Ex-Wales star Alix Popham and his wife Mel are at the heart of a new charity promoting brain health. The couple tell RW about the distressing circumstances that gave rise to it
Alix Popham dementia highlights need for Head for Change
Seeing players take a blow to the head makes uncomfortable viewing. Yet there was something reassuring about the spate of red cards branded for dangerous challenges in last weekend’s Gallagher Premiership. It suggested that rugby is tackling the issue of concussion with the seriousness it demands.
Ahead of last year’s Six Nations, I interviewed Alix Popham, the former Wales back-row who was part of the 2008 Grand Slam-winning side. Unbeknown to me, he was already displaying behavioural changes as a result of early onset dementia.
Recently, I rang Popham again and this time he passed the phone to his wife, Mel. The effect of his condition meant answering my questions would require a concentration level and memory recall that he couldn’t expect to meet.
“Alix was diagnosed (with dementia) in April 2020. But for about a year up until then, there were countless differences in his behaviour,” explains Mel.
“His short-term memory was the most obvious, things like his concentration and filtering out noise. I thought he was going deaf but his hearing is perfect, it’s the part of his brain that filters. If the television is on and I speak to him, we have to mute the TV.”
There were “big situations” too, none bigger than when Alix started a kitchen fire – with the couple’s daughter in a high chair – after forgetting he’d put the grill on. When he got lost on a bike ride, following a route he’d taken hundreds of times, he broke down in frustration.
“I knew there was something amiss. We’ve been friends since we were 11 years old, so we know each other’s make-up,” Mel says. “My fear when we went to the GP was that Alix had a brain tumour. How wrong I got that one. I was floored when we got the diagnosis. I’d never heard of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), I’m not an NFL fan.
“A week after Alix’s diagnosis we went to watch Concussion, the film with Will Smith. A very, very powerful film. In hindsight, it was probably the wrong thing to do a week after the diagnosis with my stepdaughters. We all sat and sobbed. But it gave me even more impetus and motivation to know that we could do something to help.”
That ‘help’ has come in the form of a new charity, Head for Change. Its mission statement is to “pioneer positive change for brain health in sport and support ex-players who are affected by neurodegenerative disease as a result of their career playing football or rugby”.
The genesis for the charity was, in large part, the sense of hopelessness that Mel felt at being told her husband had a disease for which there is no cure and no treatment.
“I was at a complete loss for information or support, how I go about telling his daughters that he’s got dementia. And I was at that point kindly connected to Dr Judith Gates, who is the wife of Bill Gates, the retired Middlesbrough footballer (who has dementia). She supported me, gave me advice on how to deal with the children and come to terms with our situation.
“She asked Alix, ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’ They’ve taken a very positive and pragmatic approach to family and that prompted us to want to do the same. And from that, May time (2020), we both had a passion for doing something good, and doing something with a charity because there was an urgent need for care and support.
“For me that biggest clarity of purpose is that parent support for affected players, either diagnosis or pre-diagnosis as they go through testing. This cohort is late 30s and early 40s, these aren’t grandparents who are retired. We think of dementia as an old person’s disease but these are young men, with jobs and careers and young children. The impact on their life is huge. And that was our big call for action.”
A who’s who from elite sport have offered to be ambassadors for the charity. They include Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France winner, who last year raised more than £300,000 for the NHS from a gruelling 36-hour cycling challenge.
His efforts got Alix thinking. He’d been using Zwift, the indoor cycling app, because it was safer for him than going outdoors. He decided to create the Rugby Ride Challenge as the charity’s first fundraising event. It’s a two-day event on 6-7 March in which participants try to rack up as many miles as possible across up to six two-hour stages.
More than 100 former international rugby players are taking part and everybody is encouraged to join in. In a nod to the Six Nations, the idea is to “join your country and ride with your rugby heroes” to see who will emerge top from a field of Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and the Rest of the World.
Related content: Sign up for the Rugby Ride Challenge
“It’s a competition between the guys and the participants getting on their bikes and also for school kids, for people at home, everyone,” Mel says. “People are struggling with their mental health because they can’t be out there playing the team sports that they want to. We’ve already got quite a few schools on board with this who are going to be riding. Alix is planning to do the full 24 hours.
“It’s going to be fun but the main purpose is as a fundraiser because we need urgent support. £50 pays for an hour of psychotherapy counselling for an affected player.
