In 2009 I met up with the truly inspirational Steve Prescott MBE for Rugby League World.
In 2006 Steve Prescott was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given just six months to live. Although his cancer is still classed as terminal, Prescott continues to fight the disease while also raising huge amounts of money for Christie’s Hospital in Manchester and for the Rugby League Benevelont Fund, via his charity, the Steve Prescott Foundation. In August, he cycled through France, rowed the Thames and ran a half marathon to Wembley on Cup Final day with a group of former teammates and opponents from his playing days.
In October 2009, Prescott was awarded the inaugural Spirit of Mike Gregory Award at the Man of Steel dinner, in honour of the former Great Britain captain and Wigan coach who passed away two years ago. He received a highly emotional standing ovation as he collected the award from Erica Gregory, Mike’s widow.
And, to cap that, he was awarded the MBE in 2010.
Prescott’s playing days ended in 2003 when a broken knee cap, sustained playing for Lancashire, forced him into retirement. He had also played for St Helens, where he won the Challenge Cup and Super League double in 1996, Hull FC and Wakefield. He became a British Lion in 1996, touring New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
I met Prescott in St Helens where he lives with his wife, Linzi, and their sons, Taylor and Koby.
What did it mean to you to win the Spirit of Mike Gregory Award?
It meant an awful lot because I respected Mike so much. But the whole thing was sprung on me and it was a big shock. I just thought I was going to watch the athletes of today go and collect their awards but I was stitched up by people not telling me about it! I wasn’t prepared to go up and collect it but I suppose people prefer that to a planned speech. The video that was put together by Sky was great – with my father on it as well as people like Chris Joynt and Stuart Fielden. Mike was one of my first coaches at Saints – he was assistant to Shaun McRae – and I respected him a lot. He was a fantastic player and a great coach but unfortunately things happen in life, he became ill and he’s not with us anymore. I’m sure if he was still with us now, he’d be one of the top British coaches. It’s an award I’ll cherish.
What’s the current state of your health?
To be honest, I feel OK but I’m just living from scan to scan. I went through some chemotherapy last Christmas but hopefully I won’t have to do that this Christmas. I have a scan coming up soon and until they’re done, you don’t know what’s going on inside your body. I had a few scans before the bike ride because I had some stomach pains but nothing had changed. It’s a slow, progressive disease and whether it’s the chemotherapy or my fitness helping me, I don’t know. But the challenges we’re doing are helping me mentally – it’s keeping my mind off the fact I have a terminal disease. And it’s giving me something to do.
What is the exact condition?
It’s called Pseudomyxoma Peritonei which is a disease which we think has originated from my appendix. When I was 12 I had my appendix out and either they didn’t take it all out or when I had an abscess on my appendix when I was younger, maybe they didn’t drain it all out. But however it started, it’s not in my organs, it’s on the outside and it produces a mucin-like jelly which destroys things from the outside. I’ve had a lot of my stomach removed but the scans have shown that the cancer is still at the same level. That’s the most I can hope for until someone comes up with the miracle cure. Until a scan shows something has changed, all I can do is get on with my life, spend time with my kids and enjoy life. And that’s what I’m doing.
How often are the scans?
Every three to six months and that’s how it’ll be for the rest of my life. But they’re not set in stone. My doctor phoned me after the challenge and I told him there was no point in coming in because I felt great.
What were the symptoms?
They said I could have had it for years but it came to a point when I finished rugby and was lecturing in Hull. I was getting a lot of indigestion and my little boy Taylor was jumping on me and I was getting a sore stomach. I kept going to the doctors and they said my stomach was producing too much acid etc. In the end I paid to see a specialist and he could see straightaway something was wrong, something my doctor couldn’t pick up. My stomach was getting bigger and I was becoming very gaunt in the face. They picked it up in Hull but didn’t know what it was and kind of guessed really. He told me I had six months to live; that I wouldn’t see my boys grow up. That’s not something I’d wish on anybody. To be taken in that room and told that was horrendous.
Is that when you moved back to the north west?
