“A tragedy puts things into perspective for you. If you never face adversity, you’re missing out on developing as a person.”
He tells them to keep up their defensive coverage, to back their teammates in, and stick to the ball. They hang on his every word, pulling in closer around their young leader. “You may never get this opportunity again,” he says.
The words cut an ironic swathe through the minds of his former teammates – words spoken by their once star midfielder, who at 23 was left a C5-C6 quadriplegic after a seemingly innocuous hit broke two vertebrae in his neck, severing his spinal cord.
Vernon may be on the bench now as a coach, but the one-point premiership victory that ensues makes the 30-year-old feel like he’s still starring on that field of dreams. Don’t call him a victim. He doesn’t feel like one. Not for a minute. Married to his high-school sweetheart Lucy and father to two young children living in a newly-renovated home in San Remo just 500 metres from the foreshore, he feels lucky and grateful.
“Everyone has their ups and downs. We all have a choice to either move forward or wonder ‘why me?’” With that upbeat attitude and his impish good looks, you can see why he’s managed to forge ahead as a successful football coach, motivational speaker and disability advocate. He credits much of his emotional strength to the safety-net of people around him – his island tribe who lift him up in a way that small towns often do.
“I’ve been very lucky to have massive amounts of support from close family, great friends, a loving partner Lucy who is now my wife. I feel like I was lucky to hurt myself in a community sport where everyone rallied behind me.”
Vernon once held out hope for a professional football career. He played junior footy as a kid, won several best and fairest awards and at 16 was the youngest player to play TAC cup at Gippsland Power alongside Collingwood stars Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas. He believes the backing of the football world gave him real incentive to not just survive as a quadriplegic but to thrive: to take on leadership, to share his story and live a life that might inspire others to rise up out of the black hole of their own misfortune.
An ambitious footy fanatic, who’d trained with Richmond and Collingwood before being overlooked in the draft because of injuries, the catastrophic injury took him completely unawares. It was June 2012 on what seemed like an ordinary day of country footy. He’d had hundreds of clashes just like it. But this hit was different.
“It wasn’t a big collision. I’d been handballed the Sherrin but it was a bit too far out in front, so I’ve leapt for it, bent down and picked it up. As I started to come back up, I’ve been hip-and- shouldered. Fell to the ground. Couldn’t move. I remember thinking that it felt like my body was on fire, like I was burning. That was a tough moment. I knew it was bad.” Vernon recalls having no sensation when the trainer touched his legs, which
terrified the normally stoic footy lad. “The paramedics asked me what my pain was out of 10. I’ve always gone on the lower end of the scale when asked the question, because, well … if a shark bit my leg off, I’d go a lot higher. But in that instance, I was so scared that I said 10.”
His girlfriend Lucy and his brother Zac were by his side as doctors tried to assess the damage to his spine. His parents rushed back from a bucket-list safari in Africa when their middle child was put into an induced coma. Vernon has just one memory of that week – and it’s one so raw he’s never shared it before.
“I could see Lucy there in front of me, I could feel all the tubes coming in and out of me, and I was trying to tell her to get the doctor because I felt like I was choking to death. But I couldn’t talk, so I just closed my eyes, thinking I might not wake up again.”
When he eventually emerged from the fog, Vernon had to learn to breathe again, to swallow, to talk. “I’ve got no movement from my chest down, and to start with I couldn’t move my arms at all. But after six weeks I got a flicker in my wrist and I was able to build that into something.” Over more than 8 months of rehabilitation, the then 23-year-old learned to perform daily tasks with the parts of his body which remained strong – including his head, shoulders, biceps and wrists. The athlete in him is still very much alive and punching. He’s set up his own gym for workouts like boxing, hand cycling and battle ropes – and he’s got some decent guns to prove it.
While progress is being made in wearable robotic exoskeletons for people with spinal-cord injury, Vernon doesn’t dwell on the thought of tech-assisted walking. “I don’t like being in a wheelchair, but I feel that a lot of people in my position spend a lot of their life chasing the dream of walking again. I feel it’s best to accept it, and just know that it doesn’t make you a lesser person. You can still do just as much, if not more, especially if you use it as a positive platform to enhance your life.”
But it hasn’t all been easy going. Vernon sought help when he realised he was using alcohol as a distraction: Saturday night drinks with mates had become a mission to prove he was still the same man. “I was drinking to try to escape my situation, and to show everybody I could still do everything that I used to do.” Now with two young children conceived with the help of IVF, he’s realised hangovers aren’t compatible with early-rising toddlers. “I’ve got kids now. I’ve got to be a good dad.”
While he may no longer be part of the running pack, his focus is still completely on football. His wife Lucy tells me that just a week after his accident he was watching his > beloved Richmond Tigers play. And it seems his coaching is as impressive as his playing ever was. He’s led the charge to four grand finals and two premierships, chasing the hat-trick this year with Phillip Island.
He explains that working from a wheelchair has had a profound effect on the way he approaches the top job. “Some coaches direct their energy towards the top 22 players, but I wanted to make everyone feel welcome. It’s about getting around our 2s, our juniors, the supporters, the volunteers. It’s about including everyone.”
His father Daryl, who played for Richmond and Sydney, believes his son was instrumental in creating a new buzz on the local footy scene.
While Vernon agrees his teams have excelled, he won’t take all the credit. “I don’t think there’s been a single game where the boys haven’t gone out there and displayed a huge amount of energy and effort.” Many of these players are his former teammates, his friends. Spearheaded by their fallen comrade, you can understand how driven they would be to achieve great things.
Vernon concedes he wouldn’t be the coach he is today without having made the journey back from permanent injury. “Coaching from a wheelchair has made me a better person, a stronger person who’s a lot more aware of people around me.”
The player who hit him has never been in contact – but that’s not a concern to Vernon, who has never blamed him for what he considers a ‘freak accident’. “In the early days, I thought that if I was him I would’ve reached out, but now that I’m a bit older and more mature, I think I should have done that.”
At a recent wedding, Vernon decided to chat to him, making small talk as a gesture of goodwill. “It was my way of saying there are no hard feelings. It was a good moment.”
He’s wise beyond his years and believes a lot of that learning came from that fateful fall on the hallowed turf of the footy ground – and the people who loved him enough to carry him forward into a new life as a different type of football champion. “A tragedy puts things into perspective for you. If you never face adversity, you’re missing out on developing as a person. It seems simple to me. You’ve only got one life to live – how long can you sit there and feel sorry for yourself? I want to be happy, and I want the people around me to be happy.”