Edge Of Darkness: How Rugby Saved Alex Gibbon
Photo: SPA Images
This Saturday afternoon sees Brisbane City host the UC Vikings in the 2015 NRC Grand Final, and with it, the end of Australia’s third tier competition for another year.
Created primarily as a pathway for future stars to test themselves at a higher level under the watchful eyes of the Waratahs, Brumbies, Reds, Rebels and Force, it is only over the next few weeks and months that will we find out which players have been deemed worthy of making the leap up to the Super Rugby ranks.
All nine teams are chock-full of burgeoning young talent, all eager to find that golden ticket to the big time they have dreamed of since they first picked up a Gilbert. But while all players must overcome many hurdles on the way to forging a professional career, I sincerely hope that I never get to hear of any whose obstacles have been greater than that faced by City winger Alex Gibbon.
He has already fought so many battles just to be where he is today, that fighting for a professional contract almost pales into insignificance. He still wants it badly of course, don’t get me wrong, he is one of the most hungry and driven individuals l have ever encountered. Ask any of his coaches over the years and they’ll express their surprise and delight at his work rate, application, desire, physicality and aggression, particularly as he occupies a place in the supposedly pampered backline.
But a princess he is most certainly not and having recently been entrusted with his story, his troublesome journey from the small country town of Alstonville near the NSW-Queensland border, and on to Shute Shield grand finals, a match against the British & Irish Lions, touring the world with the Aussie Sevens and now the fringes of Super Rugby, l can understand why.
It is a story that hasn’t been told before. A story that only a very small circle of family and friends are aware of, so for Alex, it is a brave and ballsy moment of truth. It is a raw tale of harrowing and disturbing emotion, one which some may feel is a touch heavy for a forum such as Rugby News. But it is rugby that plays an intrinsically important role in all this, for it is the game that saved his life.
Taking his place on the City bench on Saturday afternoon, Gibbon will be eager to set foot on the Ballymore turf as soon as possible to try and make an impact on the title decider. For the team first and foremost of course, as they try to retain their inaugural title with an unbeaten season. But on a personal level, it is another chance to use a national shop window with which to advertise his wares as he seeks the holy grail of the next level.
The Southern Districts flyer was offered a season-long stint with City by head coach Nick Stiles and he has made the most of his opportunities, despite battling for game time with a host of the Queensland Reds’ star-studded backline. He has started four of the team’s nine matches, coming off the bench in the remaining five to positive effect and managing to rack up four tries in the process as City summarily dispatched all before them to earn a second successive home final.
And as he waits on the sideline for that all-important nod this weekend, he will carry with him his thoughts of the people that matter to him most. Etched onto his wrist tapings – as they are every time he takes the field – will be the names of the five people who mean everything to him and who act as a constant reminder of who he is, where he came from and why every minute he spends on the pitch is so special…
Alstonville, northern NSW, circa 1988. Twenty-one-year-olds Chris Gibbon and Chrissy Pollock are in love. Having first met at the ‘House with No Steps’, their romance blossomed until, in 1990, they married, and thoughts turned to children.
But this is no ordinary love story. For the House with No Steps isn’t a local nightclub, dance hall or youth centre, it’s a government run farmhouse where people with disabilities can work, mingle, create social groups and build friendships.
You see, Chrissy was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that effects movement and causes difficulty with thinking, learning, feeling, communication and behaviour. As a result, she effectively has the emotional and mental capacity of a 12-year-old.
Chris was a perfectly healthy child until, at the age of 10, he was the victim of a horrific road accident, an event that left him with severe brain damage. As a result of that trauma, he developed asperger’s syndrome, characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. He too has the emotional and mental capacity of a 12-year-old.
“If you met them and talked to them you would know straight away but if you looked at them you wouldn’t know,” reveals Gibbon. “Essentially, my Mum is really normal, and that’s the way she has always been treated and the way she was brought up, but after a while, you would start to realise that things aren’t quite the way they should be.
“They are aware of life, of every day things but they just don’t understand more common sense situations or aren’t responsible enough to deal with them.”
Reason enough for doctors to strongly advise against them having children, that and the risk of either or both their disabilities being passed down to their offspring. Twenty-four years ago, the exact chances of that weren’t scientifically tangible but it was certainly considered simply a risk not worth taking.
But Chris and Chrissy both wanted to try for a child, their parents had always tried to treat them as normally as possible and didn’t want to deny their own children the right to experience parenthood. So they signed a guarantor stating they would continue to support and look after the young parents and their prospective child, no matter what.
So it was no small miracle when young Alex – happy, healthy and unsurprisingly adored – arrived in October 1992.