Yes because the Christie Hospital in Manchester is one of only two in Britain that treat this illness. The other place is where I had my operation and that’s in Basingstoke – North Hampshire Hospital. Dr Mark Saunders is the specialist in Manchester who’s looked after me and he’s been great with us – he’s a fantastic guy.
How long did it take you to come to terms with it?
I don’t think you ever come to terms with it. You put on a brave face most of the time and you get on with it. People say I’m mentally strong but I’ve had to be playing rugby. I wasn’t the biggest of players and you have to get up when you get knocked down. It’s probably similar to that. You have your dark times – night time is worse when you’re lay in bed thinking about your kids and your family and all the what ifs. That’s something you try and get rid off as soon as possible.
Do your kids know?
No. They know my tummy’s not right but they don’t know the extent of it. Taylor is eight and Koby’s just turned three. As a family I don’t know whether we’re approaching that the right way. You don’t know what’ll happen if you tell them. My wife, Linzi, has been fantastic. I can’t praise her enough for what she’s done and how she’s stuck by me through this horrendous time. You’re dealt blows and you have to get on with things.
What about the way the Rugby League players and supporters have got behind you?
It’s been fantastic and I’ve tried to analyse that kindness. Hull and St Helens have been absolutely brilliant. The fans have rallied round so much. It started in Hull with the boxing between Lee Radford and Stuart Fielden – I was so weak back then. Mike Smith organised it and it was just a fantastic event. How the Rugby League community has supported the Foundation has been unbelievable. It shows what a down-to-earth and grounded sport this is. People are always willing to help.
What has the Foundation achieved so far?
It was set up because I wanted to help other people because I know how much I needed other people’s help. We’ve come a long way and we’re growing, making people aware of Christie’s and the Rugby League Benevolent Fund. We’ve raised a lot of money to aid cancer research and to help sick rugby players. We’ve had a huge impact so far and I’m delighted with it but we’ve got a long way to go and I’ll carry on for as long as I’m physically able to. We’ve got some weird and whacky events lined up for the future!
How difficult was it for you to prepare for the recent challenge?
It was quite difficult because there were a lot of side effects from the chemotherapy. I didn’t feel great after each injection and I had a lot of pins and needles, numbness in my hands and toes etc. To have to go to Liverpool docks every Tuesday to row in the cold wasn’t great but I wore gloves and got in with it. The camaraderie was fantastic and it was great for the guys to give up so much. I can’t ever repay them.
How hard was the challenge?
It was very difficult – a massive mental test. We climbed double Everest in the 11 days of cycling in 40-degree heat. It was a huge test not to get off the bike. It wasn’t going to defeat me! I wasn’t going to have a rest on any of the hills and I did it. We got through it as a team and we had some good times as well.
You had to cycle, row and run. Which was the toughest part?
There were two tough parts. The very first day in France was 41 or 42 degrees and we did 80 or 90 miles but before that I’d only gone up to 40 or 50 in a day. The midday sun climbing up a mountain wasn’t my idea of fun! But after that we knew what to expect however frightening it was and we got stronger. Then towards the end we planned to get off the boat at Dover and get a minibus to Ashford, which we thought was 20-odd miles. So we decided to cycle it instead. We’d already done 80 miles to the boat in Calais and we thought that extra stretch would be 20 miles – but it was nearly 50. So by the end of the day we’d done 125 miles! Then the run was very difficult – I hadn’t done any training for it; I’d just concentrated on the cycling. It was a very difficulty challenge but I can say I’ve done it.
What other challenges have you got planned?
We have a few in mind but I’m just going to take a few weeks off, get my head right and then get into them next year. We’re thinking of doing a rally around the Super League clubs and then through Europe. Paul Sculthorpe’s already got a rolls royce lined up! The cars have to be ‘P’ reg or older, which is 1996. But I also want to do something physical – maybe row or swim the Channel.
Talking of 1996, was that the best year of your career?
