Rory Kostjasyn - NRL - PlayersVoice
Rory Kostjasyn - NRL - PlayersVoice

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The voice I don’t recognise

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The voice I don’t recognise

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My voice is unrecognisable to the one I have known for most of my life.

 

It’s now quiet and raspy, after fracturing and dislocating the cartilage in my throat that enables people to speak and breathe at maximum capacity.

 

That’s why my playing career is over.

 

Sunday’s Grand Final will give me a chance to reflect on some of my most treasured memories as a player. The Storm were the team that gave me my big break. The Cowboys were the team with which I won a Grand Final two years ago.

 

But it was with the Knights that it ended – and all very suddenly. I fought hard to get through the injury, but the post-surgery check-up with the throat specialist wasn’t good. The surgery on my larynx, although successful, resulted in my airway being reduced by 30 to 40 per cent.

 

I was in the carpark with Knights’ Physical Performance Manager, Tony Ayoub, after my last appointment – the moment I realised I had most likely played my last footy game.

 

I already knew the answer – the specialist was pretty clear – but I looked across at Tony anyway and asked the question.

 

‘I think I’m in a bit of trouble,’ I said in my new voice.

 

Tony couldn’t argue with me.

 

‘I’m sorry, mate. I think so too.’

 

 

 

THE TACKLE THAT ENDED IT ALL

It happened near the end of our third session after the Christmas break. It was a Saturday morning and we were finishing the session with some goal-line defence. Full sets, full contact.

 

I went in to make a one-on-one tackle and copped an elbow to the throat.

 

I didn’t think too much of it at first. Like any footballer, I’d been hit in the throat before. It’s a pain that usually goes away pretty quickly. But by the end of the set I was really struggling to breathe.

 

I was out the back of the drill when Tony came over to check on me. I was starting to panic as I was still struggling to breathe and the pain wasn’t going away. Those first couple of minutes were scary but he calmed me down. He told me to go and get my things and he’d drive me to the hospital.

 

The injury was swelling up so there was a real urgency – we didn’t know what was going to happen. Tony drove me to emergency.

 

The hospital staff were worried that if it continued to swell I wouldn’t be able to breathe at all. They had to be ready in case I needed an emergency tracheotomy. Thankfully that never eventuated.

 

They took some scans and did some tests, which showed the fractures.

 

I spent those first 24 hours in ICU.

 

I wasn’t allowed to talk at all, so my partner Natalie was doing her best to communicate for me, until they brought me a pen and paper.

 

It’s not a great place to be. You’re in a room on your own, you’re hooked up to a few machines that are constantly beeping. It was a long night. But there were plenty of people in that ward who were a lot worse off than me.

 

When the specialist came by, he asked me to speak and test my voice.  When I spoke it was very faint – lower than a whisper. It was surreal. The sound coming out was way off what I was expecting, and completely different to the voice I had 24 hours earlier.

 

The hospital staff were worried that if it continued to swell I wouldn’t be able to breathe at all. They had to be ready in case I needed an emergency tracheotomy.

 

Before the injury, Natalie and I were living on the Central Coast. She knew it wasn’t going to be ideal travelling back-and-forth between Newcastle and the Coast, so while I was in hospital she had organised a place for us to rent and move into.

 

After I got out of hospital we stayed at a hotel for a couple of nights while our stuff was moved in. Natalie took care of it all. She’s done some incredible things over the last 10 years as we’ve moved around the country but I couldn’t have got through this injury without her.

 

I spent the next few weeks resting and living on a puree diet. I couldn’t go out and socialise because it would tempt me to talk, which the doctors didn’t want me to do until my next appointment with a specialist.

 

It was unbelievably hard. You don’t realise how much you take being able to speak for granted until that ability is taken away. Natalie’s patience over that period was more than I would have been capable of.