Three years later, another son, Matt, also wonderfully healthy, arrived to complete the happiest of families. Or so it seemed. Because just as this appeared to be the good news story of the year, things turned pretty sour. Aware of his parents’ conditions from about the age of 5, as Alex recalls now, he wishes it were a time in his life he could forget.
“My Dad somehow got mixed up with a group of people who weren’t the best, they were bikies and drug addicts and prostitutes and they used him a fair bit because of his condition and took advantage of him,” he explains. “We used to have all sorts of crazy characters living in the house and unfortunately, we were beaten up by some of them if we didn’t do what they wanted and sometimes by my Dad too, who had lots of anger problems. So it was a pretty difficult childhood for me and my brother.
“I started to take control of things from a pretty early age. I used to cook because my Dad was often out all hours of the night and Mum would be stressed about him so I used to cook for my brother, talk to him and put us both to bed. My Dad’s parents had passed away when I was about 3 or 4-years-old and while my maternal grandparents only lived 15 minutes away, they had no idea all this was going on.
“We were too scared to say anything and being young, we just accepted it as being normal. We didn’t know what any of those things meant and it wasn’t until I got to about 17 that I realised what these people were and what had been going on, and how shit it was for me and Matt to have grown up exposed to those things.”
Their escape from this hell was footy. It was the one thing Alex and Matt could do that gave them an excuse to get outside and away from the nightmare within. It also gave them the lifeline of friendship, social interaction and the confidence and belief offered by team sport, that their fractured existence so sadly lacked.
“We didn’t want to be in the house because we were scared of the people that were in there so we used to play footy outside until it was really dark,” he remembers. “Our grandfather introduced us to rugby and for Matt and myself, I think being able to let our emotions out on the field helped us and it also led to us meeting lots of other people, which we really needed at the time.
“Our friends’ parents would never let their kids come and play at our house or have sleepovers because, obviously, they knew what was going on and they didn’t think their kids were safe, and also, they didn’t think our parents were in a position to look after them given their disabilities, so it was hard for us to really make friends or spend time with other kids. Rugby allowed us to do that.”
As the years went on and the abuse from their father intensified and was increasingly directed towards their Mum, Alex was forced to step in to defend her, which led to an inevitable escalation in proceedings. Something had to give, and it was a determined young son who uncovered the escape route for the embattled trio.
“I broke my parents up when I was 13-years-old in Year Seven,” he admits. “I followed my Dad out one night and found him cheating on my Mum, confronted him and made him confess to her. After that, my Mum, my brother and myself all moved out and went to live with my grandparents on their farm.”
Cue happier times and an introduction to a much-needed – and very influential – mentor.
“I used to work on the farm with my grandfather, which I enjoyed. Our grandparents effectively became our parents at that time and my Mum was more like a sister because of the limitations she had in being able to bring us up. But it was a much better environment to be in.
“I then went to a really good school in Lismore up until the age of 16, called St John’s College, Woodlawn. It’s a rugby league school but Glenn Roff, Joe Roff’s father, was my principal and he kept rugby running at the school and was a big inspiration for me.
“He really looked after me and gave me a lot of his time to help me through a lot of hard things I was dealing with. He was one of the main people who kept me going in rugby and kept encouraging me and giving me a go, he was great.”
But the scars of the darker times he had experienced in such a traumatic childhood refused to heal and by the time he left Woodlawn, Gibbon’s life suddenly went into a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral.
“When I got to the age of 16, I hadn’t made any rep teams in rugby and I’d really been trying hard and off the back of that, I went into a pretty bad state of depression, everything just sort of hit me,” he reflects. “I started staying out late, I began drinking and getting into fights and even stealing sometimes, just to get that adrenaline rush and make myself feel better. Or so I thought.
“I was in a really bad way, I was doing nothing with my life and just drifting. I think I had missed out on my childhood and I had so much anger built up inside, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. The end of 2008 into 2009 was the lowest point of my life.”
Thankfully, a bolt from the blue, one last shot at making some headway in his rugby career, kick-started a chain of events that put him firmly on the road to redemption as a person, and towards the life he dreamed of as a player.
“The phone rang one day and it was my former Far North rugby coach. The team had an injury and he wanted me to fill in at outside centre and off the back of a few good performances, I made the NSW Country team. I started to feel good about myself again, I went to see a few people to talk through my issues and the problems I was having and things started to take off.
“I was named NSW Country Junior Player of the Year in 2009, made the NSW Under 17’s side and I was happy and really enjoying life and really enjoying my rugby. Then I was offered a scholarship at Nudgee College in Brisbane and that was where my life really turned around.
