By TONY WHITE
IN excruciating pain and unable to move, Grafton Redmen rugby union halfback Brett Graham lay motionless on the turf at Quays Reserve, Ballina, on Saturday after a controversial tackle.
The force of the impact resulted in Brett's head buckling, his chin snapping into his chest.
A four-and-a-half hour nightmare ensued.
Neck and spinal injuries are a footballer's worst nightmare, often leading to permanent disability.
In those long hours, Brett's future hung in the balance.
Immediately after the tackle by a Ballina forward late in the game, the 28-year-old timber worker knew there was a problem.
"I didn't hear anything, I just felt pain, real sharp pain," he recalled yesterday.
"I wasn't knocked out or anything but as soon as I hit the ground I had sharp pain in my neck and spine between my shoulder blades.
"I was running the ball in and I got tackled. The bloke grabbed me around the waist and picked me up.
"My head hit the ground first and my neck rolled into my chest.
"I knew straight away I was in trouble."
Play continued for a short period with Brett prone at the site of the tackle.
"I was flat on my back and they realised I wasn't getting up," he said.
"I didn't really know what had happened but I was in a lot of pain. I wasn't moving and I knew something was very wrong."
One Ballina player rushed to Brett's aid.
"He asked me 'are you alright', and I just said 'no, I'm not'.
"Then I remember our trainer came across. Things got a bit hazy after that."
Brett, or Barney as he is commonly known, remembers medical staff telling him 'this is serious'.
"They said 'don't move' and they told me an ambulance was called," Brett said.
When ambulance staff arrived an evaluation was made and it was decided Brett would be taken to Lismore Base Hospital by the Northern Region Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter.
During his treatment, Brett's mind wandered. The 'what ifs' started to plague his thoughts.
"It was pretty scary stuff, daunting really. I had feeling in my hands and feet but my neck was bad. I didn't know what to think," he said.
"Believe me I had no intentions of moving. I couldn't."
Brett was carefully placed on a spinal board and air-lifted to hospital.
"They (medical staff) took every precaution possible," Grafton coach Gary Powell said.
"All the players were very concerned.
"Those (neck) injuries are always dicey."
The game was called off after Brett was taken to hospital.
"The paramedics in the 'copter were brilliant," Brett said.
After an examination, doctors at Lismore Base Hospital took x-rays of the injury.
"Nothing showed up on the x-ray so they decided to take a cat scan," Brett said.
"All I wanted to know was what was wrong. It was around 9pm that the cat scan showed up a fracture."
The tackle had in fact fractured Brett's T2 vertebrae.
Fortunately, the injury should heal with time and complete rest.
The news was a huge relief for Brett and his family.
"Basically I've got to bed rest for a minimum of six weeks," he said.
"I'm not allowed to do anything, bugger all.
"It's a huge relief, I'm very relieved nothing is broken. It could have been a lot worse. I've been lucky."
Brett was released from hospital at 5pm on Sunday. He is now recuperating at his Eatonsville home. Work, however, is off the immediate agenda.
"I rang my boss at Greensill Brothers and he was really understanding," Brett said.
"I have to go back to the doctors in two weeks to check how the neck is healing.
"I'd love to play football again but we'll just have to see what happens."
Brett did not want to comment on the tackle that led to his injury, but Powell said the club was 'bitterly disappointed' no action was taken by match officials.
"We (Redmen players) all saw it but the referee and touch judges didn't think there was anything in it," Mr Powell said.
"At the end of the day the (Ballina) bloke concerned apologised and said it wasn't intentional.
"I've put in a report to the referees saying we're unhappy but unless Brett wants to push it, especially with no video of the game, that's the end of it.
"We're all just glad Brett will be all right."