James Graham reveals 'chilling' concussion toll of brutal NRL career

James Graham is helped from the field by St George Illawarra trainers during the 2018 elimination final.
James Graham has revealed his brain has suffered 'significant' trauma as a result of his NRL career. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Former NRL star James Graham says neurological tests have shown his brain has suffered 'significant' trauma and has subsequently shrunk in volume.

Graham, who played 423 games across the NRL and Super League for St Helens, Canterbury and St George Illawarra, had openly articulated in the past that he considered head injuries simply part and parcel of professional rugby league.

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Since his retirement from the sport in 2020 though, Graham's views about the risks of concussion in sport have demonstrably changed.

Having memorably estimated he had suffered upwards of 100 concussions throughout his career, James has recently become an advocate for minimising the risk of head trauma in professional sport.

The Australian sporting world has been rocked by several instances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed posthumously but is said to present symptoms such as short-term memory loss, onset of depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

Former AFL players Danny Frawley and Shane Tuck were both diagnosed with CTE after their deaths, while NRL great Mario Fenech recently described the debilitating toll his years on the field had taken with age.

Graham, in conjunction with The Australian, recently launched the Head Noise podcast, in which he delves into the effects his bruising career has taken on his body.

“While the neuropsychological tests I passed quite well … it has been confirmed via an MRI scan that part of my 36-year-old brain is damaged, that is ‘down on volume’ at the front and side part of my brain," Graham said.

“As my neurologist, Dr ­Rowena Mobbs, explained, my frontal lobe and the parietal (the side part behind the frontal lobe) were all down on volume for a man my age. ‘Mildly so,’ Dr Mobbs tells me, but enough to say it’s ‘significant’.”

Additionally, in a seperate column for NewsCorp on Saturday, Graham wrote, 'For someone my age, my brain should not be losing volume like this.'

Graham also joined the panel of ABC program The Drum to discuss his podcast, with host Dan Bourchier struck by what the Englishman had described.

“That was utterly chilling to watch and hear," he said.

James Graham's remarkable and alarming concussion revelation

Back in 2021, Graham was adamant he'd made the right call for himself by choosing to play on, even when many experts feared for his safety on the field as a result of the repeated blows to his head.

Graham joined the NRL 360 panel on Fox League when they were discussing a serious concussion suffered by Roosters hooker Jake Friend, leaving his fellow panellists stunned when he said he considered rugby league something 'worth dying for'.

“I think it was well-documented that I said some things which were potentially me trying to portray that image and have that reputation of that’s who I thought I needed to be,” Graham said in 2021.

“That was my public persona and part of that was about having a reputation on the field as a guy that didn’t really care and wanting to be that guy and wanting to be feared.

“As I went on the journey I asked the doctors some questions about the risks and then I asked myself some questions, and was I going to privilege the present over the future?

James Graham is pictured playing in the NRL for St George Illawarra.
James Graham played more than 400 games of rugby league between the NRL and Super League, estimating he's suffered at least 100 concussions. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“And I decided that I was going to privilege the present over the future and I think I was willing to take on those risks. That’s not discounting any of these terribly sad cases where we see ex-athletes in all sports have some serious degenerative brain issues.”

He was challenged on this view by Ben Ikin, who pointed out to him that he would have commitments to his family and a life to live well beyond his days in rugby league.

Graham agreed that it was a 'profound' decision, but one he had accepted.

“It is, but it’s a very complex issue and I had to do some really deep thinking about what I wanted to do and what were the consequences of me hanging up the boots because of concussion or the potential for future brain diseases.

“Where was the purpose going to be filled in my life? I personally felt like I needed a cause. I thought about what’s the meaning of life? Maybe for me, finding the meaning of life was finding something worth dying for.”

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