Sport has been my whole life. From the age of four, when my parents gave me my first football, I knew that it was my dream to become a professional footballer. By age 10, I was playing for Birmingham against Man United – an early dream come to true. I was ambitious. Confident. A promising young right-back, playing for a Premier League team and training with the top pros. I just didn’t think that I’d be retiring from professional football by the age of 19.
Everything that I’d been working towards was taken away from me in one night, with one punch. I don’t remember the attack outside the nightclub. I just remember waking up in hospital and being told that it had left me with a fractured skull, a brain hemorrhage and deafness in my right ear. The doctors told me that, with my brain injuries, I would never be the same again and that it was unlikely I’d be able to play football at an elite level. I just thought it was like having a broken leg and that the harder I worked, the better I’d be. But reality sank in when I got back on the field; things weren’t going to be the same.
My balance was off; I would get dizzy and get severe pain in my head when I headed the ball. I also wasn’t as fit and quick, and couldn’t react as sharply as before. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realise everything you’ve been working toward - been living for - just isn’t going to become a reality. I’d made football my life and sacrificed everything for it, so when I lost it, I felt helpless.
Mental illness was the biggest challenge I faced. I was depressed and anxious. After the assault, I didn’t just stop playing football, I stopped watching sport altogether. It hurt me to watch what I couldn’t achieve. Disability stopped me from being a professional footballer, and I lost my identity for a long while. But it was also disability that helped me find my purpose as a Paralympic footballer.
About a year after, I found out I could play seven-a-side football with people who had suffered similar injuries. I met some inspirational guys on that team - true heroes of the game - who showed me that it wasn’t over for me in football. That I could have a second chance. I became captain of the squad and now here I am, wearing my country’s shirt with my name and a number 9 on the back. My highest point was captaining the Great Britain team at the Paralympics in front of 15,000 people. Yes, we lost the match to Brazil. But I gained something more beyond the game. I got my life back and a sense of belonging.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but sport actually prepared me for what I would face. You constantly get ups and downs in football - injuries, missed goals, scoring goals, winning games, being told you’re rubbish, being told you’re amazing – the game swings from extreme highs to lows. It teaches you a lot of things you need in life like coming back from a setback, being resilient, and believing in yourself. It teaches you to turn that pain into your strength. This experience made me realise that the only disability in life is attitude. If you stay positive and believe that opportunities are coming your way, eventually you’ll get the chance to turn your life around. The teamwork, respect and resilience you learn also helped me become a coach and mentor, to help others on their journey.
The sporting community has been a big support. But disability football isn’t on the same level as professional football. It’s my goal to change that, which is why I’m working with local charities, schools and colleges to encourage more people to reach their potential by sharing my experience and doing motivational talks. Right now, what matters is that we keep training, keep trying to get more people involved in disability football, keep winning competitions and building the disability football community. If we keep knocking at the door, eventually it will open for more people.
I always hoped to inspire thousands as a professional footballer. I had no idea that it would be as a footballer with disability. I know this all happened for a reason. Of course I am proud of my achievements on the pitch. But I’m more proud of my achievements off of it.
Helping make a difference in the lives of others is why I’m here, and while I never thought I’d say this, my life is better than it would have been had I made it as a professional footballer.
Jack Rutter / Paralympic footballer and Citizen of Sport
Citizens of Sport don’t stand by, they Rise Up.
How can we give disability football more coverage and open more doors to this avenue of the beautiful game?