through," Gillett said of the C5 fracture.
He'd just heard the words no footballer, or person for that matter, ever want to hear. That the pain subsiding from his body was the result of a broken neck.
"I was shocked. I thought things should be much worse for me," he said.
"I thought I shouldn't be walking or something should be different … If I would have got another crusher tackle, another bad one of those it could have pushed it over the edge and things could have got a lot worse. I'm pretty lucky I got away with it.
"The emotions were ups and downs. Thinking about will I play footy again? Will I need surgery? Thinking the worse if that fracture got another bad knock things could have been a lot worse."
The days between his scan results and his appointment with the neurosurgeon felt like months.
He didn't sleep. Overwhelmed with emotion, Gillett could only think of what he was agonisingly close to losing.
His son's swimming lessons. His daughter's ballet and gymnastics classes.
And how hard it would have been to be part of their lives if he was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his days.
"A bit of a scare in my life has probably taught me not to take those little things in life for granted," he said.
"They're growing up so fast. Just enjoying those little moments. Beforehand you're pretty busy with rugby league and you're away all the time. Watching them grow has been pretty cool to do."
Gillett has always appreciated what is important to him in life.
It's why in 2008 he opted to play with his closest friends in the local first-grade grand final in front of hundreds instead of with the Brisbane Broncos in the under 20s grand final against Canberra in front of thousands at ANZ Stadium.
The 30-year-old hasn't played since his injury. He won't do so again this year, either.
Initially, he was meant to miss 8-12 weeks, with some rating him a chance of featuring in this year's State of Origin series.
But each time he thought he was on the verge of returning, the doctors intervened.
"It was disappointing that every time I got a scan they would say 'come back in six weeks'," Gillett said.
"Then the next time 'come back in five weeks'. I was always getting my hopes up to come back this year. I was telling the boys 'if this next scan is right then two weeks after that I'll be back into it'.
"I'm sure if it was a fracture in my arm or leg and they said it was almost healed I'd be out there playing. You can't mess with the neck."
The delay in recovery resulted in some apprehension on Gillett's end, especially when at his last appointment he was told to return in three months.
"Why isn't it healing?" Gillett thought. "Why is it taking so long?"
He recently booked a visit to the neurosurgeon to allay his fears, in which he was assured he would be back on the paddock next season.
Not that rugby league is as important as it once was.
"Things could have been a lot more serious than they were with the neck injury," he said. "I always tell myself that every morning driving into training 'life's not that bad'. There are plenty more important things in life than rugby league."