Jack Rutter was a young footballer with the world at his feet when, aged 18 and just a month away from signing his first professional contract at Birmingham City, his life was turned upside down.
In March 2009, on a night out with friends in Gloucester, a horrific, unprovoked assault left him with a fractured skull and a fortnight in intensive care. The resulting brain damage caused balance and coordination problems that meant his dream of playing football professionally was gone.
To get so close to reaching every boy’s dream only to have it snatched away so cruelly would be enough to break many people, but not Jack Rutter.
In early 2012, the charity Headway, which works with people to improve life after brain injury, introduced Jack to cerebral palsy football – a seven-a-side game which is open to players with traumatic brain injury and other neurological disorders.
Five years on, Rutter has captained England at both the World and European Championships, whilst leading out Team GB at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
A role model off the pitch, he is an ambassador and motivational speaker for, among others, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, who help young people facing disadvantage get their lives back on track.
The England captain is also Head of Disability Football for McDonald’s, who this week launched their 2017 Community Awards, where Teamer got the chance to speak to Jack about his incredible journey in life and football.
Can we start at the beginning and your early days in football? Tell us a bit about those.
I started playing football when I was very young, probably four years old, when I was kicking the ball around before school and every lunchtime on the playground. I actually got to the stage where I asked my mum and dad to put lights in the trees in our garden so that I could play at night. I loved football from an early age.
Who was your first team?
I went first of all to Russell Ralph’s Coaching School in Gloucestershire, where I built my skill levels and realised I really enjoyed the game. Aged about seven, I started playing for Windsor Drive – a fantastic grassroots club in Gloucester. I met some great people, some really good footballers and the manager wanted us to play it out from the back. It was really enjoyable and obviously my skill levels built up quite high.
I think half of our side signed for pro clubs at 10 or 11 years old, so they had a really good system for producing players. I had development squad days at Bristol Rovers and Cardiff City but my big chance came at Birmingham City, when I was 10 years old. They were just going into the Premier League so I had to bite at that chance to play for them.
So that was the big break?
Yes, I spent eight years at the club, moved up there when I was 16 to play full time with them on a scholarship. I was doing very well. From 16 I was first choice right back in the under-18s, playing every week and I made 35 appearances for the reserve team by the time I was 18. We’d booked our place in the FA Youth Cup semi-final and I was expecting to sign a professional contract when I was assaulted on a night out.
We won’t dwell on that horrific incident, but it obviously changed your life. Can you put into words how difficult it was to have your dreams snatched away from you.
It was heartbreaking. I was weeks away from playing in one of the biggest games in youth football in this country but that turned my life upside down. I was in intensive care for two weeks, had a brain haemorrhage and I was permanently deaf in my right ear. It was a lot to come to terms with and I had to retire from professional football as a result. It was devastating.
Fortunately I had a really good support network from my family, Birmingham City helped with the rehab at first and the charity Headway – which helps people who have suffered brain injuries – were fantastic as well.
Retiring was heartbreaking but, a few years later, fortunately I got that call from the head of disability football at the Football Association, Jeff Davies. He gave me a lifeline, he gave me a second chance in football, so I say thank you to him and to the FA for helping me get back on track and reaching my potential on the pitch.
How did you first get involved in cerebral palsy football?
I was receiving help from Headway so I asked them one day if there was any sort of disability football that I could play.
They called the Nottinghamshire FA, where I was living at the time, who said that I could play for the cerebral palsy team because it’s open to people with brain injuries.
I had a trial, did well and got onto the radar with England. I got in the team a few months after that, which was a springboard to the last four years, which have been the best four years of my life.
What sort of role has football played in your recovery?
It’s almost eight years since the injury so I have recovered really well. When I was in hospital I was pushed around to scans in a wheelchair and when I came out I couldn’t walk straight.
The determination and self-belief that I had in me anyway, from getting to where I did with Birmingham City, helped me in my recovery.
I do loads of physical and mental training to try and help me improve and obviously the football has given me confidence again. Without confidence it’s hard to get over these sort of things and luckily mine has grown. I had an opportunity in disability sport and luckily I’ve taken it, and I hope to try and promote and help the sport as much as possible now.
Your journey over the last few years has been incredible, captaining England at two major championships and Team GB at the Rio Paralympics last year. How does it feel to captain your country on such a big stage?
It’s unbelievable. It’s a huge honour and a huge privilege. Obviously there is pressure that comes with the job, but it’s fantastic. I’m not the only one with a story to tell. My team mates have fantastic stories. They are so inspirational.
When I look back in the tunnel and see them behind me and I see what they’ve been through to get on the pitch with me, it’s very inspirational and very heartwarming. I feel very happy to be a leader of that fantastic team.
Now you’re a role model to other youngsters. How does that feel and how can you use your experience to help other kids who might be facing difficulties themselves?
First of all, it’s very nice and I feel very lucky that I’ve been trusted to be a spokesman for some fantastic organisations.
To be Head of Disability Sport for McDonald’s who do so much for the grassroots game – I couldn’t believe it when I got the phone call to be asked. To work with the likes of Martin Keown today, Kenny Dalglish, Ryan Giggs, Sir Geoff Hurst – it’s a dream come true for me.
I want to do as much as possible to help young people reach their potential. I feel the values that I’ve learned on the football pitch are the fundamental values to make you successful in the real world, whatever you go into.
So to be today celebrating the launch of the 2017 McDonald’s Community Awards is a huge honour and something I’m very happy to be doing.
What are those values learned through football that have stood you in good stead?
Respect is a massive one, taking up opportunities, being a team player is huge as well, and having self-belief.
You can have all the talent in the world, all the opportunities in the world but if you don’t have that self-belief and that inner desire to make the most of it, you won’t go anywhere. That’s what I’ve picked up so much from football from a very young age.
As far as disability football goes, how important is it to you that everyone should get the chance to play the game?
It’s hugely important. We’ve got one of the best football organisations in the world. People with all sorts of disabilities can play football.
If you’re in a wheelchair you can play powerchair football, if you’re blind you can play blind football, if you have celebral palsy or a brain injury you can play cerebral palsy football.
Whatever disability you have, more or less, you can play the game, which I think is fantastic. It’s accessible, it’s inclusive and that’s why the McDonald’s and FA partnership, which has been going for 15 years now, is fantastic – to help those people play the game.
The awards you’re launching today celebrate grassroots football volunteers. How important is it that we have a healthy grassroots game?
It’s hugely important and that’s what these awards are about. They celebrate the hard work of grassroots heroes right across the UK. The people who work tirelessly to give thousands of kids a chance to play football regardless of gender or disability. Every player, whether you’re Lionel Messi or someone who ends up playing locally on a Sunday afternoon, everyone starts in their community playing for their local team, playing grassroots football.
But without those people cutting the grass, making the tea, transporting people around, coaching, those kids won’t get given the chance. So these awards are all about celebrating that success and helping volunteers, who are the lifeblood of sustaining and developing grassroots clubs. It’s a real privilege that they have given us the chance to play and they deserve recognition for that.
Jack Rutter was speaking at the launch of the 2017 FA & McDonald’s Community Awards, recognising achievement regardless of age, gender or disability. Nominate your grassroots football hero at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/awards.