M Photo by Stuff
Deaf prop overcomes the odds
By Raga House | Tue 19 Sep, 2017 08:00

Morgan Mitchell was a shattered man last year but is now thriving in New Zealand provincial rugby ranks. Logan Savory outlines the deaf rugby player's inspirational story.

Morgan Mitchell remembers last year walking out of a meeting with his parents a broken man.

For him life couldn't get much worse. He was in a dark place and struggled to bring himself to talk to anyone.

The struggle wasn't anything new for the 24-year-old. He is deaf. For his entire life, he has had to deal with the challenges of trying to live life in near silence

But at that point, at that meeting with his parents, it was an all-time low.

Mitchell had progressed through the rugby ranks as a promising schoolboy player, while battling the odds through his disability.

Moments came and went where he struggled to shake off that disillusioned feeling. He felt his deafness would eventually halt his opportunities in the sport he adores so much.

He was the star player during his time at Gore High School and that was recognised at a national level when he was selected in a New Zealand under-17 squad.

The question Mitchell had bubbling away in his own mind centre on how far he could go with his rugby, considering the obstacles he had in front of him which other budding young players didn't.

His progression continued after school and by 2014 he was playing in New Zealand's premier provincial rugby competition with the Southland Stags.

In many ways, he was breaking new ground. He had played the majority of his rugby without a hearing aid in and relied on his impressive lip-reading skills to get himself through.

But he could not hear anyone behind him calling for the ball.

To help him in his quest to match it with New Zealand's best on the provincial stage a cap was organised to ensure he could wear his hearing aid while playing for the Stags.

Life was good, the doubts faded. He had made it.

Mitchell was getting to ply his rugby trade as a semi-professional rugby player. He also spent time in Dunedin training alongside the Highlanders Super Rugby team.

Last year, three seasons into his provincial career, it all took a turn for the worse. Mitchell's hearing continued to get worse and even with his aid in life became a major challenge.

"At the end of the [2016] season it was gone," Mitchell said in regard to his hearing.

He was back to lip reading on the field and was battling to get himself though rugby games and life in general. Reality started to dawn on Mitchell. He needed more help with his hearing in the form of a cochlear implant.

It involves a cord being drilled into the skull and connected to the brain. Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve in the brain.

It is life-changing for those living with hearing difficulties, but for Mitchell, it came with a catch.

The initial prognosis was: get the cochlear implant, but give up his rugby dream. The early medical advice was he shouldn't play because of the risk of damage to the device.

That is where that meeting with his parents and that low point for Mitchell featured.

"When I was sitting there with my mum and dad and they said, 'you might have to give up [rugby]', I just walked out of the room, I just couldn't do it. I didn't go back to that meeting," he said.

"I was in a dark place, I didn't want to talk to anyone. It was tough. I can't really explain it when you are deaf and you can't hear anything. It was really tough for me."

His rugby days looked numbered, there was little doubt Mitchell needed the implant.

The outlook suddenly brightened, however, when he met Philip Bird - the surgeon trusted with sorting him out with his cochlear implant.

Bird provided Mitchell with the hope he was searching for.

"He's a rugby man and he said 'don't worry we will sort it'. It's hard to explain but he drilled into my skull a bit deeper so the magnet is quite deep. He said, 'wear headgear and go for it. If it breaks we'll do it again'. That's what got me up, I just listened to his advice."

No one in the world was playing rugby at a professional level with a cochlear implant, but Bird felt that still shouldn't hold Mitchell back.

"I had no concerns about the implant interfering with rugby, quite the opposite," Bird said. 

"Top level sport requires a high level of communication before, during, and after the game. A cochlear implant was always going to enhance this. 

"There is a small risk of damage to the device but it would require a fairly massive blow, directly over the device. If necessary we could always replace it."

Bird said it was nice to watch what Mitchell was now doing, eight months on from when he put the implant in.

"I'm thrilled to see Morgan doing so well. It's immensely satisfying to me as a CI [cochlear implant] surgeon as the aim of the intervention is to help the person to overcome their hearing disability and achieve their goals in life.

"There are some players overseas with cochlear implants but I'm not aware of anyone playing to this level. I have a patient who played rep rugby at primary school level.

"Fundamentally Morgan's success is entirely down to his resilience, skill, and hard work and the help of a very supportive family," Bird said.

One person who has watched that determination closer than others is his older brother Brayden.

Brayden captains the Stags and lines up with Morgan in the Southland front row.

"He's a pretty determined bloke, as you can probably see with him playing with a cochlear implant. He's stubborn, especially when someone says he can't do something," Brayden said. 

"It's an awesome achievement with the way he has conducted himself before he had the cochlear implant and after it.

"Obviously there might have been a chance he wouldn't play again. He is pretty inspiring with what he has done.

"Hopefully there are some younger kids out there going through the same thing and see what he has done and it inspires them." 

For Morgan that is just why he is willing to talk about it.

He is usually reserved when it comes to talking about his disability, he doesn't like discussing it all that much.

But the reason he has opened up about his challenges is he wants to help get a message to other young deaf people.

He wants them to know that being deaf shouldn't hold you back.

"I see kids [with hearing aids] walking down the street and think that was me. I just want them to know anything is possible.

"The way I look at it now, I don't get down any more, I just keep positive. Anything is possible, nothing can stop you.

"That's my motto, just get out there and get amongst it."

Any problems for Mitchell playing with a cochlear implant have been limited.

"At the Auckland game, you would have seen the cord came off and I had to get my [team] doctor to fix it up. It's happened a couple of times, but it's been awesome, nothing is stopping me."

Outside of rugby, life, in general, has also changed dramatically for Mitchell through the cochlear implant.

He is now hearing certain noises for the first time in his life.

"I hadn't heard birds before that," he said.

"When it was first switched on it felt like I was in World War 3 with a bird army. The birds were just going nuts.

"It was an awesome experience. It's been eight months so I'm getting used to it now."

Mitchell acknowledged he was fortunate to have good family support to get him through the tough times and to the point he now had a much brighter outlook.

"It was awesome to have the direction of my mum and dad to get the surgery done."

Eight months on from getting the implant Mitchell is not just playing rugby - he is probably playing the best rugby of his career.

Mitchell said he is still taking baby steps in regard to his rugby but like many provincial rugby players, he holds a hope to play Super Rugby.

The challenges in his rise to the professional rugby ranks haven't just been restricted to being deaf.

At school it was No 8 where he made his mark before in his early days playing senior rugby he was shifted to hooker.

Just a matter of five years ago he was again moved, this time to transform into a tighthead prop.

Considering he is now in his fourth year playing for the Stags he has had to learn the propping art on the go - with former All Black Clarke Dermody his teacher.

"I've only been propping for five years and have been in the Mitre 10 Cup for four years so I'm slowly getting the hang of it. 

"Clarke Dermody is helping me out. He's been a huge help, he's been awesome."

Awesome is a description for Morgan Mitchell too.

-Stuff

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