On Wednesday 1st May Interact Australia Ambassador and Coach of the Phillip Island Football Club, Beau Vernon featured on ABC Radio. Beau was interviewed to share his inspirational story after suffering a spinal cord injury whilst playing Australian Rules Football that left him a quadriplegic. Hear the interview here:
Transcript for ABC Radio Interview with Beau Vernon
Michelle: Beau Vernon is my next guest and became a quadriplegic at the age of 23. At that happened during a game of football. Since then he’s gone on to coach two country football teams to flags. But basically how it happened is he scooped up the footy on a Saturday afternoon in Leongatha and that was seven years ago, and he was collected in the head by a Wonthaggi opponent. It wasn’t a big hit he said just wrong angle at the wrong time. He fell to the ground and he knew straight away that something was wrong. Beau, welcome to ‘Afternoons’
Beau: Thanks for having me Michelle.
Michelle: So you knew instantly, the moment you hit the ground?
Beau: Yeah, I had no idea about spinal cord injuries before I hurt myself but when I fell to the ground I was fully conscious and wasn’t able to move anything in my body. I was lying on my back and I remember my head spasming off the ground involuntary and then back down and then little later I would do it again and back down and yeah the trainers came over and touched my legs and touched my arms and I couldn’t feel anything in either of those areas. So yeah just lying on the ground I knew I was in trouble and I remember thinking I don’t want to live my life like this even though I didn’t know the full extent of the injury at the time.
Michelle: So right from the beginning that was going through your mind?
Beau: Yeah, I remember yelling out some things that I’m not really comfortable saying, that this can’t be happening to me, don’t want to live my life like this and yeah that half an hour was so scary waiting to be boarded to an ambulance and then helicoptered to Melbourne.
Michelle: Wasn’t your brother was there at the time and he was touching you, and you told him “look don’t touch me right now”?
Beau: Yeah, I not sure if he was touching me, I remember yelling out to my team mates and my brother who was one of my team mates not to touch me because I thought I had broken my neck and yeah so once I got into the ambulance he got in the car and followed us up to Melbourne and then he rang my partner Lucy who was up in Melbourne and just said “Beau is going into hospital” and she just thought I had been knocked out again or had another injury and probably didn’t know the full extent and then he had to ring my parents who were on a once in a lifetime trip in Africa. They had only gone over five days earlier and were in this real remote area we were just lucky that we were able to get in contact with him and they had reception and told them.. And it must have pretty hard for my brother at 20 years of age having to bear the brunt of all that and seeing his older brother go through it.
Michelle: And so you’re a close family, from reading between the lines you sound pretty tight knit and connected and loving, it must have been a big shock, a changes like this to someone’s life affect everybody, don’t they?
Beau: Yeah I always think that these accidents affect everyone and my family and stuff like that. My partner Lucy and (I’m) very lucky to have a great family and yeah I love my family I’m very lucky there.
Michelle: So you’re in hospital two hours later, what sort of the process then, what can you remember about what you were told, and I guess the reality kicking in?
Beau: I can’t remember anything from once I was put on the helicopter and then I was in an induced coma for a week, so my partner Lucy, my brother Zac and I think Zac’s partner Mia, had to bear the brunt of the news that more than likely I’m going to be a quadriplegic and then I came to a week later and my parents had got home by that stage and I was told that, and I can’t remember this specifically but dad said that I turned to him and my family there and said “Looks like I’ve stuffed up all your lives and mine as well”. Hearing dad say that to me, I can’t really remember that and it’s pretty sad to think that and obviously that hasn’t been the case.
Michelle: Absolutely not.
Beau: But that was the thought process at the time.
Michelle: So when did that thought process for you change and shift Beau because there was a period where you thought “okay, this is my life now and the only thing I can control is how I move into my future and what I do?
Beau: Yeah I was in hospital for five weeks before I was transferred to a rehabilitation centre and where I lived for seven months in there. I remember being shown around the facilities and got back to my room and could barely move my arms at all at that stage and I couldn’t physically turn the page of a book and I couldn’t turn on the T.V, I couldn’t use my mobile phone.
Michelle: Couldn’t scratch your face.
Beau: Yeah I couldn’t do anything really.
Michelle: That must have been daunting. Even though you were told everything, that moment once you’re alone in a room.
Beau: Yeah I was pretty lucky with the support I had, I had a lot people in the hospital with me, but that day I was on my own and yeah bearing that was hard and I just started crying uncontrollably, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t go to the toilet by myself and never have I been so far from where I thought my life should be and yeah it was a good moment looking back on as hard as it was that it I was able to release a lot of emotion off my chest there and understand that the situation was hard but I was able to then look and think well I can’t control this now but I still want to live a good life and positive influence on the people around me and I want to be happy and so what can I actually do about that.
