Doddie Weir and Matt Hampson have joined forces to launch a charity fundraising dinner in November. Rugby World reports on the work of these remarkable men
Doddie and Hambo launch joint fundraising dinner
The Belfry was the spectacular setting for a special announcement last week as two inspirational rugby men came together at the famous Warwickshire resort.
Overlooking the pristine golf course that staged four memorable Ryder Cup battles between 1985 and 2002, Doddie Weir and Matt Hampson took lunch with members of the media and explained their latest initiative: a rugby captains dinner to raise funds and awareness for their respective charities, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and Matt Hampson Foundation.
The dinner, which takes place at London’s Battersea Evolution on 21 November, unites two causes close to rugby’s heart.
Doddie was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in December 2016 and has since raised millions through his foundation to provide grants for MND sufferers and fund research into the incurable disease.
“The life expectancy of someone with MND is one to three years and that has propelled me a bit,” says the 48-year-old ex-Scotland lock. “Fighting for a cure is what drives me. My frustration is that one drug came out 25 years ago which most patients are not on and nothing has been done since to give anyone with MND even a wee chance.
“This disease is horrific. It takes away the muscles from your legs and arms and eventually you can’t speak, you can’t swallow, you can’t breathe. It totally shuts down your body until you are left communicating with your eyes.
“But Matt and I both have positive thinking; once you lose that you’re in a bit of trouble. You’ve got to fight for your place on the team! Don’t give in!”
Resplendent in a tartan designed specially for his charity – the blue is for Scotland, the black & yellow for Melrose, and the black & white for Newcastle – Doddie is refusing to let MND take a hold on his life. The day-time event at the Belfry enabled him to travel up and down from his home near Melrose in the same day, albeit that he needed to rise at 4.30am to catch a 6.52am train. Typical of the big man, he chose to do the journey alone instead of bringing a companion so he could retain his sense of independence.
“I like to set targets. Often Gary Armstrong or my good lady (Kathy) come to places with me but I wanted to do it on my own, and I can do that because it’s a lunch, not an evening event.
“It sounds easy getting something to eat and drink, walking up stairs or along a platform, getting tickets out, but it’s not easy for me. I had a couple of snoozes on the way.”
It was no one-off act of defiance. The previous day he had helped with clipping the sheep on the farm, standing in the pen and trying to usher the animals through.
“It’s difficult because my arms don’t work. I had a fall two or three months ago and it was like falling with your hands in your pocket. I tripped over a hose.” The accident left him with a gashed head and a collapsed lung, leading to three days in hospital.
Whilst Doddie talks, Bryan Redpath sorts out a cut-up burger from the barbeque for his long-time friend and team-mate. The former international scrum-half and captain played with Doddie through age groups, schools and club rugby, as well as for Scotland, sharing a changing room for 50-odd of his 60 Test caps.
“I’ve known Doddie for 35 years but it’s more where he is now that has impressed me the most,” says Redpath. “When you look at what he’s doing and what he’s encountered in the last two-and-a-half years, it’s phenomenal. To raise just shy of four-and-a-half million pounds in two years is phenomenal for anybody, not just Doddie.
“His personality to care for others is his biggest asset. It was his biggest asset as a player. He has dealt with his illness in a way that not many have or can; certainly I couldn’t deal with it the way Doddie has. He is an inspiration and that’s why he’s raised such a lot of money.
“He’s reaching into every corner of the room; whether it’s a dustbin driver or a chief executive or a sportsman, his character reaches out to all them. He’s a classy man and he’s got a lot of dignity, and that makes a difference because everybody can relate to him.”
Rugby World is introduced to Dave Needham, a crossover between the two charities because he is a MND sufferer benefiting from the Get Busy Living Centre in Leicestershire that has changed the lives of so many people. Matt Hampson was left paralysed from the neck down after a rugby training accident in 2005 and the rehabilitation centre – which opened last autumn – is the awe-inspiring result of many years’ work by his foundation supporting those with catastrophic injuries.
“It’s hard to put into words how important the centre has been for me,” says Needham. “The facilities they provide there are so focused on spinal injuries and neurological conditions. My situation would be considerably more difficult if it wasn’t for the guys at the centre making me so welcome.”
I ask Needham to tell his story and he is happy to oblige. He used to play lock forward for a Leicestershire village side, Cosby. The first inkling that something was amiss came when, aged 39, he tried to push in the scrum and realised he was unable to do so. “The guys ahead of me screamed at me, “Put some power through!” I was doing my best but there was nothing there. The scrum went backwards and sideways and I went over and did my ankle.”
This was in 2009 and he took it as a sign that his body was telling him to stop, so he packed in playing sport. But things didn’t improve and the turning point came one morning when he was walking on a Zebra crossing.
“I became conscious of a car coming from the right that wasn’t going to give way. I tried to move quicker and I must have looked as if I was absolutely hammered as I staggered off the crossing. I can remember almost falling over but pushing myself back up.
“I felt utter embarrassment and the first thing I did was look around to see if anyone had seen me. Luckily nobody had. It was just that transition from a walk to a jog. I told my wife and she said in no uncertain terms to go and see a doctor.”
It can take a while for MND to be diagnosed while tests eliminate other possibilities. In Dave’s case, it was three years before the news he feared was confirmed, and it might have been longer had he not asked to be referred to a leading neurological expert, Professor Dame Pamela Shaw in Sheffield.
He decided not to take the one drug available in the UK for treating MND, Riluzole – “It can affect the liver quite badly,” he says – and instead chose to adopt two diets: the Keto diet (low carb, high fat) and the Paleo diet, based on whole foods and designed to resemble what hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago. “The diets slowed the progression of the disease,” he says. “I’m now in my tenth year with MND.”
He believes leading an active life is fundamental to fighting the condition and as well as visiting the Get Busy Living Centre at least three times a week for gym sessions, he plays wheelchair rugby for Leicester Tigers. “It’s a terrific game,” he says.
Two years ago he became the first person to complete the Yorkshire Three Peaks in an all-terrain chair and in September he is doing the Great North Run to raise money for the Matt Hampson Foundation. Click here if you would like to sponsor him.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by Dave Needham, and ‘Hambo’ himself is another who has made incredible things happen from the most appalling of circumstances.
During a previous interview we did with Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back was at pains to convey his admiration for the man whose foundation instils hope and optimism in people who could easily fall into a cycle of despair.
“Matt Hampson is one of the most inspirational guys I’ve come across,” Goode, the reigning European Player of the Year, told us. “He could have just taken the support he got and been happy, but he has galvanised more and more people, with his dinners, his walk, his charity events so that he can raise money for unfortunate people, people who have been dealt a horrific hand to their children.
“The emotional support he and his parents give to other parents who have been through such traumatic times is just incredible. And the support they give with building wheelchairs or designing a house so you can get around easier is incredible. He could be so bitter because of the way he wasn’t treated correctly at the start, but he’s not. His motto is ‘Get busy living’ and he does that.
“I think the Hambo Foundation is amazing and the support he receives from the rugby community speaks volumes. They’re incredible people and do an incredible job.”
Matt Hampson and Doddie Weir, two men conquering adversity and giving so much back to the world that shaped them. Let’s get behind them and make their joint fundraising dinner on 21 November an extra special occasion.
For details of the captains dinner at Battersea Evolution or to book, click here. Or contact Clare@ourlegend.com.