It’s a time that sticks out because of the League and Challenge Cup but physically I was at my peak in 2001, 2002 and 2003 when I went back to Hull. I felt stronger and was appreciating the game more. I was more tactically aware than when I was at Hull. At one point in 2003 I was top try scorer, top goal scorer and top points scorer in Super League but I broke my knee cap in the Lancashire-Yorkshire Origin game and that put an end to my season and career.
What happened in that game?
I had a calf strain but wanted to emulate my father by playing for Lancashire. I even had acupuncture beforehand and Paul Cullen, the coach, started me on the bench. Lo and behold, I went into the game with a calf strain and ended up with a broken knee cap after colliding with Ryan Hudson. He was OK though!
Do you remember starting out at Saints?
Mike McClennan gave me a chance but in that era it was big, physical lads bashing each other. It wasn’t about the athletes so much then and you didn’t get the opportunities if you were small. It was hard to change the perceptions of what a rugby player should be. I played first team at 11 stone and that was unheard of so I had to change people’s views but I was scoring three tries a game in the ‘A’ Team. But once I broke through, I stayed in the first team and when Eric Hughes became coach a lot of kids got a chance, including Keiron Cunningham who was an exceptional player for his age. He had the Cunningham strength – my dad played with Eddie who was so strong. Keiron’s up with the greats; one of the best players to have played the game.
What did Shaun McRae bring when he got the job after Hughes?
I’m sure Shaun will say it wasn’t all about him because Eric had given a lot of kids a chance and once they’ve got their chance then their confidence is up. That was a big factor. Shaun tweaked the squad, showed us the mentality to win and we did the double.
What do you recall of Wembley in 1996 and your two tries?
I remember that day so well. I got telegrams from my parents and friends in the changing rooms and I remember walking out onto the field. I was so nervous – my legs were like lead. I was so tired when we kicked off but Bradford kicked straight back to me on the first tackle. The ball bobbled in front of me but I grabbed it, they tackled me and then held down for too long. We got a penalty and that was it – the nerves were gone and I was lucky enough to get two tries. Scott Gibbs broke down the wing, passed inside and I was there. The other one took me back to my soccer days. Bobbie [Goulding] chipped for me and instead of catching it, I volleyed it over one of their defenders, kicked it again, dribbled over the line and scored. I really enjoyed that one! I had a chance of a hat-trick too. I shouted for Bobbie to aim for the crossbar but he actually hit it. Had he not I was underneath it! We produced a great comeback that day and Bobbie put some great kicks up that Nathan Graham couldn’t deal with.
Were you disappointed not to be Great Britain’s first-choice fullback that year?
There were other great fullbacks like Stuart Spruce and Kris Radlinski so I can’t complain too much. Those two were bigger than me and Rads was defensively sound whereas I had the attacking skills but wasn’t so good defensively.
You won again at Wembley a year later.
That was another great win and it was tough on Bradford but they won the league that year which was pretty good consolation. Bradford were a big side and you had to be so mentally tough against them. I remember making a 90-yard run from a scrum with a little inside-and-out move. I went on the angle and one of their subs, fresh on, tackled me into touch. My nose was literally on the tryline as I was in touch. I had Abi Ekoku’s knee on my head too but I still didn’t get anything out of it!
Why did you leave Saints at the end of that year?
I was shown the door and I think the £325,000 Hull were offering had something to do with it! I was young and it’s not for me to comment on decisions like that but Saints were my hometown club. I was asking for an average wage but they weren’t prepared to give it to me. They didn’t look after homegrown talent in those days and Hull offered me what I wanted. Saints wanted me to move on and they played a few mind games with me so I went and I don’t regret it in a way. Hull’s a great city and I made some great friends there.
Was it difficult at first given that Hull struggled in their early Super League days?
It was but we had a cracking team in that first year. The fans got behind me because I was a trier and they liked people like that; I never gave up. They took to me and I’m very grateful for that. It was more difficult for Alan Hunte to settle in. I had two years at Hull in my first spell but then after a year and three-quarter, David Lloyd withdrew his money and said we weren’t getting paid. He promised us £1000 each if we stayed up in Super League but he never gave a penny to the players. We were all called into a room and told that whatever contracts we were on, we were now on less. It was a scary time. They ended up merging with Gateshead; their players came in and I went to play for Andy Kelly at Wakefield.
