Saints title-winner Stephenson tackling tough times as he prepares for big marathon bid

In September of last year, Tom Stephenson thought his life may just have run its course.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 5:28 pm
Tom Stephenson played a key role in Saints' title-winning season

But now, six months later, thankfully he knows he has plenty more running to do.

Stephenson will be bidding to complete five marathons in as many days from May 12, taking him from the start line at Franklin's Gardens to the finish at Twickenham.

It's all in aid of the Restart Rugby charity, with Stephenson courageously vocal in recent times about the mental struggles he faced during, but particularly after, his rugby career.

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Still just 26, the former Saints centre has called time on playing, having endured the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that the game has to offer.

Stephenson, who left Saints, where he emerged from the Academy, in the summer of 2018, hung up his boots after departing London Irish last year.

He took on a career in London, working in foreign exchange and earning the kind of money he hoped would make him happy.

But it didn't, it only made him more sad.

And after a horribly turbulent spell, Stephenson, who played a big role in bringing the Premiership title to Saints for the first, and so far only, time, in 2014, admits he considered taking his own life.

"I got really bad, and a lot of it was because I had so much success in my early career and I didn't know how to deal with it," Stephenson said, speaking to this publication this week.

"I broke my leg pretty badly when I was at Saints (in a pre-season game against Rotherham Titans in August 2016) and I knew my England dream was over.

"I came back and I just wasn't the same player. I could feel it in my leg and I just wasn't as quick or anything.

"It was something I just couldn't take.

"I loved all the attention when I was 18, 19 from the media and also from school friends.

"I found myself when I was injured not wanting to go and see my old school friends because I was worried about people asking what was going on with my rugby and asking why they hadn't seen me on TV for a while.

"I wanted to avoid all that and so I started making a bit of an idiot of myself, being a bit of a party guy and just doing ridiculous things.

"It was how I got my attention, I was trying to fill a void and I was doing it by drinking.

"The early success was the best thing that ever happened but it was that and then getting injured for two years that put me in a bit of a hole."

Stephenson was offered the chance to stay at Saints, despite the fact his injury had stopped him being a regular in the first team.

"I got offered the same contract I was on, but to be honest after my injuries, I got a reputation for drinking and doing drugs because it's such a small town," explained Stephenson.

"It was time for a fresh start, I had a few injuries around Northampton.

"London Irish came in, I knew they were going down to the Champ so I knew it was a good chance to get some good game time and build for the next season.

"They offered more money as well and those were the main reasons.

"In hindsight for rugby, I should have stayed in Northampton.

"It wasn't a Northampton Saints issue, it was me. It wasn't like everyone was going out every weekend and getting smashed, it was just me.

"I just wanted to escape it all and I thought by going somewhere new, it would help.

"All my school friends were in London so I thought it would be good to go there and get a fresh start.

"I am glad I did go to London because it's helped me a lot outside of rugby. I've got loads of contacts now, I found my ex-girlfriend and none of that would have happened.

"But from a rugby point of view, I should have stayed in Northampton."

Stephenson's regret about leaving Saints was added to by the fact Chris Boyd arrived in the summer of 2018 and got the team playing the swaggering style of rugby the Oxford-born player would have thrived on.

"I knew Chris Boyd a little bit from the Hurricanes and then I started watching Saints play and I was like 'oh f***'," Stephenson said.

"London Irish at the time, we were just playing such s*** rugby but now they've got a very good team.

"It was such a difference at the time and I did think I should have stayed.

"I had a great life outside of rugby in London but on the pitch I should have stayed."

Stephenson's switch to London Irish was far from all bad.

He shone as they won promotion back to the Premiership at the first time of asking, but injury struck again in the final game of that campaign.

Stephenson suffered another serious leg break and it was December 2019 before he returned to action, by which time London Irish had new coaching staff.

He could have signed on again at Irish, but on a hugely reduced salary.

And that left Stephenson needing to look elsewhere for a future.

"I knew kind of February time last year that Irish's salary cap was right up to the limit," he said.

"I got injured, came back and played 10 games and got offered an 80 per cent pay cut so I knew I wasn't going to stay there.

"I was talking to a couple of teams in Japan and France, but as soon as Covid hit, that all got wiped off the table.

"I had a lot of time back home in April, May and June.

"Things weren't materialising and my agent kept saying we'd get something but I was like 's***, I might have to start looking for work'.

"I always knew I never wanted to go and play in the Champ - I needed to start a career rather than become a journeyman.

"I'm 26 and I had a chance to start a career.

"But all my mental health stuff started at Northampton when I broke my leg and I was out a lot, drinking, doing drugs and I wasn't in a good place.

"I used to do my physio at the Gardens, come back and just cry in bed.

"I got back playing and I was absolutely fine, so I just left it all and didn't tell anyone about it, but then it all came back again in London, but 10 times worse.

"I was in a bit of a mess for a long time.

"I'm a lot better now, 20 times better than I was last year, but I'm still trying to get my head around it all and trying to find myself I guess."

So just how bad did it get for Stephenson last year?.

"June, July and August were the real bad months," he said.

"I came back to London and was drinking a lot again.

"I had a girlfriend at the time and she was the only person who saw me and I used to come home and cry and say I wanted to end my life.

"I just felt like I had no purpose.

"I didn't want to admit I had an issue even though it was pretty clear to my girlfriend at the time that I did.

"I needed to get a job, thinking I could get some routine in my life again and some purpose.

"I took the role because I wanted to make as much money as possible.

