In tribute to a man and player he admires, Alasdair Hooper offers a look at the making of England captain Jack Rutter and at his promising future in shaping the future of cerebral palsy football in England.
On Friday, February 16 football newsrooms leapt on the news that four West Brom players had stolen a taxi in Barcelona. The responses to the incident were unsurprising – the club was criticised, the players’ integrity was questioned, and the wider public condemned footballers for being irresponsible yet again.
On that same day – while everyone’s eyes were focused on taxi-gate – an England captain retired from the game.
This is a man who has conducted himself with the upmost dignity imaginable, a man who is a credit to his sport and to the country he represented.
He wore the Three Lions badge with pride and when he was knocked down he refused to be beaten.
Instead of thinking inwardly he turned his negative experience into something positive and is now helping all manner of people who find themselves in similarly tough circumstances.
That man is Jack Rutter. Who, up until Friday, February 16, was the captain of the England cerebral palsy team.
Travelling back in time to 2009, Rutter had the world at his feet.
A Birmingham City youth prospect, the defender had regular reserve appearances under his belt for the blues and was also sporadically involved with Steve Bruce’s first team.
A first professional contract looked to be on the cards in the near future until one fateful night changed everything.
On that March evening Rutter was out celebrating with teammates after helping Birmingham City progress to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup.
“Unfortunately I got caught up in an unprovoked assault,” Rutter explains.
“He knocked me unconscious so I didn’t put my hands out to protect myself.
“I just fell straight back and struck my head on the curbstone.”
The injury prognosis: a fractured skull in two places; moderate brain damage, a bleed on the brain and permanent deafness in his right ear.
After spending a fortnight in intensive care, this dedicated sportsman had to leave hospital in a wheelchair – unable to recall what had happened and with his balance and coordination gone.
“I ended up retiring from professional football a year after the assault because of my physical injuries,” he says.
“But it was the problems with my mental state, which was the long term effect in many ways.
“I was obviously depressed about what happened, I was anxious about my future and I was very angry about the injustice of it all – it was very hard to come to terms with.
“My memory was terrible, I had problems with my fatigue – I was getting tired really easily – and I couldn’t do what I could do before.
“It was almost like going back to a baby and I had to teach myself to do things again.
“I had to teach myself how to talk properly, because I would always forget words and I would slur my speech a little bit, and obviously the physical impairments – dizziness and headaches.
“It was just terrible for quite a while and really, at that point, I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.
“Fortunately I had an amazing support network from my family and friends, and the charity Headway were instrumental in my recovery as well.”
Change of direction
After struggling with depression and anger for some time Rutter soon received a phone call that changed everything.
He was invited down to play cerebral palsy football and suddenly he had a goal and something to strive towards.
He quickly rose to the rank of England captain and represented his country at four major tournaments, including the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
But it could have been so easy just to leave it at that – Rutter went further.
Alongside his captaincy duties he set up his own skills school, does motivational speaking and helps others who have suffered life-changing brain injuries.
“It [the captaincy] really helped me to think about other people and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve gone into the work that I have done – trying to help others on their journeys too,” Rutter says.
“I think I was quite selfish before, and quite close-minded, and now I am a bit more open-minded.
“I’m more of a team player and I try and help others as much as I possibly can do.”
Rule changes and retirement
However, after a four-year research project, the International Federation for Cerebral Palsy Football recently revised its classification rules.
As a result players with minimal impairments are no longer considered eligible to compete in the sport.
That decision has forced Rutter into retirement from the game he as adored since he was a child.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I have to announce my retirement from international football,” he said in a statement on Twitter.
“Unfortunately it’s not about the disability but the ability of the player and I believe this will have a significant impact on the quality of the game but there’s nothing I can do about that.
“I’ve gone from contemplating suicide over losing my professional football career, being out of work for five years, stopped playing football completely and was headed towards alcoholism, to a Paralympian, professional speaker, coach, ambassador and mentor.
“I’ve had adverts made about my story, as well as featuring in every newspaper and hopefully in doing so, helped build the sport and inspire the next generation to achieve their dreams too.
“This won’t defeat me. Just part of the ups and downs of life we all go through.”
Naturally Rutter will not be leaving football despite this setback. He has just completed his FA Level 3 Coaching Licence and will now assist as a coach with the England CP U21 squad.
But in the week where much of the talking was centred on a stolen taxi, the career, professionalism and inspirational story of Rutter should not be ignored.
You will be hard pushed to find a better role model to have worn the Three Lions on their chest.
Portions of this article were previously published by Alasdair on TalkSport.
Alasdair’s full interview with Jack Rutter is available on SportSpiel.
Follow Alasdair on Twitter – @adjhooper1992