Knocked unconscious for nine minutes, ex-Socceroo Warren Spink is living a nightmare with CTE


Further scans and tests revealed he was suffering something called a transient ischemic attack, or a TIA, which is like a mini-stroke, except the symptoms wear off after about an hour.

“As soon as I stopped falling over, which was 10 days, I went to training,” he says. “I was playing for Morwell Falcons. I remember it was like walking on the moon. I was playing 20 days after the injury. But yeah, there were no protocols. It was as soon as I wasn’t falling over, it was back to work, back to playing football.”

‘We’re beyond the stage of denial. Things need to happen right now.’

Former Socceroo Warren Spink

But Spink, an unsung hero of Australian soccer, is still wearing the scars.

“Well, it’s left me with basically all the symptoms of CTE,” he says. “The short-term memory needs a lot of bloody work. I’ve been diagnosed with severe bipolar [disorder]. There’s a ringing in my ears. It’s hard being in busy places, you just try and keep to yourself. You just keep yourself out of trouble, basically. It’s just a survival thing. [Life] hasn’t been the same.”

Born in Luton, England, Spink moved to Melbourne when he was 12 years old. A graduate of the Australian Institute of Sport, he began his career in 1985 with the first of three separate stints at Preston Lions, the club which feels most like home to him. He went on to become just the fifth player to score 100 goals in the National Soccer League and sits 19th in the all-time national league record books for goalscorers. Later in 1996, he would become one of the first players signed by Ange Postecoglou in his first full-time coaching job at South Melbourne, but he was never quite the same player after his injury.

Spink was renown for his tenacity and his eye to goal. If the ball was there to be won, he would do whatever it took to win it, and rarely thought about the consequences.

Warren Spink was the fifth player in the NSL to reach 100 goals.

Warren Spink was the fifth player in the NSL to reach 100 goals.Credit: Fairfax Media

“Concussion wasn’t a thing [to be concerned by] back then,” Spink, now 57, says. “You just didn’t think about it. You weren’t told. I remember loads of boys have been in the same boat. We all got whacked in the head. That’s how it was back then. It’s different now.

“The thing is, my one, it wasn’t just concussion. My brain got smashed. I was comatose for nine minutes. It’s always been in my mind that this was a bad one. Unfortunately, the footage tells you all you need to know, really. I’ve seen a lot of doctors, and they really can’t tell you much, except you go on the history. And mine’s a bad one.”

Warren Spink’s national team headshot from 1989.

Warren Spink’s national team headshot from 1989.Credit: Fairfax Media

Since retiring, Spink has largely kept his suffering to himself, but he’s ready to tell his story in the hopes that it might save someone else from going through what he’s had to endure. He is doing so with the help of two organisations he loves: Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union he helped establish in 1993, and Preston Lions, who last week hosted a fundraising event to assist with Spink’s ongoing healthcare needs, at which a short documentary filmed by the PFA on his struggles was shown.

Spink is worried not enough is being done in Australia to spread awareness and help shift attitudes.

“It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?” he says. “For every sport, how they’re going to address people injuring their brains? We’re beyond the stage of denial. Things need to happen right now.

“Our sport is naturally far safer than the other major codes, but that doesn’t mean we are doing enough. We can do far more. At the grassroots level we are seeing other countries being far more proactive than here.”

There are two main ways in which soccer players can sustain serious brain damage: first, through sickening head clashes with opponents, teammates or even the frame of the goal, like the one Spink had against Japan; and second, the many hundreds and thousands of sub-concussive head knocks a player takes during training or a match, which don’t have immediate, noticeable symptoms but accumulate over time and can contribute to CTE.

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The latter is why many football associations around the world have banned junior players of a certain age from heading the ball – in Australia, there have been calls for such a ban but no action – and why many in the game believe it is only a matter of time until the header is outlawed entirely.

Spink would hate to see that happen.

“Well, that’s really hard. I wouldn’t want to see [heading] out of the game because it’s such a good part of the game,” he says. “We’re just going to have to find new ways to make it safer. It’s obviously got to be the mantra going forward. We want to make it safer for the next generation. I mean, that’s our job, really.”

Spink wants more ex-players – from all generations, both professionals and amateurs – to commit to donate their brains to give science the chance to understand more about what is happening to them.

“We need data on this,” he says. “The more data we can get the better. You don’t have to be a pro-footballer to crack your head open. So the more data we can get off people with histories of head knocks, the better off everyone’s going to be.”

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