"I was very short-sighted and just thought about the cash - I didn't realise I was going to have to give up my life for it.

"One of my mates was working there and I knew he was making a lot of money.

"I didn't really think about the fact I wouldn't have much of a social life.

"I was basically working 6.45am to 8pm and I just needed to get out.

"The role kept me occupied but I still wasn't myself.

"My girlfriend at the time used to say that I still wasn't there and she ended up leaving me.

"That was when I realised 's***, I'm on my own and I need to get help'.

"I was completely distraught and didn't know what to do with myself."

That was when Stephenson hit his nadir, considering whether to end his life, but instead he managed to seek help.

He said: "I ended up going home and telling my mum everything and as soon as I told her, I got help and started seeing a therapist.

"I'm still seeing a therapist now.

"At first, I was reluctant to go on medication because it was that whole thing that going on medication makes you feel like you've got an illness.

"But I wasn't getting better and I started taking medication and now I'm 100 times better than I was in September but I'm still in a recovery process."

Stephenson's story is a cautionary tale, especially as the only way appeared to be up for him when he emerged from the Saints Academy.

"My first three years at Saints, we got into the Premiership final, then won the double, then finished top of the league," he said.

"On top of that, I won two Junior World Cups in those first three seasons of my professional career so I couldn't have had a better start.

"I thought 'f***, this is easy' and I knew it was because I was with amazing players and we had an amazing team but I thought it would just keep going in one direction.

"You don't think about bad things happening at that age. You believe the hype and you do get the sense that you're untouchable, especially in a small town like Northampton where I could

go out every weekend and get away with pretty much anything.

"But the year after we finished top of the table I got injured.

"It's a bit of a reality check when things aren't going okay and I didn't know how to deal with it.

"And the last thing I wanted to do was to tell people I wasn't okay because for three years of my life everyone thought I was doing great and everything was going well.

"The last thing I wanted to do was to suddenly break that perception and people think I'm not doing okay.

"That was the hardest thing for me."

Now Stephenson is open about his struggles, and he is desperate to help others who are currently experiencing similar feelings.

"Every time I got injured, I would go mad in the gym but at the weekends I would go and drink and do loads of drugs," he said.

"I was the most professional guy during the week, smashing the gym, getting in the best nick I'd ever got in and I was shredded.

"It was like training for a boxing fight and never having a fight.

"In hindsight, I probably worked too hard and I probably needed to peak more at the end rather than just blitz it the whole way through.

"When you're out for 14, 15 months, it's going to take it out of you and it definitely did for me.

"I was so obsessed with getting back and getting in good form again that I just took it all out in the gym.

"As a rugby player, I certainly felt I had a privileged position and I shouldn't be upset or down.

"I knew I could be working in the city and doing a job like I ended up doing for six months, but instead I was getting a good salary for playing rugby and I shouldn't be feeling low.

"We do have the best job in the world, but when it's not going well it's one of the hardest jobs in the world as well.

"Other sports are smashing mental health, but in rugby a lot of players are coming out with mental health issues and things need to be done.

"My big thing is that when Covid restrictions lighten up, I want to go into all the clubs and tell them what I went through.

"There needs to be more education on mental health because when I was 19, 20, 21, 22 I had no idea about mental health.

"I literally thought mental health was just for people who want to kill themselves but it can start off from just having one bad week and then a year later you can be in a place where you want to end your life.

"You could be at any stage of that timeline and it doesn't mean you're not going to be at the end of it in a year's time.

"It's about educating players and it needs to be much more of an environment to open up.

"When I was 19, 20, whatever Dylan Hartley and George North said, I would do, and we need more people like that talking about it.

"If they were talking about it I would have felt it was more than okay to talk about it and it would have made it cool to talk about emotions when you're having a bad day.

"You need to know it's okay not to be okay, especially when you're injured, and it's something I want to tap into."

As well as spreading his mental health awareness message, Stephenson is actively applying for jobs that he hopes will stimulate him far more than his former role in the city.

And, with the competitive juices still flowing, he is taking on the marathon challenge, with a little help from another former Saints player.

"Running has really helped me because you get a lot of thinking time," he said.

"I tried a 10k at the end of December and I was s*** but you don't realise how bad rugby players are at this stuff.

"I went for a run with Brendan Macken and we did 5k and he had to stop - we are so bad at this type of thing.

"I started doing some half-marathons in January but I was absolutely f*****.

"I asked my mum if she knew anyone who had done ultra-marathons and stuff like that and she found a guy who played for Saints in the 1980s, a guy called Rich Hughes. He's an ultra- marathon coach based where mum lives.

"He said he would do all my training for free and he's put together a programme for me and thankfully I've got him because I was doing it all wrong.

"I run over 100k every week and I've lost like 15kg.

"It's going well so far."

Stephenson will be backed in his bid by many former and current Saints as he still speaks to the likes of Rory Hutchinson and Lewis Ludlam.

He keeps Saints close to his heart and now he is starting to enjoy watching rugby again.

"I still watch Northampton whenever they're on," Stephenson said.

"I'm not that fussed about the rest of the Premiership and I'm not even that fussed about the Six Nations.

"I did go through a stage when I hated rugby and it was all part of me not being in a good place.

"I hated going into training every day whereas when I was younger, you literally couldn't get me off a rugby pitch.

"But I'm starting to like watching it again and Northampton is my club, I've supported them all my life.

"I enjoy watching Northampton and I obviously like watching Luds and the others doing well."

If you would like to donate to Stephenson's cause, click here