He played 441 games of professional rugby and is now suing World Rugby and the RFU after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia at 41. Carl Hayman tells Dylan Cleaver his story for the first time.
This story first appeared in The Bounce, Dylan Cleaver’s email newsletter – subscribe here.
Note: this story has mention of suicidal ideation.
Carl Hayman was once estimated to be the highest-paid player in rugby. Now, less than six years after the end of his playing days, he has spoken of the disorientation he felt as his career was winding down, and the ceaseless headaches that plagued him and sent him into a spiral of alcohol abuse and frequent suicidal thoughts, culminating in a suspended prison sentence in France after admitting to charges of domestic violence.
“I spent several years thinking I was going crazy. At one stage that’s genuinely what I thought. It was the constant headaches and all these things going on that I couldn’t understand,” Hayman says.
The 41-year-old, once regarded as the finest tighthead prop in the world, now has an explanation. He received a shocking diagnosis after extensive testing in England that included a brain scan that can identify changes in the brain’s white matter. He has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a progressive brain condition which has been strongly associated with former NFL players and boxers. The “probable” refers to the fact that it can only be properly diagnosed post mortem.
CTE has a profound impact on its sufferers and has been associated with many premature deaths in the US, including NFL superstars Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Aaron Hernandez, the latter committing suicide in prison while serving a life sentence for murder. There have been no confirmed cases of CTE among former All Blacks, though the New Zealand Herald has reported links between rugby and high incidences of Alzheimer’s disease in specific teams.
Now living in New Plymouth with partner Kiko and their young daughter, Hayman is the first former All Black to join a lawsuit being prepared on behalf of 150 former professional rugby players, nine of whom are claimants, including England’s World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson, former Wales No8 Alix Popham, and Michael Lipman, who played 10 tests as a flanker for England. The landmark suit claims rugby’s governing bodies, including World Rugby, failed to protect players from the risks caused by concussions and subconcussions, despite being armed with the knowledge and evidence to do so.
World Rugby has consistently declined to comment on the lawsuits but has responded in the past with a broad statement: “Everyone in World Rugby has utmost respect for the wellbeing of all our players, including former players. Player welfare is our top priority and, along with our unions, we are unwavering in our commitment to evidence-based injury prevention strategies, in particular in the priority area of concussion education, management and prevention, and our approach is based on the latest available research, evidence and knowledge.”
Hayman, a father of four, said he agonised over the decision.
“I um’d and ah’d for about 12 months about whether I’d do anything about it and find out if something was wrong with me, or whether I would just get on with life and hope for the best. I went to the doctors here before I went to the UK but the process seemed like it was going to take a long time and I was getting to the point where I needed answers,” he says.
“It would be pretty selfish of me to not speak up and talk about my experience when I could help a guy in New Zealand perhaps who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him and has no support network to lean on.”
He joined the action in part to get access to the testing and is also keen to trial any new treatments that might become available in a bid to slow down the ravages of dementia. “The other side is to hope that players of the future don’t fall into the same trap I did – that they’re not treated like an object and are looked after better,” he says. “These younger aspiring players need to know what they’re getting into and there needs to be more support and monitoring around head injuries and workloads if they do decide to play professionally. I’ve even come across people who have been affected having just played school and university-level rugby, so it’s a conversation that needs to be happening with parents and teenagers at the very start.”
441 games and 150,000 knocks
Hayman has joined the claim as he played extensively in England and France after his All Black career ended with the World Cup quarter final defeat in 2007. There is no legal avenue to take action against New Zealand Rugby, due to our ACC law that offers no-fault insurance for personal injury and removes the right to sue.
Hayman emphasised that it was not concussion, but the sheer volume of subconcussive hits that most concerned him.
The former Highlanders stalwart played close to 450 first-class or professional games in a 17-year professional career, a body of work he is “100 percent” certain has contributed to his illness. “There’s no doubt. We’re talking about more than 400 games of professional rugby and that doesn’t include training,” Hayman says. “From the age of 15 when I made the New Zealand Under-16s, I’ve played a phenomenal amount of rugby and taken a phenomenal amount of knocks to the head. CTE isn’t about concussions but about the ongoing knocks in games and trainings.”
Wales forward Popham estimated he had taken 100,000 subconcussive blows in his 300-game career. A simple exercise in extrapolation would put Hayman’s total closer to 150,000. Richard Boardman of Rylands Law, representing the players, has claimed there is a “ticking time bomb” of players who are developing symptoms as young as their mid-20s and are subsequently diagnosed with epilepsy, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, Motor Neuron Disease and post-concussion syndrome as they reach their 40s. A recent Drake study shows the potential scale of this issue in the game as 23% of elite rugby players tested – with a mean age of just 25 – had brain damage.
