It’s been five months since former Brisbane Lions defender Justin Clarke cannoned his head into an oncoming teammate’s knee in a marking contest at training.
The concussion was severe enough not only to forcibly end Clarke’s career at the tender age of 22 but also cause him such damage that he still occasionally feels the effects to this day.
Clarke, now retired and devoting his time to studying, says the lingering effects of the concussion he suffered on January 18 sometimes reoccurs when he exerts himself mentally and physically.
“Some days I feel super and other days I’ll feel horrible and that comes back to how hard I’ve studied or exercised the day before. So if I do those activities, I’ll make sure to give myself ample time to recuperate and have something like a rest day,” Clarke tells Aflplayers.com.au.
“Even now I still struggle to concentrate. This happened in January and I was only able to start running again a month ago. The general loss of memory and lack of learning ability is pretty frustrating. It’s getting better but has a long way to go.
“How I’m feeling depends on how much I’ve been doing. I’m coming into an exam, which funnily enough is today, and if I have a big day of studying then the next day I really struggle to get going. I constantly have to remind myself to not push things too much.”
Clarke, a South Australian native, sought advice from three specialists about his future but was already at peace with the fact his career had ended by the time expert No.3 had instructed him to do what the others had already told him beforehand.
He announced his retirement at the end of March with the idea of steadily progressing into full-time mechanical and aerospace engineering studies, undertaking only one subject this semester to ensure he doesn’t push his mind too often.
While he is far from the initial three weeks of doing nothing following the injury, describing that period as “a big dark hole” in his life, Clarke admits to questioning recent feelings and actions due to concussion symptoms he previously didn’t think were prevalent.
“I feel normal now, but if I was to look back on this moment in three months’ time, I’d probably realise that I wasn’t normal. So Looking back to that press conference where I announced my retirement, while I would’ve been pretty close to full capacity, I wasn’t normal then either.
“I was well enough that I was able to make the right decision to retire and deal with the media but there have been times where I’ve reflected on certain things and thought ‘why was I doing that’ or ‘why did I feel that way after doing that’.
“An example of this is how I’d pull up after going for a run or coming back from a one-hour lecture at uni where I’d be exhausted for hours after.
“At the time I thought that’s just my body getting used to concentrating for so long again but upon reflection that’s definitely not right.”
Keeping himself busy is still a priority. It helps with the recovery to be mentally stimulated as well as physically active whenever he can and Clarke says it’s a welcomed distraction from thinking about the game he misses so much.
So when the Queensland Brain Institute approached him for an ambassador role in their #NoBrainNoGame campaign not long after hanging up the boots, it was only logical that he join the team.
“Even now I still struggle to concentrate. I was only able to start running again a month ago. The general loss of memory and lack of learning ability is pretty frustrating” – Justin Clarke
Launched on June 21, the campaign is a joint venture with the Australian Athletes’ Alliance which aims to gain greater understanding of the impacts of concussion and establish best practice through valuable research.
Around 89 per cent of concussions may go unassessed by medical professionals. While concussions make up only five per cent of all sporting injuries, they can have a devastating effect on the careers and lives of young people such as Clarke.
Having always planned a career well beyond the realms of the sporting field, Clarke says it’s important to find ways of better identifying concussion so that all athletes can have the best opportunity to continue playing and live quality lives.
“The work QBI are doing around awareness and research is incredible. They’re looking at doing some blood and saliva tests as a way of seeing if a person is concussed or not which is fantastic because it takes away the subjectiveness of concussion tests.
“The campaign also aims to increase the public’s understanding of concussion. They have some pretty cool posters that clubs can stick up on walls that show symptoms of concussion and the appropriate protocols, but they need funding to promote that research so they can tell various sporting codes how to properly keep their players safe.
“I’ve always said to myself in the past that if I ever felt passionately about a particular cause, I’d get involved with it and I don’t think there’s a more relevant cause at the moment that I could be connected to.
“Concussion has obviously changed my life and if I can help this cause allow people to keep playing sport then I think that’s a pretty good one to be involved with.”
#NoBrainNoGame is asking people to post a photo of themselves enjoying Australian sport with the hashtag #NoBrainNoGame and to text ‘Brain’ to 0437 371 371 to donate to concussion research.