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Ex-England rugby star Steve Thompson says career ‘wasn’t worth it’ after dementia diagnosis

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson – who was diagnosed with early onset dementia – has admitted his illustrious career ‘wasn’t worth it’ because he’d ‘rather not be such a burden on his family’.

The former England hooker, 44, reveals he can’t remember ‘precious memories’ such as winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 in a trailer for his new BBC Two documentary, Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me, which airs on Wednesday.

Thompson was diagnosed with the degenerative condition, which has been linked to repetitive trauma to the brain, in 2020 and is one of nearly 200 former players diagnosed with a brain disease suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.

Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson – who was diagnosed with early onset dementia – has admitted his illustrious career ‘wasn’t worth it’ because he’d ‘rather not be such a burden on his family’

The former England hooker, 44, reveals he can't remember 'precious memories' such as winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 in a trailer for his new BBC Two documentary, Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me, which airs on Wednesday. Pictured with his wife Steph

The former England hooker, 44, reveals he can’t remember ‘precious memories’ such as winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 in a trailer for his new BBC Two documentary, Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me, which airs on Wednesday. Pictured with his wife Steph

Thompson celebrates after winning the World Cup with England in Australia in 2003

Thompson celebrates after winning the World Cup with England in Australia in 2003

Showing his large collection of awards on the documentary, Thompson says: ‘You look at it and you think, it’s all nice medals and stuff like that, but at the end of the day you know, it’s why I am what I am now. 

‘I’m struggling a bit. So, it’s a little bit emotional about it to be honest. You see all this stuff and people say “Oh, was it worth it?” and I say “No, it wasn’t”, because I’d rather not be such a burden on the family.’

Discussing his diagnosis, he recalled: ‘It’s taken me a long to admit that there was something seriously wrong with me. And a few weeks ago, I went for a detailed brain scan, the result was a shock.

‘A diagnosis of early onset dementia, most likely caused by a brain condition called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). 

‘This degenerative disease is linked to multiple head impacts, known as subconcussions, the obvious cause is the massive number of knocks I took in rugby.

‘It’s a huge shock and I still don’t really understand this condition and what it’s doing inside my head. Will I ever get back precious memories? Like the birth of my children or any of the highlights of my professional career?’

In 2003, Thompson, who shares four children with his wife Steph, played a vital role in England winning the Rugby World Cup.

Thompson played for England between 2002 and 2011 and was once their most capped hooker

Thompson played for England between 2002 and 2011 and was once their most capped hooker

Thompson was diagnosed with the degenerative condition, which has been linked to repetitive trauma to the brain, in 2020 and is one of nearly 200 former players diagnosed with a brain disease suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union

Thompson was diagnosed with the degenerative condition, which has been linked to repetitive trauma to the brain, in 2020 and is one of nearly 200 former players diagnosed with a brain disease suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union

In the last minute of extra time, with the scores tied, Thompson threw the ball in from a line-out that was passed to Jonny Wilkinson, whose drop goal dramatically won the match. 

It is one of the most memorable endings to a game in rugby history – but now retired and aged 44, Thompson doesn’t remember it. Just like he doesn’t remember a huge amount of his professional career.

At the end of 2020, Thompson’s life was turned upside down by a devastating diagnosis of early onset dementia and probable CTE, a degenerative brain condition linked to repetitive trauma to the brain. 

But Thompson isn’t alone – hundreds of former rugby players are now showing symptoms of the disease.

In the documentary, Thompson reveals the devastating physical and mental impact that his career as a professional rugby player has had on his health, family, work and day-to-day life.

Showing his large collection of awards on the documentary, Thompson says: 'You look at it and you think, it's all nice medals and stuff like that, but at the end of the day you know, it's why I am what I am now.'

Showing his large collection of awards on the documentary, Thompson says: ‘You look at it and you think, it’s all nice medals and stuff like that, but at the end of the day you know, it’s why I am what I am now.’

Discussing his diagnosis, he recalled: 'It's taken me a long to admit that there was something seriously wrong with me. And a few weeks ago, I went for a detailed brain scan, the result was a shock.' Pictured, the documentary

Discussing his diagnosis, he recalled: ‘It’s taken me a long to admit that there was something seriously wrong with me. And a few weeks ago, I went for a detailed brain scan, the result was a shock.’ Pictured, the documentary

Thompson is one of nearly 200 former players diagnosed with a brain disease suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.

In July 2022, he said of the class action, which is the largest of its kind outside the US: ‘We started with three, then there were seven, now there are nearly 200 and there are more to be tested.

‘It’s not just about trying to get money. We are trying to save the game. We just want people to play rugby and be safe, or as safe as they can be, and go in there with an open mind knowing what’s going on.’

The governing bodies have defended their strategies to combat head injuries. They are braced for massive compensation claims for historical failings around the treatment of concussions.

The players, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, claim that repeated head traumas have caused neurological impairments such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), early onset dementia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. 

In a joint statement, World Rugby, the RFU and WRU said: ‘We care deeply about all our players, and never stand still when it comes to welfare. Our strategies to prevent, identify and manage head injuries are driven by a passion to safeguard our players and founded on the latest science, evidence and independent expert guidance.’

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