Wally Lewis calls for meaningful change after going public with devastating news

The rugby league legend has been doing it tough over the last few years.

Wally Lewis and partner Lynda Adams.
Wally Lewis relies heavily on partner Lynda Adams. Image: Twitter/Getty

Rugby league legend Wally Lewis has called for a change to the way head knocks are perceived at all levels of sport after being diagnosed with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The Queensland State of Origin hero revealed last year that he'd been diagnosed with the brain disease, which is caused by repeated head injuries.

Lewis represented Queensland 31 times, and spearheaded the state's dominance from 1980 to 1991. He won eight man-of-the-match awards at State of Origin level before he was branded an NRL Immortal in 1999.

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But the 64-year-old's mortality has never been so clear. Speaking on a Dementia Australia panel from Parliament House on Tuesday, Lewis laid bare his struggles over the last few years.

"I'm fearful for what my future will look like, so I try not to think too much about it," he said. "We all thought we were 10-feet tall, bulletproof. But for most of us, the reality was that it was causing us the extensive long-term damage (and it was) something that we weren't dealing with."

Reuben Cotter with Wally Lewis after the 2023 State of Origin series.
Reuben Cotter (centre) receives the Wally Lewis Medal from the man himself (R) after the 2023 State of Origin series. (Getty Images)

At first, Lewis said he only had fleeting moments of forgetfulness. But these began recurring with "monotonous regularity".

"I was a little bit out of sorts, and then the confusion came, and then the denial," he said. "My best friends, my workmates ... it soon became very obvious by the looks upon their faces."

Lewis read the sport news on the 6pm bulletin in Queensland for 23 years when his days of playing rugby league ended. But the CTE forced him to stop, and even though his TV bosses were supportive and made accommodations that would allow him to tell packaged stories, he couldn't shake the feelings of "embarrassment and failure".

Wally Lewis in 2019.
Wally Lewis in commentary for Channel 9 during an NRL game in 2019. (Michael Dodge via Getty Images)

How Paul Green tragedy sparked Wally Lewis into action

In 2022 when North Queensland Cowboys coach and former Queensland player Paul Green died by suicide, it was later revealed he had advanced CTE. Lewis said he knew at that point that things had to change and he made an appointment with a neurologist. "I had heard dozens of denials from former footy players, and I didn't want to be another one of those," he said.

Lewis received his diagnosis in 2023 and has been learning to live with it ever since. He now depends on a diary to help jog his memory and receives support from his partner Lynda Adams, who calls him frequently throughout the day.

But the 64-year-old says government and institutions need to do more to protect future generations of athletes in Australia with meaningful change. "We need to train our kids smarter," he said. "It's not a badge of honour to go back out onto the field with a head injury, it's sheer carelessness."

A form of dementia, CTE can only be properly diagnosed when someone has died. In a segment for 60 Minutes last year, Lewis revealed that leading neurologist Rowena Mobbs had told him she was “90 per cent” certain he has it.

“For a lot of the sport guys, I think a lot of us take on this belief that we’ve got to prove how tough we are," he said at the time. "How rugged. And if we put our hands up and seek sympathy, then we're going to be seen as the real cowards of the game. But we’ve got to take it on and admit that the problems are there.”

Readers seeking support and information can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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