Former Wests Tigers player Shaun Spence on overcoming depression and finding his ‘reason’
December 28, 2017 5:46pm
Nick WalshawThe Daily Telegraph
SHAUN Spence keeps a small blackboard beside his bed.
On it, Find The Reason handwritten in chalk.
Which is why, each week, this energised 26-year-old trains a group of homeless men at Concord Oval.
And why recently, he signed on as head coach of Australia’s Physical Disability team, too.
Elsewhere, Spence works with prisoners. Alcoholics and disengaged high schoolers.
All up, responsible for some 60 programs as Wests Tigers Community Engagement manager.
“Although initially,” Spence says, “that phrase on the blackboard … it just meant find the reason for getting out of bed”.
That was four years ago.
Back when Spence wasn’t a Tigers staffer, but player.
No shame if you don’t.
Especially given his NRL career was consigned to only nine games in 2013.
Spence endured almost twice that.
Over a few brief years, his brain smashed so badly — and often — he still suffers headaches and bouts of forgetfulness now.
“So I’ve learned to keep a full calendar,’’ he says. “Write plenty of notes, too.
“I can also predict when the headaches are coming now. If there’s an evening where I’m forgetting things, yeah, I know the next day will be rough.”
And it’s because on one occasion, Spence was kayoed so badly his ear drum collapsed. Seventh-tenths of it, gone altogether.
Afterwards, the young prop unable to recognise even his girlfriend of three years, Rochelle, when she anxiously entered the sheds.
“Had absolutely no idea who she was,” he says.
And still, Spence wanted to play on.
“But the doctors, they warned of the brain damage becoming permanent,’’ he continues. “There were already problems.
“But they said I if stopped playing, I was young enough for that to rectify itself.”
And so, Spence quit.
Which is when the depression arrived.
“Because my life’s goal,’’ he says, “it was gone.
“As an NRL player, I was probably bottom five per cent when it came to skills. But that meant I’d worked really hard to get there.”
Doctors also told Spence that, because of his brain trauma, depression and anxiety would be intensified.
And they were.
A darkness that hung heavy through acupuncture, medication, counselling, the lot.
“Yet there was one particular session,” the Griffith product recalls, “where the counsellor called me out.
“I was talking about missing that buzz of being a footballer — the two minute bell, running out in front of crowds, celebrating a win in the sheds — and without saying I was arrogant, she replied ‘do you really believe footballers are the only people to get that?’.
“She told me doctors, parents, everyone could achieve it. We just have to work out where.”
Find The Reason.
Like his new gig with Australia’s Physical Disability team.
Apart from helping attract a new sponsor, NOVA Employment, Spence has also brought on Penrith retiree Kevin Kingston as assistant
“And to be involved with these guys, it’s amazing,’’ he says.
“We were in New Zealand recently and (former Kiwi coach) Frank Endacott’s son was playing. Gary has cerebral palsy; and if he hits the ground after a tackle or run, he can’t get to his feet.
“Yet through the game, you’ve got team-mates, opponents, everyone rushing in to pick him up.
“And to be part of that, to be around such special people, it honestly gives me the same buzz I got playing.
“Most days, this team’s teaching me more about passion, perspective and energy then I could ever teach them.
“These players, they’re my reason.”
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