Boardman says it’s not just rugby union facing this, but all contact sports. “There’s currently a coroner’s inquest in Australia looking into the suicide last year of Shane Tuck, an AFL player, who died at the age of 38 and was found to have CTE. We all know the stories out of the NFL [and] I represent an additional 65 former rugby league players in England with brain damage.
“Across the sporting world, you have retired athletes with serious brain damage left to contemplate an uncertain retirement undiagnosed with little support. The sports can celebrate the core physicality of game day, but do much much more around that to look after those participating.”
Hayman says he remains frustrated by the refusal to make fundamental changes to the sport’s calendar.
“When I first started playing pro rugby I remember having a Players’ Association meeting and the conversation was all about having a global window and a shorter season. We’re still having the same conversations about rugby now. There’s a number of changes we can and have to make to help protect the players of the future.
“I look at the NFL again and they have a 17-game season across four-to-five months with the possibility of a couple of playoff games. You compare that to rugby with a 10-month season.
“There needs to be a discussion about what constitutes an acceptable volume of rugby.”
The French connection
In France’s Top 14, the country’s premier competition, forwards can be made to feel like useful slabs of meat. Hayman loved living in France, and playing for Toulon he racked up a staggering 156 matches in five years. This followed a three-year stint at Newcastle where he played 64 games as the sport’s biggest earner.
“Basically, if I was fit and available, I was on the field,” he says. “There were times that I probably shouldn’t have played but it was expected – like when I had a root nerve anti-inflammatory injection in my neck during the week and was back on the pitch at the weekend. They worked us hard and I never complained. It was my job and I was paid well, but I doubt it did any favours.”
He loved the club and the club loved him. They declined to comment on his condition but noted memories of “an extraordinary player with extraordinary physical abilities and playing intelligence, making him a natural leader who captained the team to the European title in 2015”.
Toulon would fight each year on two fronts, the French competition and the European competition.
“In hindsight, as much as I enjoyed it at the time, I don’t think doing that week after week for 10 months of the year did much good for me. At the time I felt indestructible. I never got injured, I trained bloody hard. I literally felt that I was indestructible, but if I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I would have played post the  World Cup. I think I would have stopped playing,” Hayman says.
“I’m 41, I’ve still got a massive part of my life ahead of me and when you live with something like this it certainly makes every day a challenge.”
New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson was a former teammate of Hayman’s. “My thoughts are first and foremost with Carl and his whānau,” Robinson said in a written statement. “It’s certainly sad to hear about anyone in our rugby community who is struggling – for whatever reason.
“It’s important to continue to stress that player safety and welfare is New Zealand Rugby’s number one priority. In particular, we are focused on contributing to the development of world leading policies and research on the complex problem of concussion.”
Hayman’s career remained a source of fascination for New Zealanders in part because he left the country at the peak of his powers in 2007. There were frequent rumours that he would return to the black jersey, but it never eventuated. He left, he says, because he had literally had enough. “Leading up to the World Cup I gave everything I could.”
Hayman did not have a big history of concussion, though there was one wrenching occasion during a 2006 Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park, when he clashed heads with Wallaby loose forward Wycliff Palu.
Hayman tried to stand up and run, but twice fell over. As fate would have it, the Wallabies intercepted a pass near where he was being treated and there was the tragi-comic sight of the big prop, still clearly groggy, trying to chase down flying wing Lote Tuqiri.
“Apart from that I never really had a history of concussion, but my issue is the sheer number of repetitive head knocks – subconcussions – I took during my career.”
‘I’ve forgotten my son’s name’
By the time his playing days were winding down at Toulon, Hayman had started to experience frequent episodes of déjà vu on the field, which he found bizarre and unsettling. He didn’t know it at the time, but that would have been of great concern to a neurologist, as chronic déjà vu can be a symptom of dementia.
It was when he stopped playing and joined Pau, another French club, as forwards coach in 2016 that his life started to spiral. “The headaches were the start, and they were something that kept getting worse over time. Waking up daily with a constant headache at various levels that never really goes away,” he says.
“I started having substantial memory issues. I was trying to get a passport for my son and I couldn’t remember his middle name, which was a significant moment. I was searching around for it in my mind for a good 25 seconds and had to go, ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten’, to the person on the phone trying to do the passport. ‘I’ve forgotten my son’s name’.