Michelle: Beau Vernon is with you, he’s a footy coach, the football coach of the Phillip Island Football Club, I wonderful footy club, I spend a lot of time down there Beau, so I’m surprised we actually haven’t crossed paths. You spoke about how you went to the room on your own for the first time, you couldn’t scratch your nose, and you couldn’t go to the bathroom, whatever it may be. You actually have a fair bit of movement now though so the physicality, just talk us through what movement you do have and in what parts of your body.
Beau: When you look at me and you see me move around you probably think I’ve got a lot more muscle function than I do and I am very capable of doing everything by myself so I’m very lucky the further up your spine you hurt, the less movement you have and the further down you hurt it, the more movement you have. I dislocated the C5/C6 vertebrae which is the fifth and sixth vertebrae down in your neck. I’ve got no movement from my chest down, I can’t move my fingers one little bit so they don’t move at all or my thumbs. My triceps I’ve got about five percent that works and my chest I’ve got a little muscle at the top that works the pec minor but they major muscle itself doesn’t. And then in my forearms I can lift my wrist one way but not the other so essentially what I have do have working is my bicep muscles, my shoulder muscles, my high back and neck muscles that work. I probably think about having that function having been told that if that was a function I was going to have I’d close my eyes and try visualise that person I’d think far out they wouldn’t be able to do much for themselves and couldn’t be happy but it’s amazing when you’re thrown in this situation, you learn that you’re far more capable than you think you are.
Michelle: You’re now the coach of the Phillip Island Football Club as I just said but back in 2014 you applied to be the coach of Leongatha because footy and sport is a part of your life and your family’s life. And in moment we’ll get to some of the incredible things you still do. But how did you prepare yourself, like what do you pitch when you went in to say to the Leongatha football club, I want to coach this club it needs some help, they weren’t doing so well, you wanted to turn the club around, it was about a two hour pitch so what did you go in and say and what kind of reaction did you get from the club?
Beau: So I went to the last game of the year in 2014, I was the assistant coach when I got out of rehab since the start of 2013 and was the assistant coach for 2013/2014 had my only year away from footy that I’ve ever had. I watched my brother and my mates play the last game of the year as you said the club definitely wasn’t going as well as I thought it could be and I thought players weren’t getting the most out of themselves and I had no intent going to that game even thinking about coaching, I just went away from it and maybe someone said something that triggered something, I went home said to Lucy that “I’m thinking applying for the coaching job, what do you think?” And she was fully supportive, Lucy had been my partner and my wife and she was fully supportive, I had a chat to a few people over the next few days and I had a think about it for a few days and then I rang the president and just said “if I apply for the job are you going to take me seriously?” And said “yeah by all means” and I put something together and I put a two hour presentation towards the people as to why I thought I was the best person for the job, there was a number of different things, it was around structuring the game plan but a lot about just making people feel welcome and creating a really good feel and culture around the place. I can’t exactly remember, it was a little while ago but yeah.
Michelle: So what kind of coach do you think you are, all footy coaches have a style and technique and kind of persona almost. What kind of coach is Beau Vernon?
Beau: I base my coaching around a couple of things. One is about enjoyment so enjoying people around the club and enjoy training and playing. And then also building confidence in players, because I think if you’re enjoying yourself no matter what it is in life if its work, family, sport then you’re going to try harder at it and be better at it. Then also giving people confidence to be the best players they can be is huge.
Michelle: And how you instruct players on what you want them to do, you’ve spoken about this that if I can physically show them what I want them, whatever it may be, forward line backline, whatever tactics you want to use. You must have to become a really sharp communicator.
Beau: Yeah I think particularly early days, there was a bit of getting used to but it hasn’t seemed to be too hard for me in that aspect, I know I can’t show specific things but with video and technology and also just developing good relationships with your leaders to be able to show things and your coaches and assistant coaches and what not, it hasn’t been too big a deal. As long as you can communicate it I can still draw up things on whiteboards and stuff.
Michelle: We speak a lot in society about the role especially in regional or rural areas, of the role of football clubs and sporting clubs play and what they are and how they become the lifeline of small areas and towns how often you see when the club goes the towns disappear. Did the reality of how important football was and the reality of small footy clubs and how and what they are to you, did that kick in once you started to live with your injury?