How did it go there?
It didn’t exactly go to plan there either! I was travelling there every day from Hull which wasn’t easy. I had ups and downs there and Andy lasted half a season. Then they went bust – another administration job and another contract was worthless! They still owe me money and I was one of many who were owed. I needed another club and linked up again with Shaun McRae again for another spell at Hull.
Did you enjoy the 2000 World Cup with Ireland?
It was fantastic! We had a great spirit and a great side. There were some good Australians and some excellent Super League players in our side and we were unlucky to lose to England in the quarter-finals – one of the only times I’ve ever been sin-binned. Darren Rogers broke through and I held him down too long apparently! I was praying on the sideline that they wouldn’t score but they did. When I came back on, I was trying my hardest to make up for it but we got edged out.
You seemed to have a much better spirit that England or Great Britain ever seem to have. Why was that?
They should have come out on the piss with us! They were good times. We were all trying to prove we were worthy of a place in the World Cup and that spurs you on to try harder. We gave a lot and were unlucky in the end.
You played on both of Hull FC’s grounds. Did you miss then Boulevard at first?
I loved it there! My first experience of it was scoring my first-ever try for Saints when Chris Joynt put me over from a scrum. There was the usual spitting and coin throwing as you went through that barrier – the rattling on the cage! It was a great experience to play for them at the Boulevard though. But it was time they had a new stadium. It’s massive – 67 metres wide which gave me great freedom to run back with the ball. It was great for my game. We had some good players back then and were unlucky in the 2001 play-offs.
How good was Jason Smith?
He was awesome! He was a ballplayer who was as tough as nails. He was one of the toughest guys you could play with but so smart as well. We had a great team – Richie Barnett was a superb player, there was also Tony Smith while Richard Horne and Paul Cooke were coming through. It was a great time to play at Hull.
After you picked up the injury, how hard was it to accept your career was over?
Well, the surgeon had a bit to do with why I didn’t play anymore. He put a hole in my tendon which he didn’t tell me about and for the next year my knee wasn’t right at all with all the training I was doing. I spoke to Hull and decided I had to retire. I got involved in teaching and qualified as a lecturer in level-one sport which I loved. It was a brand-new course and we really put our stamp on it.
Did you want to go into coaching?
I coached the under-16s at Hull. I coached Tommy Lee, Mike Burnett and Danny Houghton who have all now played Super League and it’s been great to see them progress. But my diagnosis meant I had to put my coaching to one side.
Your dad had a great career – did that give you a head start as a kid?
I’m sure it did because I was immersed in it. I went to every rugby game he played in – I was born and bred with rugby. I always had a ball and was kicking it through kitchen windows all the time it seemed. My brother and I were ballboys at different clubs and we’d go with dad to training. Rugby was instilled into our life and it certainly helped me growing up with a rugby ball in my hands. We were also good at soccer though and weren’t picked up by anyone. My lad is eight and has a contract offer with Bolton next year. Football at that level is a different world – in rugby we leave it to the amateur coaches until age 12 when they go into service area. We ask kids to play from seven but don’t coach them properly. Football is much better at that level – the scouting is unbelievable – and we have to catch up because they develop skills superbly from the age of five. It all bodes well for the future of football but we’re not doing it in rugby.
What would you do?
We need to be coaching these kids. The RFL needs to have more of a link up with BARLA to coach the coaches to coach our kids from age seven. If you start instilling the right things into the kids at an early age, we’ll get better players coming through and more internationals as a result. That’s how we’ll get stronger as a Rugby League country. My lad played for Thatto Heath under-7s last year and the coach asked me what he should be coaching them. If they don’t know… . Something should be set down for the amateur coaches who, don’t forget, work full time. They should be shown how to coach each session. Six-year olds in football are being taught the Cruyff turn but we don’t seem to want our kids to do one-handed passes. We’re trying to instil things like that out of them. But either way, we have to coach the coaches at that level because it’s not happening.