‘Thought we were bulletproof’: Wally Lewis’ CTE journey

Kat Wong |

Rugby league legend Wally Lewis says more should be done to protect future generations of players.
Rugby league legend Wally Lewis says more should be done to protect future generations of players.

‘The King’ Wally Lewis once ruled the State of Origin with an iron fist.

Representing Queensland in 31 matches, Lewis spearheaded the state’s dominance from 1980 to 1991, winning eight man-of-the-match awards before he was branded an NRL Immortal in 1999.

But after being diagnosed with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), his mortality has never been so clear.

“I’m fearful for what my future will look like, so I try not to think too much about it,” he said.

“We all thought we were 10-feet tall, bulletproof.

“But for most of us, the reality was that it was causing us the extensive long-term damage (and it was) something that we weren’t dealing with.”

CTE is a brain condition associated with repeated head injuries that often worsens over time and can lead to dementia.

Speaking on a Dementia Australia panel from Parliament House on Tuesday, the 64-year-old laid his struggles bare.

At first, it was just fleeting moments of forgetfulness.

But these began recurring with “monotonous regularity”.

“I was a little bit out of sorts, and then the confusion came, and then the denial,” he said.

“My best friends, my workmates … it soon became very obvious by the looks upon their faces.”

After 23 years of presenting sports for the 6pm bulletin, he had to stop.

Though his bosses were supportive and made accommodations that would allow him to tell packaged sports stories, Lewis couldn’t shake the feelings of embarrassment and failure.

But in 2022 when Paul Green, another Queensland State of Origin star, died by suicide and was revealed to have advanced CTE, Lewis knew things had to change and he made an appointment with a neurologist.

“I had heard dozens of denials from former footy players, and I didn’t want to be another one of those,” he said.

He received his diagnosis in 2023 and has been learning to live with it since.

Lewis now depends on his diary to help jog his memory and receives support from his partner Lynda Adams, who calls him frequently throughout the day.

But the government and institutions need to do more to protect future generations of sport stars.

“We need to train our kids smarter,” he said.

“It’s not a badge of honour to go back out onto the field with a head injury, it’s sheer carelessness.”

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