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Toronto Wolfpack forward James Laithwaite recalls the day he broke his neck

TORONTO — It started as a routine rugby league tackle. But bad things can happen when some 900 pounds of beef collides at speed with no padding.

TORONTO — It started as a routine rugby league tackle. But bad things can happen when some 900 pounds of beef collides at speed with no padding.

That's what happened April 23 when the Salford Red Devils, riding high in the penthouse of English rugby league, hosted the fledgling Toronto Wolfpack in the fifth round of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.

Adrenalin was flowing early on as the Wolfpack, a fully professional side starting life in England's third tier, faced their biggest challenge to date. And Newton's third law — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — was about to hammer Toronto forward James Laithwaite in the head.

Bob Beswick, a fireplug-shaped hooker who doubles as the Wolfpack's strength and conditioning coach, met the Salford ball-runner full on. As Beswick held him up, the six-foot-two 223-pound Laithwaite came in from his teammate's right to help wrestle the Red Devil down to the ground.

Immediately after Laithwaite grabbed on, Toronto teammate Jack Bussey came crashing in from the other side to complete a Salford sandwich. But the six-foot 234-pound Bussey also connected with Laithwaite's head.

"It was just unfortunate," said Laithwaite, a quiet redhead. "I didn't even see it coming. I was in the tackle, made the tackle. Next minute it felt like a steam train hit me on the side of the head. It felt like my ear touched my shoulder and instantly (I heard) a massive crack.

"I felt to the floor, for a few minutes. And I lost feeling in my arms. Pins and needles in my hands. It was a horrible feeling, scary really. The physio came on straight away and said 'What are you feeling?' Straight away I said 'I broke my neck.'"

Sadly Laithwaite was right. It just took a while for doctors to confirm it.

As Laithwaite lay on his back on the pitch at A.J. Bell Stadium, a crowd of physios and medical staff gathered around him. At one point, there were seven people undertaking the slow process of getting the big second-rower on a spinal board and into a neck brace.

There is perhaps no more sickening feeling in sport, especially if you're the one they're working on.

"I was thinking like this could be it," Laithwaite recalled. "You don't know. I could never play again. I could be paralysed. I didn't know."

But looking back, he feels nothing but gratitude to the doctors, physios and helpers for taking their time.

"It could have been a lot worse maybe if they hadn't followed the procedures."

On the field, Toronto lost 29-22. At the hospital, Laithwaite underwent X-rays and a CAT scan. Eventually he got some unexpected news.

"They said 'We can't find any fractures or broken bones. It just looks like bad whiplash,'" Laithwaite recalled. "So they discharged me."

At seven the next morning, he got a phone call saying: "Get back as soon as you can. We've found a fracture on your X-ray."

Laithwaite wasn't surprised. He had spent part of the night stuck in one stiff position on the sofa. He couldn't sleep in bed. "I knew something was up ... the neck was killing (me)."

His mother drove him back to hospital, where they slapped a neck brace on him and kept him in for three nights while they did more tests.

"I was quite nervous while I was waiting," said Laithwaite. "I didn't really know how bad it was."

The final diagnosis was a fractured C-3 vertebrae, high on the neck. "It's the bottom of your head, really," Laithwaite explains.

Initially he was told six weeks in a neck brace. But another specialists, with experience in treating rugby players, deemed that unnecessary saying "it's all quite stable."

The news has continued to be good since then.

Laithwaite had headaches for about three weeks but says the pain is gone. Now the neck just feels a little stiff, although the physiotherapy he is doing is loosening it up.

Doctors expect the bone to heal by the end of June and, if the specialist agrees, Laithwaite could resume training in July.

He is already doing some work, including heading a soccer ball, resistance training (running attached to a giant rubber band) and working up a sweat in the gym.

"He's working his butt off," said American teammate Joe Eichner.

"It's a pretty scary injury to come back to because you're still tentative with the neck. But everything he's doing, (it) looks like he wants to be back on the field," he added. 

Laithwaite walks with surprising grace for a big man — like a dancer with muscles on muscles. But on the field, he is a wrecking ball.

He has administered pain and felt it. Earlier in his career, he broke his ankle twice and had a nasty leg break — the kind TV doesn't show a replay of.

"Just unfortunate big injuries," he said with a sigh.

Laithwaite grew up in rugby league, starting with his home-town Warrington team academy at 11 and worked his way up before signing a pro contact with the Wolves at 18. He made his first-team debut in 2013 and went on to make more than 50 appearances.

He knew Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley from Leigh, where he spent some three months on loan while Rowley was in charge. When his contract expired, he joined Toronto.

Broken neck aside, he is loving life with rugby's first transatlantic team.

The Wolfpack are happy to have him. They see a bright future for the forward who once represented England Academy on the international scene.

"He's got the potential to be anything he wants to in the game," said Rowley. "He's a big guy, a perfect athlete.

"We've upskilled him since being here and, as we often do, take the shackles off him a little but and give him the freedom and confidence to play and express himself."

The Wolfpack showed their human side after Laithwaite went down, sending flowers to his worried mother.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press