41 years ago, Neil Sachse’s life changed forever.
Lining up for Footscray in round 2, 1975, the 24-year-old was fulfilling his duties on the field against Fitzroy — appearing in just his second VFL match after winning a premiership with North Adelaide in the SANFL.
In fact, there was an element of doubt surrounding his ability to take part at the Whitten Oval.
Under a pre-game injury cloud due to a spasm in his back, Sachse had to prove his fitness before being cleared to play.
Successful in his endeavour, that elation would turn into heartbreak, as a man desperate to make a name for himself in the VFL entered a contest that would shape the course of the rest of his life.
With just 10 minutes remaining, Sachse was moved to the forward line. Trying to gather a loose ball, he stumbled and ducked into a bump from Fitzroy’s Kevin O’Keeffe. The incident left him a quadriplegic.
“I went over and I couldn’t move,” Sachse told Aflplayers.com.au.
“Peter Welsh came along and I told him I couldn’t move. He picked me up and just let me go, and it wasn’t until I got down to the change rooms later on where they said they were going to take me to the hospital.
“I said, ‘well, you better take off my boots,’ and that’s when I realised that something was really wrong because they’d taken them off ages ago.”
Sachse was transferred to the Austin Hospital where he spent nine months, before being transferred to Adelaide to the Spinal Injury Unit.
“It made it easier because I had two young sons at the time, and I was married. It made it easier to do the rehabilitation here so that my wife had help with the two boys. After that, it took another two or three years to sit up without fainting when you first wake up in the morning.”
As things stand, the treatment at the time of injury is completely different. When Sachse suffered his accident, the diagnostics of a spinal cord injury was to stick a pin in your body to see where you could and couldn’t feel.
While that still happens today, patients aren’t made to lie down for up to six weeks after the injury. The victim is expected to sit up as soon as possible to maintain the blood pressure.
Those archaic treatment methods inspired Sachse to make a difference.
In 1994, he founded an organisation to raise funds for research into the treatment of spinal cord injury. Originally known as the Spinal Research Fund of Australia, it later became the Neil Sachse Foundation.
“We funded a $1.5 million project at Flinders University to try and get Schwann cells and growth factors to return some function in the spinal cord,” Sachse explained.
“In a laboratory, we were able to get that to prove that it could work, but we didn’t have the funds to get it to human trials.”
It’s at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) in Adelaide where Sachse was determined to launch more trials, with the creation of ‘Project Discovery.’
“If we can image intact cells after an injury, it’ll take away the pin prick and we’ll be able to diagnose a spinal cord injury straight away. If we can see those intact nerves, we can create new treatments and new programs to try and limit the injury and it would speed up research by leaps and bounds.”
The swelling after an injury like Sachse’s can remain for 12-24 months, making it difficult to diagnose, preventing a true outlook of what the injury will look like.
If the imaging system can be developed, doctors will be able to make the determination within a matter of weeks.
Since the incident, Sachse has been unable to remain in football circles, but out of sheer coincidence, his ties were re-discovered last year.
Brent Reilly’s 14-year career at the Adelaide Crows was cut short after sustaining a fractured skull following a training accident which forced the 32-year-old to retire last May.
Through a connection at the Crows, the two were introduced — and the incredibly positive outlook on life that exudes from Sachse drew Reilly to him — which went a long way to helping the former Crow with his recovery.
“If you look at his attitude and his whole positive outlook on life, it’s amazing. It was a real inspiration for me and it helped me with my recovery and where I am today,” Reilly told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I got involved with Neil and Project Discovery, and landed a nice job at the South Australian Health and Medical Research. Neil has been teaching me some things about how it all works which has given me a good insight of what the spinal cord does, but also within your brain and how your brain works. That’s a bit of an interest after what I went through last year.
“The other hat that I wear is being a part of the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at SAHMRI where we look after ageing youth, correctional youth and education. My role is sport, where I’m tasked with tying in a resilience program with sport.”
On November 14, Reilly will assist Project Discovery by taking part in a three-day cycling event that aims to raise funds and awareness for spinal cord injuries.
The Project Discovery Classic will head to the Barossa where 30 riders will take part in 370 kilometres of cycling beauty.
Another familiar face will join Reilly on the bike ride.
A little under four decades after the collision took place, things have come full circle for the two men involved on that day in 1975.
As fate would have it, Kevin O’Keeffe is an avid cyclist, and was only too keen to get involved in the event.
They speak regularly on the phone, with O’Keeffe living in Melbourne, and Sachse living in Adelaide.
However, it took some time for the lines of communication to be opened up.
O’Keeffe went to the Austin Hospital with Bob Rose and Kevin Rose two months after the knock.
“I didn’t say boo,” O’Keeffe told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I’ve spoken to Neil since about that visit and he couldn’t recollect.”
Almost 20 years after the hospital visit, the two would cross paths again as part of the ‘Where Are They Now’ series. This time round, they would exchange words.
“They rang me and asked if I was going to participate,” O’Keeffe remembers.
“I said ‘providing he’s aware of it and there’s no surprises.’ I was only too happy to do what I could.
“I was extremely nervous — Neil will let you know that he doesn’t like interviews — and I’m not too keen on them myself. As time goes on, things happen and you do what you do.”
In 2013, O’Keeffe was made aware of a ride from South Australia to Victoria that Sachse was arranging, but unfortunately, he was overseas and unable to attend.
“When I returned home, I sent a letter off to Neil and said that I’d be happy to participate in another event at any time. There’s one thing I can do — I can ride.
“My contribution is making contact with a lot more people in a network so that the message can get around. Last year, we did a luncheon in Melbourne and Neil asked me if I’d be happy to participate. Kevin Bartlett hosted, and in that event was made aware of the message of spinal injury. That’s been Neil’s passion, and he’s done a very good job.
“I’m amazed all the time whenever I speak to him. It’s amazing how he approaches his work, and what he’s achieved has been unbelievable.”
To this date, over $650,000 has been raised, getting Sachse ever closer to the target of $1 million.
The perception of how to treat a spinal cord injury has changed.
“The aim is to get people to understand that if something goes wrong, stop and make sure they’re still breathing, and get professional help rather than trying to lift them up and move them,” Sache added.
“Back when I had my injury, that was the first thing that was done because nobody really understood the injury. My accident has changed the way people treat it around the world. It was lucky that Channel 7 was recording at the time because it allowed people to see how it was treated.
“That secondary injury can be made worse if you move people indirectly.”