"I feel lucky": How rugby and family inspired England and Saracens flanker Alex Bennett to rebuild his life after paralysis

Ten years after Alex Bennett was left paralysed by a collision during a match in Wakefield, the former England A, Saracens, Barbarians and Brive flanker insists he "wouldn't change a thing" about where he is now.

By Mark Berry
Monday, 24th January 2022, 1:35 pm
Updated Monday, 24th January 2022, 1:36 pm
Alex Bennett, second from left front row, has pushed himself to achieve many goals that seemed impossible 10 years ago, including skiing.
Alex Bennett, second from left front row, has pushed himself to achieve many goals that seemed impossible 10 years ago, including skiing.

Bennett, who turned 47 last week, fractured his C3 spinal vertebrae while playing for Lymm in their National League Three North match at Sandal in February, 2012, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and facing an uncertain future.

He underwent emergency surgery in Leeds and months of rehabilitation. He was told he may never walk again but Bennett refused to accept the gloomy prognosis and, inspired by his children, the rugby 'family' and blessed with an indomitable ambition to succeed, set out to rebuild his life and prove his doubters wrong.

Today, Bennett walks with use of a walking stick and while he admits that he 'will always be wobbly on his feet' has gone on to achieve great success professionally, now a Chief Growth Officer at ZRG Partners.

Alex Bennett, left, in his Saracens days with Kyran Bracken, Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar.

"Personally and professionally I have never been better. None of us can control what happens to us but we are all in control how we respond to adversity in life.

"A lot has happened in the last 10 years but I wouldn't change a thing. I feel like I am a better person and in a better place. I am really happy with my life."

It's not all been plain sailing, having seen his marriage break down and admitting that "being told you will never walk again and be in a wheelchair forever is chicken feed relative to going through a divorce."

But the competitive spirit honed by a professional rugby career has inspired a recovery many would have not believed possible a decade ago.

Alex Bennett on the pitch following his injury at Sandal. The care he received in those minutes proved crucial.

"I have always been a glass half-full person but we all grow and mature. The most important thing in my life is my children and I unashamedly live my life through them.

Both his sons William, 14, and Tommy, 12, are promising rugby players, William having earned a rugby scholarship at Sedbergh School and Tommy playing at St Ambrose College, while daughter Elizabeth, 14, studies at Manchester High School for Girls.

And they proved to be key in Bennett's recovery. "I had one moment when I was feeling sorry for myself," he admitted.

"I had a bit of a cry and then I realised I could see. For me, to be able to see my children again, even though I was a head on a pillow at the time, that was everything.

Alex Bennett is transferred to an ambulance at Sandal RUFC.

"I couldn't control anything at that stage but I was just aware that I could see and I would always be able to see my children grow up, and then you build from there.

"Mentally I have always been able to function. For me, that drive to push boundaries and test myself and demand a different level is arguably why I have been able to recover the way I have.

"It's not easy to be around and I accept that, but I know having lived through it that that had a big impact in my ability to get back to where I am today."

And Bennett is keenly aware of the example he sets for his children, saying: "I feel very lucky the kids are growing the way they are.

Setting an example to his children has been a huge inspiration for Alex Bennett.

"I feel I am maybe a better father because of the events of the last 10 years.

"I don't say that flippantly, I do genuinely think of the example I can give them. I don't give up on anything and I don't believe in the word 'can't'. For me, there's always a way.

"One of the most distinctive memories was in the hospital. They said 'We are worried about you Alex. All you can see is a full recovery and we think you will be lucky to get out of a wheelchair and you are only just off a ventilator'.

"You can accept an outcome but I had the opportunity to maybe change how people thought about recovering from injury."

Bennett drew on his ambition to succeed in sport to drive him on in his recovery. "My mindset as a rugby player was I wanted to play for the British and Irish Lions and play 100 times for England, " he said.

"The reality is I played for England A, Barbarians and Saracens and you can look back on a career now where I had done well.

"At the time I was disappointed that I didn't play for Lions but If I hadn't aspired to be the best I could possibly be, I wouldn't have achieved what I did.

"In hindsight, there were far better players than I. I was lucky enough to play with the Francois Pienaars and Scott Quinnells of this world and when I look back I was rubbing shoulders with some of the best players to play the game.

"I had no right to be on that level because on a pure talent level I was a million miles away from the likes of Richard Hill but one thing I did prove and I proved outside of rugby as well, was I could maximise my potential.

"Ultimately, the outcome to that was an England A, Barbarians-kind of career and playing cup finals with Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella and winning titles with Saracens but I had to maximise every ounce of ability and potential I had just to compete."

He added: "With the injury, that's what I have done again. I would have been forgiven for submitting to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

"I would have been forgiven for having carers or never working again but the reality is I walk independently with a walking stick, I have worked for multi-million dollar, multinational companies and I like to think I am maximising my potential again."

The rugby family has also played its part in supporting Bennett, who was best man at Nick Easter's wedding. Bennett said: "When I think about the rugby family and the players, they are absolutely awesome. [Nick Easter] is a very close friend and gave me great support all the way through.

"The friendships that you create in the game, they are more valuable to me than anything. The way the players rallied around and wanted to help me I will never forget that."

One of the people in that rugby family was Jim Kilfoyle, the head coach with Sandal on that fateful day a decade ago, who died in December 2020. Bennett said: "I was sad to hear that Jim Kilfoyle passed away. It's all about the players and the people in the game. There are amazing people involved in the sport and it gives us hope for the future.

"When all the noise dies down, it's the players and people you never forget. Like Jim [Kilfoyle], there are good people in the game."

Bennett now helps others who have suffered injuries and when he thinks back to the moment that changed his life 10 years ago, he is surprisingly philosophical, thankful and furthermore, regards himself lucky.

"I think I got knocked out in the air because I don't remember the collision. I remember going for the ball and then I was lying on top of a Sandal player. I was acutely aware that nothing was moving and I was being moved onto an ambulance.

"I remember my team manager Paul Thatcher holding my neck. I am very grateful he knew what to do there.

"I am grateful that everyone was cool and calm enough to take a minute, be still and deal with it. Maybe those few moments after the collision meant that my injury gave me a chance to recover so I am grateful for that."

Bennett added: "I feel lucky because my injury gave me a chance to get a decent recovery.

"I don't wallow in the 'woe is me, I wish I hadn't been injured'. If anything, I feel like I was I was given an opportunity to prove myself in the big game; that I was presented with the biggest challenge in my life and I was going to have a choice in how I responded. I used that opportunity to set an example."