Justin Clarke has no memory of the head knock that ended his promising Australian Football League (AFL) career at the age of just 22. Nor can the former Brisbane Lions defender recall the three weeks following that concussion.
“That period was a tough time because I wasn’t able to do much,” Clarke says, explaining that he had a severe headache, and spent most of that time in the dark, because his symptoms became worse in light. “Every little thing sort of set me off, and I struggled to get outside much.”
Clarke sustained the concussion during a routine training session, and footage of the collision appears innocuous. “I just got a little shove in the back and that propelled me into a bloke who was running in the opposite direction, into his knee,” he says. The impact knocked Clarke unconscious. He had sustained head knocks in the past, but soon realised this concussion was different. One month later, his symptoms still hadn’t improved. His brother had gone through a similar experience and Clarke “had an inkling that things might not turn out for the best.”
He was assessed separately by three doctors and each urged that he avoid future contact sport – a heavy recommendation for a young athlete with his entire football career ahead. Although his decision to retire, in March 2016 after four years playing with the Lions, has been heartbreaking, it wasn’t difficult. “When you have three specialists all tell you that you’d be pretty silly to play footy again, then you’d be a stupid man to go against that advice,” Clarke says.
But calmly taking medical advice can be a different story when a player sustains a head knock during a game. Clarke agrees that concussions are common in sport, particularly football, and believes that managing how they are diagnosed and treated is crucial. An objective field-side test would be ideal, he says, as it would override a player’s often-skewed self-assessment. “A player in that moment—whether it’s for the best or not—they’ll want to be back out there. I wanted to be back out there,” Clarke explains. “It’s about being able to control how much say that player has in that moment, and being able to ensure their safety first and foremost.”
Clarke says increased awareness of the symptoms of concussion is also important. “Amateurs experience concussions just as much as professionals do,” he says, adding that his message to young players is, “there’s no need to be a hero and go back out into the field if they’ve been concussed or have concussion symptoms.”
But Clarke doesn’t hesitate in his praise of AFL. “I would be really encouraging of my kids to play contact sports because it’s such a wonderful environment to grow up around,” he says. “It’s such an important thing that we can increase concussion awareness, and increase research into it, so that people can keep on playing the sports that they love.”