“When I read the article on Dan Vickerman in The Times I sat and sobbed because it broke my heart that this guy felt he had nowhere to go. And didn’t know what was happening to him. We lived through that for a year, not knowing what was happening to us, and why these symptoms were occurring.”
Head for Change is about research, education and support. It’s not about demanding that rugby’s rulers make significant changes to the game – that’s being addressed elsewhere. Popham is part of a group bringing a concussion lawsuit because of alleged negligence by the game’s authorities.
The group released what they term the 15 Commandments, a series of measures they believe would help protect rugby players from concussion and CTE.
Related content: World Rugby facing concussion lawsuit
One of the major ones is reducing contact in training, something that could be done swiftly and replicate what the NFL has done. It’s estimated that 85% of Popham’s contacts came from training.
Giving pro players an ‘MOT’ is another one, as occurs in boxing. When signing a professional contract, a player could have an MOT on the brain to establish a baseline. And if players’ medical records were on a centralised database with World Rugby, it would be accessible. Popham played for Newport, Leeds, Scarlets and Brive but each club wouldn’t have known how many concussions he had incurred.
“Our priority is to protect the players and protect the game,” says Mel. “I still love rugby, Alix doesn’t regret playing rugby. He played from the age of four and it was his life ambition to play in a World Cup, to play for Wales. As a schoolboy, he was training harder than anyone, going into tackles harder than anyone. Alix and Ryan Jones were at school with me.
“We’ve both been brought up on rugby, my family is a rugby family, we absolutely do not want to see the game damaged. It’s about the things that can be done around that game on a Saturday to make this a safer sport at all levels.”
Doctors estimate that Popham experienced more than 100,000 subconcussions during his career – effectively the brain reverberating in his skull as the body makes contact.
“Alix has a very patchy memory of a lot of his playing career. We thought he was losing his memories but that’s not the case – his brain never stored them at the time. His brain was like a camera taking pictures without any film in.
“He has no emotional memory of meeting Nelson Mandela, the proudest moment of his life. He has no emotional memory of England v Wales when Wales won at Twickenham for the first time in 20-odd years and as a result went on to win the Grand Slam.
“We’ve got the medal and shirt on our wall. It was his last game for Wales. We watched that together with the children, it was on BBC Wales in lockdown, and his face was just blank. He said, ‘Nothing is coming back to me’. His memories have been pieced together through articles, match reports, YouTube videos, the jerseys and caps, what people have told him.”
Since his diagnosis, Alix has gone teetotal and switched to a 95% Mediterranean diet: lots of veg, fish, only one steak permitted a week. He’s got a swimming teacher and is training to do the Tenby Ironman event that takes place in September 2022.
He’ll be part of a scientific experiment, one of a squad of affected players who will be tested to assess the impact of elevated oxygen flow to the brain. Such research could pave the way for interventions that could slow the brain’s degeneration, reduce the symptoms.
“Dementia has become the biggest killer in the UK. A long-term goal here is connecting the best brains in science and research to tackle this problem,” says Mel.
“A bigger picture here is that there’s a lot that you and I can do as non-contact, non-professional sportspeople to future-proof our brains from dementia that I’ve learned about from the amazing people I’ve been speaking to for the last eight months.
“Do three sessions of cardio exercise a week and by the age of 80 your brain will be 15 years younger. Cutting down alcohol, cutting sugar out of your diet, following the Mediterranean diet – there’s messaging there that can help people beyond those affected with this.”
Alix chips in at this point. “And that will help the wider population with dementia. We’re not saying they have to sign up for an Ironman but three walks a week could help. For me it’s the little 1%s, the diet, exercise, all coming together to hopefully keep me for as long as possible in a better frame of mind. Better able. We want people to join us and be part of the solution.”
Before we finish, Mel tells me about an email from a guy who had played schoolboy rugby and lost a best friend at the age of 18 in a farming accident. The friend was a Welsh boy in an English boarding school and Alix was his favourite player. He used to go into every big tackle on the pitch shouting “Release the Popham!”
So this group of 15 boys set up a WhatsApp group and planned to do something to mark the tenth anniversary of their friend’s death. When they heard about Head for Change, they knew their late friend could have thought of no more suitable cause. They will be doing a charity hike in October on the Welsh borders – and Alix Popham has offered to do it with them.
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