Rugby League

Concussion retirement led to 'dark spot' for Shaun Spence who has re-joined Wests Tigers

Shaun Spence is determined to make a career out of rugby league despite being told at the age of 22 that he had to retire after repeated concussions.

Spence is the real face of the concussion debate after his career was taken away from him with genuine fears of serious brain trauma. The news was a bitter pill for Spence to swallow, admitting he "went to a pretty dark spot" as he failed to grip the fact his childhood dream was to be taken away.

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"There was massive denial at first and I fought it for six months and kept going back for more doctors' test," Spence said. "There was definitely really dark times and I turned into not so good of a person. There were times when it was difficult to get up and motivated to do anything. It was frustrating. I blocked out all my friends."

Spence sought professional advice as he battled mentally. 

Back from black: Shaun Spence is committed to carving out a career in the game despite his early retirement.
Back from black: Shaun Spence is committed to carving out a career in the game despite his early retirement. Photo: Getty Images

He switched to the Panthers at the end of the 2013 season having played nine top grade games for the Tigers. He was concussed a handful of times in 2013, which included losing 70 per cent of his ear drum before more concussions the following season. 

"The discussion around anti-depressants was brought up but I found a way to cope without them," Spence said. "Concussion is still a tough thing to talk about. You tell people you are out with a head injury and you think they are going to laugh at you and say you're soft. 

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"I may never have played another NRL game but at 23 I can't even go join a local team and play with a bunch of mates. My whole dream was taken away from me."

Officially Spence retired at the end of this season, but he hasn't played since midway through 2014. While he was still on the Panthers books, Spence could have done anything with his time. Instead he put it to good use, completing his bachelor of business degree at University of Technology and being ever-present around the Panthers front office.

"Everyone was telling me everything happened for a reason," Spence said. "It got really annoying and frustrating but I had to turn it around. I got a blackboard and wrote on it 'find the reason'. That started with the reason to get out of bed in the morning and then it progressed to find the reason why. Now the reason may be to help the next guy it'll happen to."

One of the first appointments new Tigers chief executive Justin Pascoe made was luring Spence back to the club as its fan engagement and community manager. Pascoe, the ex-Panthers chief executive, worked closely with Spence during their time at Penrith. 

"He could've travelled overseas or played Nintendo because he was still getting contract money," Pascoe said. "He asked every single person [at the Penrith offices] what needed to be done and how he could learn. We started challenging him more and every time we challenged him he shone and delivered above and beyond.

"He is a wonderful young kid and has a bright future in sports administration or any field he goes into."

While his playing career may have ended, Spence still wants to rise through the rugby league ranks.

"Long-term goals could be to become a CEO," Spence said. "There are a lot of small steps along the way. I'm really focused on connecting the Wests Tigers with the community."

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