Beau: In terms of hurting myself, I was very lucky to have a lot of support around me and it showed how big of a community the football community is. I was very lucky there to hurt myself playing a community sport and forever thankful for what I received and one way of saying thank you to everyone for that support was to just make the most of my life and it’s really inspired me to make the most of it. But growing up around community football, dad coached and played a few AFL games for Richmond and Sydney but he coached community football and I grew up around it and it was such a big part of my life that I probably didn’t really understand how much of a positive influence it can have on people’s lives and I’ve got no doubt that me growing up around a football club, socialising, learning to work hard to be the best player I could be, working as a team has helped me post injury to be the person I am.
Michelle: In small towns everybody knows everybody and you don’t have to answer this question but I do want to ask it. The person who collected you, the person that knocked you to the ground and caused the injury, you obviously would have known them.
Beau: I knew of his brothers but didn’t personally know him.
Michelle: Have you spoken to him since?
Beau: Not until three months ago, we had a chat, I don’t hold any grudges there. No doubt he probably wanted to collect me and hit me.
Michelle: Did you talk about it?
Beau: No. But obviously no doubt. People ask if he’s has reached out to me and I was look back and go, I probably should have reached out to him and just said yeah no hard feelings because obviously he didn’t mean to make happen what happened.
Michelle: Absolutely. Beau you’re incredibly active. I just want to go through some of things that you still compete or some of the things that you’re a part of, you kayak, you hand cycle, you fish, you surf and you play darts… Where do you find time to coach football?
Beau: Yeah I’ll do those pretty spasmodically especially with a couple of kids.
Michelle: Yeah, you’ve got a young family as well?
Beau: Yeah a young girl who’s three and my boy is one. So very lucky to have great kids in my life and my wife as well. But yeah sport I’ve got some cools things, like a powered surf board, there’s Bluetooth to a watch I wear on my wrist, hit that with my teeth and it powers my surfboard while I’m on my stomach.
Michelle: Go through that again, so you power it with your mouth…
Beau: So it’s powered by Bluetooth to a watch I wear and it’s got two propellers underneath the board and I hit the watch button with my teeth which starts up the propellers which allows me to get up and catch some waves and surf the waves.
Michelle: How big are the waves?
Beau: Not too big.
Michelle: I don’t know too much about it.
Beau: I’m looking to get on bigger and better waves and hopefully surf cape Woolamai on the right day and yeah
Michelle: That’s a huge swell, I know the cape Woolamai and I know colonnades very well and that’s big surf down there and a wonderful community. You’d live in a great area, young family.
How are the Phillip Island footy club who you’re currently coaching going this season?
Beau: This season we’ve won four games out of four at the moment and travelling along alright, we probably no offence to the teams we’ve played, but probably aren’t the top end sides at the moment that we’ve played.
Michelle: Haven’t been really tested yet?
Beau: Yeah we’re going to have a big few weeks coming up which is exciting.
Michelle: Beau congratulations, it’s been so lovely to meet you now I know there’s quite a few organisations that you work alongside that support you and I just want to talk a little bit about Interact Australia which is an organisation that works with people living with disability. Tell us a little bit about who you work with and some of the support networks you’d like to thank.
Beau: Interact Australia, I’m a director of the company and have recently got involved inside the organisation as well. It’s such a great company with disability employment services and community service for people living with disability. Particularly the disability employment services, I know how much it meant for me post injury to find meaning through work and how big of a difference it meant to me. How much it’s had a positive influence on me. So now to be involved and try and help people with a disability get out into the workforce as well as chat to employers or potential employers about the benefits of employing someone with a disability. It’s not just doing that person a favour with a disability. It can also have a positive influence on your workforce. I think when I started working at the AFL after I hurt myself I was really worried about my productivity and how that was going to be, and I’ve got no doubt that because I was worried about that, I worked even harder at it and I’m just as productive if not more productive than others. But then also having a positive influence on other people around me because you can go to work and feel a bit monotonous a bit same old and maybe whinge about a few things. But then if you see a person next to you just enjoying the opportunity to be at work and to have an opportunity and a massive smile on their face, it can really rub off on others around you, so I’m really passionate about the industry and very happy to be involved. So if you are an employer and do want to see someone with a disability to work for you, jump on to interact.com.au and likewise if you have a disability I really encourage people to get out into the workforce and add meaning to your life through that.
Michelle: Beau, so much love coming in for you saying this guy is an amazing person, such an inspiration, good on you and its people like Beau that make others see us as the person not the chair. Beau good on you, hopefully I’ll catch you around the traps, best of luck to the Phillip island footy club. And there’s a women’s team as well and your wife is involved in that, you guys are kicking goals.
Beau: Yeah I love that women play football it’s awesome and then the men integrating that into the football club is awesome too, pretty lucky at Phillip island and please make sure you get down to a game and have a look it’s a great club
Michelle: Beau, thanks very much. It’s been lovely to meet you.