Valiant Doddie Weir still fighting the good fight

Former Scotland and Lion lock stays positive as he battles Motor Neurone Disease

Doddie Weir: “I take a positive note. I am still here. Got to celebrate another Christmas.”  Photograph:  Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Doddie Weir: “I take a positive note. I am still here. Got to celebrate another Christmas.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

 

Doddie Weir sits down and starts to bang out jokes. A lot are about drinking although now he struggles to hold a pint of Guinness.

He knows he is dying and it seems to have given him incredible energy to burn. The former Scotland and Lion lock carries the spirit of a man who has, for now, sprung himself. As his body slowly closes down and constricts his movement, with the constraint comes clarity and focus. Every second is like a fought for freedom.

Perhaps it is for public consumption. But his laid bare struggle seems part of who he is, that he can stand back from the Motor Neurone Disease (MND) that is destroying him and look it in the eye.

Today his “fashion disaster”, a brilliant blue and yellow tartan jacket and pants, outsized as Weir still retains his huge physical dimensions, are themselves a defiant two fingers to an incurable disease that can more easily than not make life a dull and dismal place to be.

Average life expectancy is two to five years from the onset of symptoms. The 48-year-old is 18 months into his personal war.

“The life expectancy is not very good. Why am I quite positive,” he asks. “But you know yourself, you know when you have a stinking hangover.

“Right . . . I might have one tomorrow morning after going out to lunch with the big man here [former Irish hooker, Shane Byrne], but in a bizarre sort of way when you look at what’s happening in the world and you can see that someone else looks a lot worse than you, you feel so much better.

“That’s a similar issue, there’s a lot of people worse off than me. So don’t grumble, get on.”

MND is a is muscle wasting disease with no known cure. Once it gets to your legs, you can’t walk. Once it gets to your arms you can’t clothe yourself, you can’t lift, you can’t go to the toilet, you can’t eat. Today he cannot take off his Technicolor jacket without help.

MND then begins to disrupt swallowing which eventually fails. You can’t eat. You can’t breathe. You can’t speak. You just can’t.

“Eventually,” says Weir “all you can do is communicate with your eyes.”

His disposition as far back as the famous 1997 Lions Tour to South Africa has been one of stoic acceptance. There is a scene in the fly on the wall documentary Living with Lions when the injured Weir is told his tour is over.

‘Mad giraffe’

“Ah well,” he says as a doctor fusses around his destroyed knee. “We’ve had a good old time of it, eh?”

He had been a mainstay of the Scotland team throughout the 1990s with the legendary Bill McLaren immortalising him during one of his forward runs as “on the break like a mad giraffe”.

He collected 61 caps, stopped playing in 2004. And here he is, having been diagnosed with MND in June 2017, speaking about the ‘My Name’5 Doddie Foundation’.

Genial, oh yes. But Big Doddie is not all wise-cracking. There is affront to his energy. The medical world, as he tells it, have found other more sexy diseases to cure, more commercially viable reasons to look at conditions other than MND.

“My positive thinking comes in because talking to [Springbok scrumhalf] Joost van der Westhuizen’s team, he spent a lot of money trying to find a cure for himself,” he explains. “But it didn’t work. His team said the best drug that he had was positive thinking.

“He did a trip to Murrayfield and he wasn’t very well. He was on oxygen and he had carers. He couldn’t drink himself and there was another gentleman in the room, a man called Ewen McDonald who could only communicate with his eyes.”

In America it is called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous first baseman for the New York Yankees, who played between 1923 and 1939. Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed in 2011 and died last February

“It’s not an easy fix,” adds Weir. “But the annoying thing for myself is that there is nothing new on the table in the last 25 years and that is outrageous.

“You have to go and self cure, which means you’ve got to try and find your solution because the professors will say try water, try Guinness, try exercise, try sunshine, try anything like that. Every single person has to try and find their own . . .

“When I got told, it was case of, ‘there’s you corner, there’s your nurse . . . when you get unwell, she’ll look after you’. And I just thought that was a bit outrageous.”

There are important things that MND is not. In a game increasingly weighed down with concussion and impact injuries, it is not linked to playing rugby.

Still they have named a cup after him, The Doddie Cup for Scotland’s annual game with Wales, which he says “is amazing because I am still living”.

Amateur ethos

He doesn’t talk too much about the future. But the future he is looking at is one with a solution, to constantly challenge to the medical community, to provide them with funds and to push them.

Rugby has been the fuel for many of his money raising ventures – over €1 million last year – from Edinburgh-born Sale Sharks owner and philanthropist Brian Kennedy to Byrne, the IRFU and the SRU.

“I would not like to be involved in professional rugby today,” he says before launching into the binding forces of an amateur ethos long disappeared.

In that history the friendships and experiences he collected with Scotland and the Lions are hard currency. The industrial churn of the modern game and the ubiquitous social media leaves little room for getting “scuttered” with the team on a Wednesday in the week before an international.

His disease has brought sharply into focus today’s game which is “over-analysed and over-coached” but maybe not so much fun.

He cites Italy against England when Conor O’Shea instructed his team not to ruck and the bamboozled England players froze. Over-coached.

“Again I take a positive note. I am still here. Got to celebrate another Christmas,” he says breaking into joke mode. “The kids are possibly not so happy because two years ago when I got diagnosed they maybe got everything they wanted from Santa.

“Enjoying every day for what it is, and every party we’re invited to. That’s been a recipe I’ve gone with from day one, 20-30 years ago. Every opportunity we’ve had, enjoy the day for what it is, and worry about tomorrow when it comes. If it doesn’t come, you’ve had a good last night.”

And from our lips he draws a Hallelujah.

* Doddie Weir was in Dublin ahead of the Ireland v England Rugby Legends match, RDS, Friday, 1st February. Proceeds to be split among the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, Rugby Players Ireland Foundation, Restart Rugby, the IRFU Charitable Trust and Irish motor neurone charities.

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