Concussion and rugby: When Benjamin died, we lost part of ourselves

Karen Walton and Peter Robinson, the mother and father of schoolboy Ben Robinson, above, in Belfast, after an inquest into his death.
Karen Walton and Peter Robinson, the mother and father of schoolboy Ben Robinson, above, in Belfast, after an inquest into his death.

"I just knew in my heart of hearts that the wee boy I had — we had — made so many promises to, that nobody will hurt you, we’ll protect you; I wasn’t going to get to keep those promises."

The heartbreaking words of Karen Robinson about the tragic death of her son, Benjamin, who was just 14 when he died after a schools rugby match on January 29, 2011, in an incident which has thrown increased focus on the perils of concussion at all levels in the sport.

Speaking alongside Benjamin’s father, Peter, on yesterday’s Today with Sean O’Rourke programme on RTÉ, Karen’s pain at losing a child was all too apparent; the circumstances still the source of much anguish and grief.

As Karen told RTÉ, Benjamin was “the class clown, a joker”, at Carrickfergus Grammar School in Co Antrim.

His first love was football but, on attending the secondary school, he quickly established himself at under-15 level, steeling himself for an expected promotion to the senior side in the coming years.

All that, and much else besides, altered irrevocably when he received successive head injuries in a match against Dalriada, with his proud but increasingly anxious mother watching events unfold from the touchline.

Having outlined the previous night how important the game was, Benjamin had even tried on his kit in advance of the next day. On the way to the game, he spoke with his mother about the match — a big game in the school’s modern rugby history — and they exchanged their pet names for each other — ‘Baby Bear’ and ‘Mummy Bear’.

“When I came back, the match had already started and I was aware of Benjamin running,” Karen said. “He was making a tackle, running into a group of boys, just the sheer physicality and the force. He hit the group of boys [and] it was the whiplash movement, I just saw his head come right back. It just seemed far too physical to me. As a mum I was concerned. He just seemed to be involved in too many things.”

Her son had warned her not to come onto the pitch, as she had done in some previous games, and while there was a stoppage in the first half as Ben received some treatment, his stepfather, who was also watching, was satisfied that he was chatting and animated at half-time.

It was the activity early in the second half which seems to have taken what proved to be a devastating toll on the teenager.

“I was aware that there was a stoppage and I do recall Benjamin getting water poured over him and he was sort of on his hunkers,” Karen said.

“The game continued, there was another stoppage and I knew that it was Benjamin, but again there were players in front of me.

“What I didn’t know, but I have now seen from the tape [the match was being recorded from the sideline], was Benjamin was on the ground and there were four or five players on top of him and he’s not moving and when he does move, he puts his hand to the back of his head.”

Benjamin got up; Karen doesn’t know how. It wouldn’t be long before he was down again.

“I was aware that — a mother’s instinct — I was getting really worried and I remember Benjamin standing and he has this big smile on his face. What he was saying and how he is looking, that’s just not right, I called out to him, ‘Benjamin, Benjamin, Benjamin’, and I thought well, right, I’m going to have to follow my son, it’s a fluid game, I’m going to have to keep track of him.

“I could see him, he wasn’t that far from me. I thought at one stage he was gauging the ball moving left to right but he was staggering, holding his head. I realised the play was nowhere near him. I called out to him again and he turned around just with his hands upwards and he said: ‘I don’t feel right.’ ”

Benjamin disappeared back into the play, and then there was another stoppage. Karen started running, meeting his captain en route, who told her: “He’s out cold.”

“I just ran as fast as I could and my son is lying on the ground with the whites of his eyes staring back up at me,” she said.

“I took my coat off, I put it over him, I tried to put him in recovery position, but he kept slumping forward.

“I was just very much aware of, it’s over. It’s done. I stepped away from him and I picked up his mouth guard and a woman came back and touched me on the arm and said: ‘I’m sorry about your son.’ ”

Two days on life support in hospital would not change the outcome. Benjamin’s father, Peter, has since studied the video repeatedly, and believes the first half incident was not central to his son’s death, while the collisions of the second half left Ben with injuries consistent with a car crash.

His organs were donated to five people, including a baby.

The death was later classified as second impact syndrome, but Peter rebutted talk of it being “rare”, stating “concussion isn’t rare”.

“If it happens once, it’ll happen again,” Peter said.

While meetings with some rugby federations, such as the Scottish rugby authorities, have resulted in new approaches to concussion at all age levels, the family said more needed to be done at IRFU level.

The campaigning will never fill the void left by Ben’s departure, they said.

According to Karen: “Not only did we lose Benjamin that day, we lost a part of ourselves.”

Authority says it has taken efforts to limit concussion risk

by Noel Baker

A number of measures have been put in place to limit the risk of concussion among players at all levels, the IRFU has said.

A spokesman said all coaches have to complete a concussion awareness module, and that, under new under-age protocols, anyone with concussion cannot play again for a minimum of 23 days.

The Robinson family told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke that “attitudes have to change” and suggested the IRFU needed to be more proactive in highlighting the dangers of ‘second injury syndrome’ — repeated concussions in one game — which caused the death of their son.

The IRFU said it would not discuss individual cases but stressed it was taking concussion seriously.

A spokesman said an education programme for clubs and schools was “ongoing” and that, in any circumstance in which a player is displaying possible signs of concussion, they should be removed from play immediately.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Rugby Union and other Scottish sporting organisations launched a leaflet campaign, while a similar initiative has taken place in the North.

The Robinson family also met the Welsh Education Secretary to discuss their campaign for increased safety around concussion.

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