Each Saturday in Aberdeen, masses of people come together. They unite in worship. They stand in solidarity. Countless sing in unison and observe age-old traditions.
For many folks from the small Upper Hunter town, including Alex McKinnon, rugby league is a form of religion.
Their love for the game runs through their veins.
“There’s a lot of similarities between going to Church and taking part in sport,” McKinnon says, as he reflects on his Catholic upbringing.
“Both include a community of people coming together and sharing values, like honesty and respect.”
So, what then, when the game you love so much, leaves you begging for your life to end?
It was almost seven years ago that an eager McKinnon took to the field at Melbourne’s AAMI Park as a 22-year-old rising star, proudly sporting a Newcastle Knights jersey, before a lifting tackle changed his life’s trajectory.
In the days and weeks that followed, bound to his hospital bed with a spinal cord injury, at times McKinnon could be heard screaming in frustration about what his life had become. He felt trapped and embarrassed; and as his parents Scott and Kate kept a vigil at their only child’s side, he sobbed as he questioned their motives.
In his book, Unbroken, McKinnon recounts the moment he asked them: “How can you let me live like this? Is it just for yourself? I’m happy to die. I want this over. Why, why, why?'”
The now 28-year-old has been wheelchair-bound ever since that ill-fated match against the Melbourne Storm in March 2014.
And while becoming a quadriplegic has restricted McKinnon’s movement, and forced him to reconsider what he thought it meant to be man, it certainly has not dampened his spirit. At least not permanently.
“There have been some dark days and months,” he says, not unexpectedly.
“My faith gave me patience,” McKinnon says. “It helped me to take some pressure off myself; I began to realise not everything that happens in my life is dependent on me. You start to believe in something else, something bigger.”
McKinnon’s optimistic outlook radiates as he goes on to share some of the incredible highs he has experienced since that life-changing event.
Only two weeks after his accident, he became engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Teigan Power. In 2017, they were wed at a ceremony in the Hunter Valley, surrounded by family and friends, many of whom they made while attending St Joseph’s High School in Aberdeen.
McKinnon credits Teigan, now a teacher at St Benedict’s Primary School in Edgeworth, for her strength and compassion in supporting him over the years.
“I lost myself,” he says. “I lost my identity to rugby league because that’s who I was. But the beauty is that Teigan’s been with me through the whole thing and allowed me to find myself again. She’s allowed me to sit in some dark spots.”
McKinnon recalls that in his youth, he was full of confidence, enthusiasm, and ambition.
It is little wonder then with his natural sporting abilities and respectful nature that St Gregory’s College, Campbelltown was eager to accept him into their fold.
Making the decision to leave his family and a school that he loved in pursuit of increased sporting opportunities was difficult for Alex, and one that his parents ultimately let him decide.
“My parents always valued a good Catholic education and were open to me staying in Aberdeen or attending school in Sydney,” he says, adding that ultimately his decision to attend boarding school from Year 9 meant he grew up fast and matured a great deal.
“It was difficult to leave St Joseph’s and I always enjoyed the opportunity to return to Aberdeen on holidays. As an only child I really bought into the school environment there. Some of the friends I made at St Joseph’s, and St Mary’s Primary School in Scone, are still my best mates now.”
Home, in Aberdeen, is where his parents, grandparents and other members of McKinnon’s family still live. The local football oval, McKinnon Field, is named after his grandfather, Malcolm, who over many years dedicated a great deal of time and energy into supporting the local club, the Aberdeen Tigers.
His father, Scott, still spends time tending to the field’s upkeep in a voluntary capacity.
Scott has been an important role model in McKinnon’s life; part football coach for many years, part dad and always a pillar of strength.
“Football is something my father and I had always bonded over, except for just after the accident, when I didn’t have any interest in it. That was a tough time because we lost that shared interest, which was a key part of our connection.”
It was at that same time, McKinnon struggled with facing the next chapter of his life, as he had only ever had his sights on becoming a professional football player.
“Growing up in Aberdeen, I always felt the men there were really strong with their opinions and direction in life. So, when I got injured, I was scared because I had never really had those examples of men in my life reinventing themselves.”
McKinnon need not have worried, because over the next few years, with the support of Teigan, his family and friends he embarked on an exciting new chapter.
In 2018, the young couple welcomed their first child together, Harriet Anne. McKinnon describes his firstborn as being incredibly caring and adaptable, which will no doubt come in handy when the family welcomes twin girls in a few months’ time.
“I’m really excited about the twins’ arrival, and to see Harriet as a big sister.”
Second-time round McKinnon is also feeling more confident about his role as a father, and his ability to help Teigan with parenting duties.
“You have a vision of what it’s like to be a dad, because of your own experiences with your father. However, I realise now I can be my own version.
“I don’t always know how everything is going to work – but through trying and failing, and using my values as a guide, I’m finding my way.”
McKinnon admits that having a child and the love he has experienced in fatherhood have changed him.
“It has helped me to grow a lot as a person.”
Change is something that McKinnon embraces, on all fronts. He says that fear of failure no longer holds him back as it did when his professional sporting career started to take off.
“I think it’s important to empower yourself and others that you love to grow, change and develop.
“There’s valleys and peaks. People will change, but there are traits within the people you love and care about, which will remain the same.”
McKinnon is now working in recruitment for the Newcastle Knights and says he is keen to help the club win a premiership.
What have the past few years taught him about himself, and life?
“It all comes down to patience,” he says. “Find patience in your life. There is real beauty in time.
“Sometimes you need to sit in those frustrating periods. It’s in those quieter moments – sometimes when change may be forced upon you – that you need to feel and absorb what’s going on. It is not about being stagnant; it can be a time to build resilience and where some of your best work will be done.”
Amen to that.
Lizzie Snedden is the editor of Aurora.
Republished with permission from the February 2021 edition of the Aurora Magazine, the news publication of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.