“Rugby basically saved me. Without it, I don’t know what would have happened to me, where I could have ended up or if I would even be here. It’s scary to think of the alternatives.”
His story from there is more well known but no less remarkable. With a host of Sydney clubs showing interest in his services, he took the advice of best mate Jed Holloway, a former opponent turned team mate from Yamba, just up the road from Alstonville, and headed down to Forshaw Park to sign for Southern Districts.
A last minute runaway try from the then 19-year-old earned Souths the 2011 Colin Caird Shield – their first ever title. And a year and some 20 tries later, he was on the wing as the Rebels pushed Sydney University to the wire in the club’s maiden Shute Shield grand final.
2013 saw him take on the British & Irish Lions as a part of the Combined NSW/QLD Country side, before he landed his most coveted post to date, a contract with the Aussie Sevens side and a chance to see the world. He’d come a long way in a short period of time. Not that his Mum had quite realised it.
“My Mum is the loveliest person in the world and I love her to death but she sometimes doesn’t understand what it is that I’m doing,” he smiles. “I used to tell her that rugby was my work when I was away with the Sevens and she would still ask me ‘How was work today? What did you do?’ I’d tell her ‘rugby’ and she’d say ‘What do you mean? Aren’t you a plumber?’ because I’d done a plumbing apprenticeship!
“Things like that make me laugh and make me appreciate how lucky I am. I might have done it tough when I was a kid but I never use it as an excuse and I think it’s paying dividends for me now. I use all those experiences to help drive me on to be a better person and a better rugby player.”
And that’s why he wanted to tell this story. That’s why he was prepared to open his soul to the world, no matter how uncomfortable the contents within may be. Because even the very worst situations can finish off with a happy ending. Because no matter how many times life slaps you down, you’ve got to keep getting up and going again. Because rugby, and sport in general, is such a powerful force for good for young, disadvantaged, disillusioned and troubled people. Because there is always hope.
“I’ve been so lucky to have gone through what I did and come out the other side because many people don’t. A lot of young blokes in small country towns end up going down the wrong path, turning towards drugs and alcohol, because they make bad decisions or because there’s not much else to do. I’ve experienced things that kids should never see and some kids wouldn’t understand but I’ve learned so much from it that I feel I can give advice to young kids that are maybe going through similar experiences.
“I just want to be happy and rugby makes me happy. The people that you meet playing rugby become your friends for life and I’ve been everywhere with this sport. I’ve played in the country, I’ve played in the cities, in Sydney and Brisbane, I’ve played Sevens in all four corners of the world and I’ve made so many friends that I still keep in contact with through this wonderful game, I’ve lost count. I can’t think of anything else that I would rather have been a part of than rugby because it’s really made my life awesome.”
But that Super Rugby carrot still looms large.
There are no guarantees in this game and with the 2016 Queensland Reds backline already laden with the talents of Messrs Kerevi, Hunt, Kuridrani and now Junior ‘The Ballymore Kid’ Laloifi, Gibbon knows that all his efforts over the last three months could still end in vain.
“It’s been a really good experience up here,” he says. “Nick Stiles is a really good coach, he just wants people to express themselves and enjoy themselves and he’s giving everyone a go, which is also good. He’s created a really good team and a good family unit and I’ve fitted in really well with the boys. We all work really hard together so for me, it’s been awesome.
“I always try to work really hard, that’s one of the things I’ve been taught growing up with my family, and while it’s always frustrating when you’re not picked in the starting line up, every week I have gained experience from the team and the coaching staff. For me personally I just want to get better as a player so every chance I get I’ll give it my all and eventually I hope that I’ll be rewarded.”
Following in his footsteps is younger brother Matt, a talented young prop in his own right who broke into Southern Districts’ 1st grade side this year and earned a stint with the Greater Sydney Rams as a result. His star also appears to be on the rise.
And while he cheers Alex on from the sidelines on Saturday, it is he and the other three members of their tight family unit, along with his long-term partner Paige, who will be with him every step of the way once he crosses that white line. No matter what.
“Through all the bad times I went through, my Mum, my brother, my partner and my grandparents never stopped being there for me,” says Gibbon. “They could have easily given up on me because I went through stages where I would have been the worst son, brother, boyfriend and grandson that anyone could have but they stuck by me. Now I write all five of their names on my wrist before every game. That’s my driving force.”
Whatever the future holds for Gibbon, he’s certainly learned the hard way about dealing with adversity. But you’ll never knock this inspirational young fella down, he’ll simply get back off the canvas and keep fighting, just as he always has.
First published by Rugby News on October 30th, 2015