The former Scotland back-rower retired from the game in September following a lengthy lay-off with concussion
Long-term injury: David Denton deals with life after rugby
David Denton retired from rugby in September after almost 14 months on the sidelines dealing with debilitating concussion. Today he is positive about the future and appreciative of the support he received at Leicester Tigers. But after calling time on his career then, the recovery goes on.
“Other than golf, I’ve probably done three days’ exercise in nine months,” the 42-cap Scotland back-row reveals at the end of November. “It’s really, really tough. And that’s all in the last few weeks. I’m slowly trying to get back into exercise now because the last bit of getting rid of the last symptoms is going to come from doing exercise.
“But I need to get the balance right. Because if I go too hard I’m going to be straight back to square one and then I’m gonna have to wait another month or two before I can start easing back into it again.”
It’s not quite as bad as fearing a short run for the bus or picking up his baby, but there are shadows from his past life that can make you flinch.
He explains: “I haven’t watched a huge amount of rugby in the last however long but when I’ve been watching rugby matches I’m like, ‘oh my God’. I can’t fathom running into a group of bodies and, yeah, having a massive collision. I just can’t fathom that.
“A short burst of exercise isn’t gonna floor me but it’s like I said, if I try to go too fast… I’m slowly doing what I’m doing. I’m actually swimming. So if I jumped into a pool and tried to swim a (kilometre) straight off the bat, I’d be pretty f***** up for a couple of days, I’d say.”
Clearly the Zimbabwe-born bruiser would love to have hung up the boots at a time of his choosing. At 29 then, he should have been bashing tacklers in that all-too-familiar Denton style. Having joined Leicester following stints with Worcester and Bath after a move south from Edinburgh, he put together six games for them and wanted to give fans something to appreciate.
Life does not always work like that. He tells Rugby World that for the year leading up to the big decision, he had gone to bed every night with a headache. As the days went on he would get worse and it exacted a psychological toll – “The idea of getting back on the field was weighing me down,” he says.
In the current issue of Rugby World magazine, Henry Trinder talks us through his comeback from a ruptured Achilles. In the piece, the Gloucester centre talks of hunting down small goals. Reflecting on this, Denton reveals that one of the most frustrating elements of his time out with concussion was that for eight months he saw no change in his condition. From the day it happened, he says, until just over a month before today, there was very little change.
After a scattering of tests and consultations over the near-14 months with six or seven specialists, by the time he went to the same London specialist’s office he’d visited over and over for the last year to get the final news – the Leicester physios even asked the night before if the back-rower wanted family with him – there was a scintilla of relief.
“It wasn’t a big emotive moment for me, mate,” Denton adds. “It was just a point of putting a full-stop on it. Because I already knew what was going to be said. I remember feeling a bit funny about (the meeting) the night before. I knew this thing that had been lingering over me was finally about to happen, but when it did it wasn’t a big draining moment.”
Since his retirement, Tigers have continued to help him out. Their extended network of influential figures has come to the fore. Not to give him a job but to chat through his options, how they can help, offering advice.
During his time out, Denton deferred an MBA at Warwick’s business school twice, before eventually abandoning it. He has moved back to Edinburgh with his young family, but he believes his skill-set can help him fit into the business world and it is likely his search for a new vocation will lead him to London.
After his convalescence and time spent with family back in Africa, he is looking ahead with a sense of renewed vigour. The new diet might help too.
“I was a professional athlete for ten years and my diet’s never been as healthy as it is now because back then I just got away with it,” he laughs. “My genetic make-up just meant that whatever I ate was converted straight into energy. It was fantastic and I pretty much ate what I wanted, whereas now I can’t.
“This is not a problem I’ve ever had before but for some reason sugar sends me (into a bad state). So my diet’s improved massively. That includes things like white carbs because they spike my glucose levels. So I have to keep an eye on that now.
“It’s not about aesthetics. That’s not why I’m dieting. I’m dieting because I want to feel normal.”
For those who saw him dig in on the field, it will come as no surprise that he wants to get going on a new route as soon as he is ready for it. “I genuinely feel really positive about that,” he says, before adding: “I’ve also been incredibly humbled by how great the rugby network has been for me since I’ve retired.”
Dealing with long-term injury can be a frustrating and lonely place. Transitioning out of the game is also something many want to understand more. For Denton, he is keen to impress on people how he can contribute to any new workplace straightaway. That’s the next big step in recovery.
To read our long-read on long-term injury, check out the new issue of Rugby World.
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