“I had temper issues, definitely, and then at this point of my life, it led down the track to what I’d consider alcohol abuse. I always enjoyed a beer with the boys but at this point I began drinking more. I didn’t know what was going on and the drinking brought a little bit of an escape for a certain amount of time. It would temporarily alleviate the symptoms somewhat but then, as you can imagine, the next day things would be back to how they felt before, if not worse. It was a vicious cycle I got caught in.”
Although he was not diagnosed, Hayman was in the midst of a serious bout of depression. There were days when all he wanted to do was sleep so he didn’t have pain. There were regular suicidal thoughts. “One hundred percent I did [think about suicide]. For a while on a daily basis.”
His marriage was collapsing under the strain.
“At my lowest point, my relationship with my ex-wife Natalie had broken down and I was involved in a physical incident with her that went to court. I don’t want to minimise the harm I did and I don’t want to make any excuses because I should never have put myself in that situation, but I have so much regret because that’s just not who I am. I’m not an angry person but I was in a deep, dark place and unfortunately I will have to carry that with me forever.
“As time has gone on it has become more apparent what the symptoms are that are related to the CTE injuries: memory loss, anxiety, anger, depression and alcohol abuse. Recently I have had head spins, and get tongue-tied and find it difficult to find the right words in the first place.”
Due to Auckland’s lockdown status, we are speaking over the phone. While Hayman is a thoughtful subject, the frequent pauses as he assembles his sentences are noticeable. On at least one occasion he starts answering a question but mid answer switches to responding to a previous question he’s already answered.
“I get a foggy head,” he says, by way of explanation. “Tiredness and stress really exacerbate the symptoms so it’s important that I manage my time well, exercise and keep fit and do things which I feel comfortable with. Kiko and my friends and family who know me well, are also important for keeping my brain health on track.”
Hayman writes down anything important now, though he jokes that Kiko is in charge of telling him where his wallet and phone are.
Kiko Matthews met Hayman just as he was finishing his ill-fated coaching stint in Pau, a role that would end in controversy after he had an altercation with his players. She took an immediate liking to him but noticed a lot of what she described as “unnecessary” drinking.
“I put it down to his recent split from his wife and leaving his career. There was obviously a lot going on [and] I wanted to work with and help him to see what the cause of the drinking was as he was a lovely guy. Further down the line, after various conversations, it made sense to try and to work out the fogginess and the headaches,” she says.
No stranger to medical trauma of her own – she nearly died after developing two tumours on her pituitary gland (and celebrated her recovery by breaking the trans-Atlantic solo rowing record) – Matthews set about learning as much about her partner’s dementia as she could, to help him manage the symptoms.
“It is confronting but… we can now plan for the future with this diagnosis in mind and it’s important that Carl, who has worked very hard for 20 years and now has a serious injury as a result, gets to enjoy his life. It’s sad to think that you work really hard for your team and country and then end up permanently and progressively brain damaged,” she says.
“We can plan our life. We can say it’s going to get to 10 years before it gets to the point where we need to be in a stable home and where we don’t need to have a stressful work life. We’ve got to think about these sorts of things a bit earlier than most people our age, but we’re thinking about how we live our life now and what we can get from our life now.”
The couple is hopeful that advancements in medical science and therapies will slow down dementia’s inexorable march. Hayman no longer drinks. Instead he trains for ironman events – he has completed two – and manages his work-life balance as the owner of a small charter boat company in New Plymouth.
For a long time, he didn’t know whether he needed the complication of a high-profile lawsuit in his life, but ultimately Hayman believes the battle for rugby’s future is urgent. The way the sport is structured and administered needs to change, and if legal action provides some impetus for it, then he’d be letting the side down if he stood on the sidelines of this fight.
Likewise, he wrestled whether to go public but decided his message was too important not to share. “There will be a lot of guys out there who haven’t come forward. We need to let them know they’re not alone.”
Update: World Rugby has responded to this story. Their statement in full:
“We are saddened by the accounts of former players and their experiences. It is not easy to speak so candidly about their personal circumstances and we appreciate what it takes for them to do so. We care deeply about every member of the rugby family and echo New Zealand Rugby’s comments that player welfare is the sport’s top priority, which is reflected in our six point plan to further cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare. This commitment has former players at its heart. We cannot comment on the specifics of any potential legal action involving nine former players in England and Wales. However, as we have not been contacted directly by Carl Hayman or any representative, we are not yet clear how his case relates to the current proceedings.”
This story first appeared in The Bounce, Dylan Cleaver’s email newsletter – subscribe here today.