 

 

GOING IN FOR SURGERY

Usually when you get an injury, you’d have the operation in the first week. That wasn’t the case this time around. Treating this injury was an incredibly long, frustrating and drawn out process.

 

I went to see a specialist in Sydney but he said I needed to wait another couple of weeks for the swelling to go down before he could do the first procedure and get a clear indication of the damage. After the initial procedure, I needed four more weeks to recover before he could do the surgery to fix my throat.

 

By this point I was back training. I wanted to stay fit so I could make the quickest return possible.

 

Initially, I really struggled. Whenever I started jogging I’d get really stressed and wouldn’t be able to breathe. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen and I had to adapt to that restriction and then build my way up to doing some skills and conditioning work.

 

The doctor described how the throat works to me. Basically, in the larynx there are two sections that move in and out to create sound. I had fractured and dislocated cartilage in one of those sections, which was obstructing my airway.

 

The surgeon had to go in, locate the cartilage and permanently fix it in the ‘out’ position so I would be able to speak. This was our only option moving forward. I was under for three hours while they fixed it.

 

When I got out of surgery, the season was underway. I got out of hospital and went to watch the first home game of the season. It was frustrating sitting on the sidelines. I was still thinking about it like it was any other injury – like I’d miss four to six weeks max. I was optimistic I’d return in time for the Bulldogs game in round 6. I was so keen to get back on the field.

 

Eight weeks passed and I was still struggling to breathe, I couldn’t train at the intensity required. That’s when we went back to see the specialist.

 

It was made clear to me that I couldn’t rehab the injury any further because the part of my larynx that had been repaired was now a physical obstruction – it was fixed in place by an implant behind the damaged cartilage. The only thing they could do would be to go in and remove it, but then I’d have no voice.

 

I can’t play without a voice and I can’t play if I can’t breathe. Either way, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

 

 

 

THE END OF MY CAREER

‘I think I’m in a bit of trouble’.

 

That’s what I said to Tony in the carpark after the appointment but it still took me some time to really accept that my career was over.

 

I went home and talked to Natalie about what my options were. We started exploring things but as the weeks passed, I wasn’t improving and my recovery had stalled.

 

I kept training and hoping for the best. They were some of the hardest sessions of my career because I was pushing myself to the absolute limit to test my breathing, hoping my body would adapt to the reduced airway. It was torturous and somewhat demoralising. Those sessions were very tough physically, and even harder mentally. The support from Tony and Luke Portese during this period was invaluable.

 

In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands. I just physically couldn’t be a professional footballer anymore. It was a bittersweet feeling when I was able to tell the staff, my coaches and teammates that I was done. I was shattered I’d never play for the Knights alongside my mates but a part of me felt a sense of relief that I could stop pushing myself so hard at training.

 

I can’t play without a voice and I can’t play if I can’t breathe. Either way, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

 

I watch the boys play now and I really wish I could be out there. However, six months after the surgery I’m still breathing the same.

 

It’s devastating to have your career end so unexpectedly from a silly little injury at training. But I know it could be much worse and I’m extremely grateful for the career I had.

 

 

THE GRAND FINAL WIN

I never played first grade because of my natural ability. I’m limited in that respect. I’m not overly fast, strong or super skilful. I believe I got there because I was willing to learn and work hard.

 

I was lucky to get picked up by Melbourne. Craig Bellamy, his assistant coaches and the senior players taught me not only about rugby league and what it takes to prepare week in and week out to be a first-grade footballer, but also about the values that make a good teammate and person. Then, I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity at the Cowboys. A great club, community and awesome bunch of blokes. We created and shared some of the best memories of my life.

 

Those four years, including the grand final win, definitely ease the pain of having to retire. When Johnno’s field goal went over, I felt pure joy and relief.

 

I remember saying to Mum and Dad after the game, ‘All the hard work, years of travelling around and moving clubs, the ups and downs, injuries – it’s all worth it now’.

