Spotting a young Alex McKinnon without a football in his hand was a rare sight.
“I love football and I loved everything about it,” he offers.
As an only child living in a small rural town, he gravitated towards the team environment and enjoyed the success of winning with his mates. He likened his youthful experiences to Sunday church, “…when everyone used to go on a weekend and gather together. People got a lot of joy out of the local team. A lot of pride would come from that”.
Besides singing in the choir and attending mass, his life outside of school was centred around training and playing rugby league. The Aberdeen boy even ventured to boarding school at St Gregory’s Catholic College in Campbelltown to chase his dreams of becoming an elite rugby league player.
And that’s exactly what he became when he was recruited by the Newcastle Knights.
For most 22-year old’s, being young is a time of self-discovery, falling in love, career voyaging, making mistakes, learning about life.
When the thing you’re obsessed with is taken away from you, no matter what it is, like a drug, you go into withdrawal mode.
But seven years ago, playing a fierce game against the Melbourne Storm, McKinnon was tackled, carried, flipped and barged into the ground. With his neck tucked and arms trapped, he went head-first. He was instantly paralysed, suffering an irreversible spinal cord injury that left him quadriplegic.
Unable to breathe properly and completely unaware of the extent of the injury he had just experienced, he lay confused and disorientated as the medical team carried him off the field at AAMI Park Stadium in Melbourne. The crowd clapped, but no-one knew that Alex would never walk or play rugby league again.
“I remember moving my mouth, I was trying to speak but I couldn’t speak,” he says.
The former rugby league player is adamant about the purpose of his life now: “Being ordinary, with an extraordinary boundary.”
Here, at Mayfield’s West Leagues Club, home of the Newcastle Knights, McKinnon wheels himself from reception, down a cavernous corridor into the comfort of his own office. It’s cozy and bright, with a large television screen and a round table for conferencing.
“I’m an open book, you can ask me anything,” he says.
What is immediately striking is the absence of any despondence. This former footballer is unequivocal about his extraordinary circumstances, regardless of the life on the field he once thought he’d have forever.
At the forefront of his life now is his wife, Teigan, who he “loves more than anything,” Harriet, his two-year-old daughter, and twin baby girls, Audrey Jill and Violet John, born in April 2021.
Employed as the recruitment manager for the Knights, McKinnon is still bound to the game he loves, but his present position on life and footy hasn’t come without some soul-searching, time and a reckoning with his past.
Bound to a wheelchair, he sees his injury today as just “a filter that I need to consider when I go to do things and when I think about things”.
“[Having a wheelchair] filters some things out,” he adds.
But when it comes to his personality, what his family, friends and Teigan loved before his injury…. he realised “it didn’t have to change”.
When playing first grade for the Knights, McKinnon was “footballer first and human being second”. His career cemented his self-esteem. Like many elite athletes, he was obsessed with football, with training, with winning – all hallmarks of his highly competitive nature.
Post-injury, McKinnon reflects that he suffered not an identity crisis, as it has been described by some, but extreme and painful withdrawal symptoms.
“A major part of my life had been snatched away in an instant,” he says. “But when the thing you’re obsessed with is taken away from you, no matter what it is, like a drug, you go into withdrawal mode.”
Well into the interview, McKinnon has been very clear about the complexity of the moments after the tackle that left him in a wheelchair.
Some of these moments are still raw.
Re-watching video evidence of the game, I ask “what do you remember after you were tackled?”
“I can distinctly hear Willy Mason’s voice,” he says. “And then I can distinctly hear (Storm player) Cameron Smith talking to the referee. I remember him saying that I was ‘milking it’ or something.”
What Smith actually said in those moments were: “If he doesn’t duck his head, that doesn’t happen.”
In a 2015 60 Minutes episode, McKinnon responded to Smith’s actions and told News Corp he was “disgusted”.
But last year he confessed to NRL reporter Danny Weilder that he had “moved on.”
That feeling didn’t come overnight.
However, he now admits that he could have seen himself saying the same thing: “I understand why he said what he did, I understand the competitive mindset he’d have. I get it.”
McKinnon was sick of the hatred he held and that his friends held towards Smith, out of loyalty towards him. Morally, he was uneasy.
Club manager and former player Danny Buderus works next door to McKinnon. Buderus says the moments after the injury were a blur for all involved and most, including himself, as a blue shirt on the day, were still in “game mode”. Buderus believes Smith wouldn’t have said the things he did had he known better.
“I think until you actually speak to someone from the medical team, no-one could understand the extent of the injury. You know, at the time, everyone was living in the moment,” he adds.
It is evident Buderus has great respect for McKinnon. His special respect, however, is held for Teigan who, he says, “…was so young when it all happened. She had such a mature mindset about it and what they were going to do to move forward.”
And as McKinnon lay in a hospital bed for months, Teigan, who he’s always been “addicted” to from the beginning, was there.
Teigan kindly agrees to be interviewed for this article. Her life is extremely busy.
She often feels like the sole parent.
Not emotionally, but physically. It takes its toll.
Behind closed doors, people don’t see the moments their two-year-old cries and all her Daddy wants to do is pick her up, but he can’t.
“We were never going to be a normal family and Alex was never going to be a normal Dad and that was quite confronting for him,” Teigan says.
“To see other Dads down at the beach or at the park, picking their children up and playing with them…. I think we just kind of had to roll with it and take each day as it came. Not emotionally, but physically. It takes its toll.”
When asked if she ever had any doubts or worries about continuing their relationship after Alex was injured, that it was going to be too much, she is quick to say “No, no, no, no, the thought never crossed my mind… Yes, it’s hard but I’ve never gone, ‘It’s too hard, I don’t want to be with Alex anymore’”.
In 2014, Teigan was just 20 years old.
During McKinnon’s lengthy time in Royal North Shore hospital, they discussed marriage, the future, the possibility of a family. It was during these months that the couple became engaged. They looked at IVF options which, thankfully, years later proved successful. Teigan fell pregnant with their first embryo.
“It was a miracle,” she says.
Today McKinnon says he finds it awkward to call himself a role model but knows why people may view him as one.
“You can be arrogant and dismiss that you are noticed and admired,” he says.
Because of that he strives each day to be the best version of himself.
“Or you can help people understand that we seriously have no idea what is going on in each other’s lives… and if you’re able to help them, then that’s the right thing to do.”
Without question McKinnon is a positive force within the Newcastle Knights club. Together with Buderus, they promote the positivity and support that it showed him when he could no longer play.
McKinnon says: “With good leadership and a safe environment, on all levels, comes great character development. This is the sort of player we want to foster.”
For now, McKinnon is focused on being an amazing Dad and providing his daughters with all the opportunities to succeed. Three under the age of three?
“It’s scary as hell,” he says.
Cover Photo by Jess Newell