‘Fear and embarrassment’: ‘King’ Lewis’ battle with CTE

Alex Mitchell and Andrew Brown |

Wally Lewis will speak about chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
Wally Lewis will speak about chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

Wally Lewis says he’s losing the strengths that made him ‘The King’ as he continues to live with the brain injury he developed while playing rugby league.

The Queensland great used a National Press Club address to call for an $18 million government investment towards support services and education about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

After a string of head knocks throughout his legendary playing career, Lewis revealed last year he’d been diagnosed with the condition and wants more awareness about what living with it is like.

“It’s a journey marked by the twin shadows of fear and embarrassment, a journey through the fog of dementia and the erosion of my memory,” he said on Tuesday.

“I once had the confidence in myself to succeed, lead a team to victory, captain my country, remember the strengths and weaknesses of opposition teams, organise myself each and every day and feel well and truly in control of my everyday life.

“Now, much of that confidence has been taken away from me by the effects of probable CTE dementia.” 

The Concussion and CTE Coalition want money invested in community awareness and prevention programs, with Lewis believing tackling technique particularly at the elite level must continue to be drilled.

The former Australia and Maroons captain recalled one experience when he received a concussion and lost control of his body to the point he was urinating in his pants.

“From that moment forward we used to make sure every training session was about putting the head in the right spot … I used to have a challenge for perfection in making sure it didn’t play a part in every game I played,” Lewis said.

“Technique is probably the No.1 priority, there has to be a perfection of the skills.

“They’re not just practising a simple technique that can stop the opposing players from scoring, they’re doing it for the health and wellbeing of the players.”

Lewis was joined by Collingwood premiership player Nathan Murphy, who was medically retired earlier this season after a sequence of concussions.

His last football match was the 2023 grand final, where he was subbed off in the first half after another head knock.

Murphy said grassroots education – both on technique and the effects of concussion – is needed to create a safer playing space.

“I coach a school team and there’s kids there who are suffering concussion, but they get told to miss three weeks of football, it’s very hard for them to understand,” he said.

“If they’re educated on this stuff, and they know the consequences, that’s where the impacts can come.

“(Collingwood had a training) block called the fundamentals which is all about making our technique perfect (but) growing up in school football and local football we didn’t get taught that.”

Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression, with some patients going on to develop motor neuron disease or Parkinson’s disease.

It is the only preventable form of dementia, with estimates that several thousand people are affected by the condition.