 

There’s a lot I miss about playing footy – a home crowd, locker room banter, the contact. But what I miss the most are the first five or ten minutes in the shed after the game. The satisfaction you get singing the team song after a win, sitting down looking at the blokes around you and knowing we got the job done. Everyone is bashed and bruised. Every one of your teammates has put their body on the line for the bloke next to them, our coaches, families and the club.

 

I miss the camaraderie, the mateship and the satisfaction of knowing we got through it together.

 

When I look back, I’m just happy I don’t have many ‘what-ifs’. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to pull on a Newcastle jersey and run out in front of a home crowd. Apart from that, I’m very grateful for the career I had and thankful for the people I met, the friendships we formed and for the good times shared along the way.

 

 

 

THE DECIDER

Two outstanding clubs. Two playing groups that do what ever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get the job done for their teammates next to them.

 

I’ve loved watching the Cowboys play over the last three weeks. Their resilience throughout the year, in the face of all the challenges that have been presented to that group, has been incredible.

 

I’m not surprised that they’ve reached the Grand Final, to be honest. They’re an extremely tight knit playing group. Throughout the finals series they’ve work unbelievably hard for each other to earn an opportunity against the best and most consistent footy side in recent history. The Storm have dominated this year’s competition.

 

As I mentioned earlier, both Grand Finalists are special for me. I’m extremely grateful to both clubs. I wish the best of luck to both sides. It should be a cracking game!

 

Sunday’s Grand Final will give me a chance to reflect on some of my most treasured memories as a player. The Storm were the team that gave me my big break. The Cowboys were the team with which I won a Grand Final two years ago.

 

To everyone involved – enjoy the week, enjoy it all. Every week that you get the opportunity to play first grade footy, enjoy it as much as you can. You just never know how quickly it can end.

 

It’s a privilege that should never be taken for granted, irrespective of whether it’s the first round of the season or the Grand Final.

 

Running out to packed stadium every week, to play a game you’ve loved since you were a kid is a dream and an experience that can never be replicated outside of footy.

 

While you’re there on Sunday and you have that opportunity, enjoy it and make the most of it.

 

 

LIFE AFTER FOOTY

I’m making my career transition now. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been at every session and in the box with the coaches at games. I haven’t had to go cold turkey and step away from footy completely. The playing group have supported me and always made me feel a part of the team, and I’ll still be involved with the club next year.

 

I’ve taken on a job alongside Scotty Dureau, overseeing our elite pathways. That involves kids from under 15s through to under 20s. I’ll also be coaching the Harold Matthews Cup side next year.

 

The more I think about coaching, the more I enjoy it. I love sitting in the box with Browny and the assistant coaches, seeing what goes into winning a game. Whether I’m any good at it, I suppose we’ll find out in the next year or so!

 

I’ve been fortunate to play at some clubs that have had exceptional coaches, alongside some of the greatest footballers to ever play the game. I’ve watched how they go about things and learnt an enormous amount. I’m excited I’ve got an opportunity to pass that knowledge on now, while it’s still fresh in my mind.

 

I can’t speak highly enough of the Knights, for the way they’ve handled everything. I want to help as much as I can around the club as it rebuilds.

 

If you had seen the effort that has been put in from day one of pre-season until now, it’s no coincidence that we’re starting to get results. The players have completely bought in to what the coaches are trying to create. The hard work that everyone inside the organisation does is inspiring to be a part of.

 

There are a lot of good young players and people here that are desperate to succeed and the club is recruiting really well. We’re all aware that there’s a hell of a lot of hard work to do in the next few years but I believe the Knights are on track to become a strong club again.

 

That goal is helping me a lot with the transition and I’m pumped about the opportunity to be a small part of it.

 

Outside of footy and the new coaching gig, I’ve got some exciting things to look forward to. Natalie and I got married on Friday, we’re renovating a house, booking a honeymoon and hopefully starting a family in the not too distant future.

 

Rory Kostjasyn  -  Contributor

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