Quietly this week Chris Lawrence made his way back to full training. Nobody has heard from Lawrence since he broke his jaw in a training accident before a trial in New Zealand in the pre-season.
That is essentially how it was reported. Lawrence broke his jaw. A new entry on the NRL’s injured players list. He was given the standard 10 weeks on the sideline.
In truth it was much more.
The Tigers were doing an opposed session. It was days before the game. The players had come to understand what was required from their new coach, Michael Maguire, which was intensity and effort and they were giving him all of that.
So it was willing.
The ball was taken up and Lawrence went in for a tackle from one side while Ben Matulino came in from the other.
“I was a bit higher,” Lawrence says.
As their shoulders hit, Lawrence’s head went around the back where, according to the textbooks, his head was safely behind the ball-runner, out of harm’s way.
Only the text books don’t account for Ben Matulino. He came in from the opposite side with his own copybook tackle, head safely to the back, and pretty soon both heads fought for the same spot.
Lawrence’s face collided with the top of Matulino’s head.
What happened next, a surgeon later told Lawrence, he only saw in car accidents.
The bottom half of Lawrence’s face caved in. He broke both eye sockets, both cheekbones, broke his nose, his palate collapsed, his jaw broke and several teeth were dislodged.
Multiple fractures ran through all the broken bones.
The left half of his face was worse than the right, and the right was awful.
The injury was far more serious than first revealed.
“The face had imploded,” Lawrence says.
Essentially, his face was pushed back into his face, roughly in the shape of Ben Matulino’s head.
Lawrence has had some rotten luck in his career.
At every step of this recovery there has been pain and delay.
Surgeons were at first unsure who should do the job. A plastic surgeon? A maxillofacial surgeon, the specialists who rebuild the face?
Lawrence could not fly home for nearly a fortnight. Doctors were afraid the air pressure in flight could dislodge his eyeball.
Eventually a plastic surgeon took the job and his face was slowly rebuilt. The surgeon told him the initial surgery was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
The recovery has not been fast.
Several more operations were needed. This week he saw his surgeon for another check-up. He still sees a maxillofacial surgeon for check-ups on his jaw and teeth. A dentist, too, about his teeth.
Often the advice is the same as it was last time. He must wait for more swelling to go down before they hit the next step.
Lawrence looks different now. Doctors have told him the internal stitching is still tight and will eventually relax. The stitching and the swelling are pulling muscles in different directions.
He has lost facial expression.
“Even now the extent of the injuries are only starting to unravel,” he says.
“My jaw is still not a hundred per cent square. Everything is still out a bit at the moment.
“I was aware it was going to be a slow process.”
Lawrence stayed close to home as his recovery continued. Teammates got a little concerned. He knocked back chances to go here or there because, well, they could only guess why.
Life moves on, though.
Lawrence poured himself into his second job, his management training company One Wellbeing. Helping others, he found, has helped him.
“Without having that to work on every day I probably would have gone insane being stuck at home,” he says.
And with each day the swelling went down, the confidence slowly began to rebuild.
Fans have wondered where he is, why he wasn’t back in 10 weeks. Isn’t that what they said?
A story went around that he might be available for the Tigers by round eight, a fortnight from now. Not so, and he never even considered he might be a chance to run out for the Tigers against the Eels on Monday, this Easter Monday, to open the new Bankwest Stadium.
Time, doctors keep telling him. While impatient at first, and frustrated sure, he has learned to trust time as well.
The greatest comeback story ever, of course, happened this weekend many years back. All that was needed to complete it was for someone to roll away the rock about this time Monday.
A close second happened last Monday morning, our time, when Tiger Woods put more than a decade of injury and scandal behind him to once more climb the mountain that is The Masters.
Woods could hardly swing a club two years ago. His back was a brittle, his life a tabloid.
His victory at Augusta reminded us comebacks are the sweetener of sport. We find something in them, our own little piece, personal to each of us.
With far less coverage, but a barrow load more courage, Chris Lawrence made his way back to Wests Tigers this week and began full training.
The exertion of this week’s first full hitout caused his nose to bleed through the stitches. His face tightened and the scar tissue refused to give way. The parts of his face that are still numb, the nerves unsure whether they want to commit to the comeback like Lawrence has, still stayed numb.
Something more happened, though.
He felt the burn in his muscles. Felt the metallic taste, the taste of exertion, back in his mouth as he pushed himself around the park. He felt exhausted and a little achy and he realised the extent of from how far back he must come.
Most of all, he felt whole again, and that is a good thing