Mario Fenech opens up about the brain damage he suffered as a player opens up about the brain damage he suffered as a player
The Sydney Morning Herald
The whisper around rugby league was that "The Falcon" wasn't in a good way. That the brain damage he suffered during a brutal rugby league career was starting to really take hold.
"Who said that?" asks Mario Fenech, perplexed. "Yes, I have no worries saying that I've had some problems in years gone by. I suffered significant head knocks as a player. I would've been knocked out eight or nine times a season. I knew that I was going to pay a price one day. But thankfully I have great people around me now."
Fenech is speaking to Fairfax Media for two reasons: to allay fears about his health, and also hammer home the importance of the strict concussion rules the NRL will again enforce this season.
Photo: James Brickwood
Fighting for a cause: Mario Fenech applauds the new concussion rules.
Two years ago, he admitted publicly he had suffered brain damage during his 15 seasons of first grade, mostly for Souths and then North Sydney. Since then, and especially in the past few months, there has been speculation about his heath
But Fenech says the fears are unfounded.
In the past eight months, having sought the advice of his former doctor at the Rabbitohs, Nathan Gibbs, and then St Vincent's neurologist Susan Tomlinson, his life has improved dramatically since being prescribed Aricept, a drug commonly used to treat dementia.
The face of aggression: Mario Fenech rallies his troops after a Balmain try in 1989. Photo: Quentin Jones
"It's changed my life," Fenech, 54, says. "I'm a lot better now. I've travelled some hard roads, but I'm optimistic about the way my brain functions. Basically, I take a tablet every evening before I go to bed. What that does is provide my brain with subliminal fluid, to settle it down. The problem I have is irritation because of the brain injuries. Brains react in different ways. Mine gets irritated, so this settles my brain down like an anti-inflammatory. My memory is better. I feel blessed. Because you get worried, mate."
Which brings us to the second reason Fenech has opened up about the brain injuries he suffered from playing a game he didn't so much love but, as the son of Maltese immigrants to Australia in the late 1960s, needed – to gain acceptance.
Fenech played it as tough as any player you might find in your Scanlens deck of footy cards.
Two greats: Mario Fenech and boxing champion Jeff Fenech in 1987. Photo: Paul Mathews
In his era, you only left the field if you were missing a limb. As the proud captain of the South Sydney Rugby League Football Club, leaving the field simply wasn't an option.
He once broke his thumb on Brett Kenny's head in the opening minute of a match against Parramatta – and played the full 80 minutes. He tore the tendon off his shoulder while tackling Cronulla winger Andrew Ettingshausen and played through the pain.
Most mornings, he wakes up with pins and needles in both hands, the legacy of a worn disc in his neck from being dropped on his head so many times.
"You look at how hard-headed I was," Fenech says. "I remember getting knocked out that many times and I would never leave the field. You know why? Because I was a lunatic. And I was the captain, I wasn't going anywhere and I was not leaving the field. I would stay on with concussion. Now, I wouldn't have a choice. 'Falcon, you're off!' In my era, you had a choice."
This is the cultural shift the game is still coming to terms with. As legions of former NFL players take legal action against their governing body over concussion, the NRL is asking itself similar questions.
"I was fronted up about suing the league," Fenech says. "But it wasn't an option."
Last April, NRL head of football Todd Greenberg slapped Parramatta with a $20,000 fine for not following procedures properly. At the same time, the rules around whether a player can return to the field having shown signs of concussion were strengthened.
Despite this, the tough new-world rules pull against the game's old-school ethos which says it's weak to leave the field prematurely.
"I can understand why players resist – because I resisted," Fenech says. "Looking back, I was extremely concerned about my health because I had suffered quite a number of brain injuries.
"I'm glad the officials of the game had the balls to make the right decisions. If you want kids to play rugby league, it's very important that you protect the head of the player. It's not rocket science.
"People say the game has become weak. Mate, the game is still tough enough as it is. You don't need to hit people around the head because look what can happen. I've been through it. If you've had a head knock you should leave the field. I wish this was around when I was playing. When I watch the player walk off now I think, 'I wish that was around when I was playing'.
"Rugby league's a better game now. I don't believe in that bullshit that rugby league isn't tough. I would've loved playing in this era. I would've been sent off a few times but that's another story."
Given his level of fitness, you suspect Falcon could still play. A legendary trainer, he fronted the gym on the morning we met at 4.30am.
His specialists tell him his physical health is fundamental to improving his brain function.
"All I want to do is function properly," he says. "I've got a lot of life to live. I'm 54 years old. That's what I was concerned about. I have a family – my son's 21 and my daughter is 19 – and I've got a lot of life left to live. It's important that I'm here for them. If you had told me to change a thing, I wouldn't. It was a great honour for me to play for Souths, and to lead my team, and I wouldn't change any of it.
"But it's important the next generation of players do not have to suffer the brain injuries that I have."