Little more than a week prior to joining his hometown club, Chris Hankinson, 24, was travelling to the Arndale in Manchester as a trainee electrician.
Playing for Swinton Lions part-time, the call up came after Wigan Warriors suffered multiple Injuries and were in desperate need of a Centre to join the ranks, an opportunity Chris ‘couldn’t allow to pass by’.
Following the news, he quit his job to go full-time for the club in July this year. Head coach, Sean Wane, after finding out rugby is a part of his family culture, offered him the opportunity of a lifetime just four days after signing.
Making his debut for Wigan against bitter rivals St Helens, it was a fairy-tale start to his Rugby League career. One which he didn’t foresee materialising as he considers himself a ‘late-bloomer’.
“It was one of the proudest moments in my life walking out at the DW in front of my family, it’s every lads dream to play the Wigan v Saints derby for your debut, it doesn’t get much bigger than that,” he told The Match.
After positive feedback from the coaching staff and a good start to his life at Wigan, Chris was in the team the week following to face Catalan Dragons, where he scored his first try for the club just 15 minutes into his second game.
However, minutes later he went into a tackle that almost changed his life.
After clashing heads with teammate Thomas Leuluai – the full-force being taken by his eye – Chris was forced off in only his second appearance for the club.
The initial assessment wasn’t great as doctors could not identify the injury after the game as his eye was so swollen and dilated. Further medical scans, organised by club doctor, Dr Chris Brooks, confirmed it was a detached retina.
The injury all but ended his season as surgery was required to save his sight.
“The news came down on me like a ton of bricks, I couldn’t believe it was happening. To be told my season’s over was heart breaking, it can take you to some very low places.
However, Chris, who was unable to train, drive or run, admitted he was fortunate to have signed for Wigan before sustaining such a serious injury.
“I was quite lucky in the fact that three weeks before I was part time for Swinton and didn’t have the private care and insurance that Wigan had to offer”, he added.
“Looking back, he could have saved my sight, I was not aware my retina was slowly peeling away.
“My good eye was compensating for my loss of vision. There would be a shadow starting to form which without the proper treatment could lead to a complete loss of vision. The longer left untreated, the less chance of regaining vision.”
Dr Brooks, a cranial specialist with a reputation for being the best in the league, said: “Think of it like wallpaper, there’s a layer of skin over your eyeball that attracts the light that allows you to see, it was like wallpaper peeling from a wall which is why Chris experienced a dark corner in his vision.”
The road to Recovery
Once Chris met with the surgeons they discovered his eye required immediate surgery, six hours later he was under the knife.
The operation was successful, however, due to the trauma Chris lost 10% of the vision in his right-eye. After the operation he was ordered to undertake no physical activity other than walking for four weeks.
Unable to train for so long meant Chris had to resort to unorthodox methods of keeping busy during his rehabilitation process.
“I was ringing everybody who had a dog if I could walk them just to keep busy.
The English centre admitted the support from his family and the club was vital in ensuring he wasn’t causing himself further damage physically or mentally.
“My family, girlfriend and the club were really supportive, you don’t understand what they do for you outside of rugby, there’s a lot of time outside of training were that support is vital. Physically the staff were great in ensuring I wasn’t pushing myself too hard.”
Performance Director for Wigan, Mark Bitcon, was the first to show Chris around their training ground in Orrell. He understands the frustrations players can have when being ruled out for the season.
“As for returning, it’s about getting back on the horse. Gradually build up those interactions with his teammates, using shields, pads and different methods of training to build that impact back into his training,” he said.
Players can cause further damage without proper guidance, and it can be difficult managing a serious injury but Mark admitted it’s about setting realistic targets.
“There have been moments were we had to drag him off the pitch, he will be going through a graded return of progression based on contact and the pressure he would feel in his eye. Chris would want to play next week but we both understand it’s not a case of throwing him in an ocean and expecting him to swim,” he added.
Wigan face Castleford Tigers in the Super League semi-final on 5 October. Chris seen the specialist on Monday and has returned to full training this week, but understands his focus needs to be on being ready for next year.
“It’s all about preparing myself for a tough pre-season now, I would always put myself forward to feature if we get to the final, but personally my focus is on supporting the lads against Castleford and stepping up my road to recovery,” he insisted.
Athletes such as Sugar Ray Leonard have been force to retire from a similar injury. Being one tackle away from retirement could deter some, but just like his phenomenal start to Warrior life, he’s taking it in his stride.
We asked the hard-hitting centre whether he was worried about receiving a tackle that could potentially end his career at any moment.
He insisted: “That’s the risk of the game, if I ever get a knock to the head, there’s a slight chance it could come away again when that first hit comes.
“I’ll be keeping my eye out for that first hit and I’m looking forward to it.”