How Leeds Rhinos’ Rob Burrow has proved an inspirational figure in face of MND
Exactly 12 months on, Burrow is still fighting and his plight – and the way it has affected those around him – has not only become national news, but also rallied the sport like nothing else in its 125-year history.
Speaking this time last year, Burrow stressed: “I know I have a big challenge in front of me, but knowing I have the love and support of so many people will give me inspiration and strength.”
But even Burrow could not have anticipated just how much support there would be for one of the game’s modern greats.
From the moment it was opened, a fund to support Burrow, his wife Lindsey and young children Macey, Maya and Jackson was inundated with donations and the generosity shown across the sport has been unprecedented.
Twelve months of the disease – which affects the brain and nerves and causes weakness that gets worse over time – have taken their toll, particularly on Burrow’s speech and movement, but his spirit is undiminished and he remains an inspiration.
The past 12 months have underlined how well liked and respected Burrow is among friends, team-mates, fans and rivals alike.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, an ex-team-mate and now Rhinos assistant-coach, immediately offered to share his testimonial game, against Bradford Bulls in January, with Burrow and that became one of Emerald Headingley’s most emotional and memorable afternoons. Huge demand led to the match being made all-ticket and the 20,000 sell-out was broadcast live on Sky Sports, despite being a pre-season ‘friendly’.
Bulls’ players paid their way into the ground and a host of Rhinos legends who had featured alongside Burrow during his 492-match Leeds career returned to the pitch for an emotional swansong.
It was Burrow who brought the house down when he entered the action as a substitute for the final few minutes as the gang got together again as players one last time.
Most poignantly, when the eight-time Grand Final struggled to keep his composure during a thank you speech on the pitch after the game, Bulls fans on the Western Terrace began a chant of ‘one Robbie Burrow’ which spread round the entire stadium.
That occasion was only the start. Since then Burrow, along with Hull KR’s Mose Masoe who suffered a career-ending spinal injury playing for Hull KR against Wakefield the same afternoon, has become a focus for rugby league’s unique ‘family spirit’.
Fans and clubs nationwide have joined in efforts to ensure his family are well cared for in the future, which has had the additional benefit of raising awareness of MND and boosting hopes a cure can eventually be found.
In their August Betfred Super League meeting with Rhinos, every Wigan Warriors player wore a special embroidered shirt in tribute to Burrow.
An online auction of those jerseys raised more than £16,000 for his fund.
Earlier this month, Castleford Tigers forward Oliver Holmes cycled 100 kilometres a day for seven days, generating more than £17,000 to the appeal.
Banners in support of Burrow and Masoe appeared at every game played behind closed doors following Super League’s return from the Covid-19 lockdown and the pair were joint-winners of the Spirit of Super League award at the annual Man of Steel celebration.
Burrow – who now has a racehorse named in his honour – was very much at the front of every Rhinos player’s thoughts during this year’s Coral Challenge Cup run and their eventual victory over Salford Red Devils was dedicated to the former star who played in Leeds’ 2014 and 2015 Wembley wins.
Concerns over Covid-19 prevented Burrow from attending the behind closed doors final, but he was the RFL’s chief guest in absentia – the governing body using the occasion to raise more cash for the MND Association.
He is also expected to be recognised tomorrow at the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year show, the corporation, at regional and national level, having followed his story closely throughout 2020. But the biggest single fund-raiser and greatest physical achievement in Burrow’s name this year came from his former captain and now Leeds director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
More than £2.5m – an almost unimaginable sum for rugby league – was pledged when Sinfield, referred to by Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week as “Sir Kevin”, ran seven marathons in as many days in tribute to his friend and long-term team mate.
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