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Headmaster's Address

Rob Burrow

I thought it was only right for me to speak today about the extraordinary example of Rob Burrow, the Leeds Rhinos, England and Great Britain rugby league international who died last week aged 41.  As many of you will know, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2019 and whilst he was already an absolute star in the world of professional rugby league, he rose to even wider public prominence in the years following his retirement and subsequent diagnosis, as a result of his incredible efforts to raise money for, and awareness of, MND, as well as lobbying the government to increase funding into research, treatment and care facilities. This is a condition for which there is as yet no cure, and he died recently of complications from the disease – a disease which has touched our own school community in recent years, when a charismatic, much loved and long serving member of the Maintenance Department, Nigel Taylor, succumbed to MND in 2018.

Burrow had spent his entire 17-year professional playing career with one club, Leeds Rhinos, earning the nickname “Mighty Atom” for his diminutive stature – at just under 5ft 5in (1 metre 65cm) and weighing less than 11st (70kg), he was by far the smallest player of his era to play at this elite level. Turning out at either scrum-half or hooker in a sport where size and bulk are usually of paramount importance, Burrow won eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Championships in 492 appearances for his club, scoring 196 tries and kicking 157 goals and five drop-goals.

He won not one but two Trophies for player-of-the-match performances in Super League Grand Finals at Old Trafford, Manchester – twice Man-of-the-Match in what is the absolute highlight of the British rugby league calendar. His try in the latter match, in 2011, summed him up at his absolute peak, and was a microcosm of the attacking scrum-half’s art – if we were in Great Hall I would show it to you on the big screen – it is quite amazing, as he ducks and weaves his way past attempted tackle after tackle on an improbable dash to the line.  It is regarded as one of the sport’s greatest ever tries – do look it up on YouTube when you get a moment. That year there were 37 judges of the Man-Of-The-Match trophy, and they were unanimous in their choice of Burrow for that accolade. Earlier this year, the Rugby Football League announced that the Trophy for player of the match would be renamed the Rob Burrow Award.

Burrow also played five times for Great Britain and was a member of the 2008 and 2013 England Rugby League World Cup squads. In 2007 he was awarded the George Smith Medal as player of the series after his 26 points helped Great Britain whitewash New Zealand 3-0.

Born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Burrow was the youngest of the three children, and the only son, of Geoffrey, a Trade Union secretary, and his wife, Irene. He was educated at Airedale High School where his parents, struggling to cope with his boisterous nature, encouraged him to take up rugby at the age of seven.

As a junior he played for Castleford Panthers before moving on to senior amateur rugby at Featherstone Lions. According to his father, he was told that he was far too small ever to play professionally, but his speed and elusiveness as a teenager brought him to the attention of scouts at the Leeds Rhinos academy.  And from there, the rest, as they say, is history.

He signed professional terms for the club in 1999, at the age of 17, and made his first-team Super League debut at the age of 18. By season’s end he had been named Super League young player of the year. He would regularly feature in the end-of-season Super League Dream Team throughout his career. He retired in 2017, and was inducted into the Leeds Rhinos Hall of Fame in 2020.  The previous year, 2019, he had received confirmation of his MND, shortly after taking up a coaching role with the Rhinos.

Describing the shock of his diagnosis – he was initially given two years to live – Burrow said: “As an athlete you are used to injury, and then you recover and carry on as before. With MND I couldn’t do that.  But I did decide immediately that, like an athlete, I would tackle the challenge head-on and carry on competing like I had before.” His wife Lindsey, an NHS physiotherapist, whom he had married in 2006, became his carer.

Burrow had played for most of his career alongside Kevin Sinfield, his team-mate and Leeds Rhinos captain, and it would be his relationship with his long-standing friend that would come to define the latter part of his life and bring him to wider national attention. Together they raised more than £15m for MND charities as Burrow became, along with Sinfield, the former rugby union player Doddie Weir and the footballer Stephen Darby, the public face of those living with MND.

He featured in the award-winning 2022 BBC documentary Rob Burrow: Living with MND, which told the story of his worsening condition and the impact it had on his wife and family, as he lost the ability to move and speak. His book, ‘Too Many Reasons to Live’ won autobiography of the year at the 2022 Sports Book awards. He also co-authored two books with Sinfield: With You Every Step (2023) and Try: A Picture Book About Friendship (2024) – the latter written for children – celebrating male friendship and empathy.

As his ability to speak diminished, and his limb movement also, Rob switched to a powerful specialist computer which generated speech for him, using eye tracking technology. By looking and selecting words and letters on the screen of his device, a camera was able to detect Rob’s gaze and prompt that specific word or letter to be selected – like clicking a mouse.  He used this device not only to create speech, but also to post on social media, to read and respond to emails, and to access technology around the home, all controlled using his eyes. He also, through the use of voice banking, kept the voice his family and fans were familiar with.

In the meantime, his great friend, Kevin Sinfield, continued to raise funds in Burrow’s name by undertaking numerous endurance running challenges. In November 2022, he ran seven back-to-back ultramarathons, finishing at Old Trafford. Before that, in 2020, he completed seven marathons in seven days and in 2021, he ran 101 miles in 24 hours from the home of Leicester Tigers rugby union club to Headingley, home of Leeds Rhinos. Last year the pair created an enduring television image by completing the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon together, with Sinfield embracing his friend and lifting him from his wheelchair to carry him over the finishing line.

Burrow was appointed MBE in 2021 for services to rugby league and people with motor neurone disease, elevated to CBE in 2024, as was Sinfield. They were presented with their awards by the Prince of Wales at a special investiture held at Headingley because Burrow was too unwell to travel to London.  If Sinfield isn’t eventually knighted for what he has done, then I simply don’t know what the honours system is for.

Legacy.  It’s a word much used.  It’s perhaps a concept not much thought about when one is young, when you feel immortal, as Rob Burrow must have felt that day in 2011 as he weaved and jinked his way seemingly past the entire opposition team on the way to his unforgettable try.  I am sure he gave little thought to legacy that day.  Later, after his diagnosis in 2019, it was much in his thoughts, and we know this not from what he said but from what he did.  His legacy is in the raised awareness of MND, and the Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease in Leeds, for which he raised £6m. The construction of this new purpose-built facility started the morning after his death.

Alasdair Macintyre, the Scottish-American philosopher wrote, “I am, forever, whatever I have been, at any time, for others”.

Brilliant rugby professional though he was, Rob will be remembered more for his exemplary fundraising and awareness raising efforts, and for the extraordinary bravery he showed in facing up to his diagnosis.

In a way, it is he, not I, who is giving this assembly today, and so I will finish with the message he recorded before he died, which he intended to be published posthumously. It reads as follows:

“I hope one day we find a cure and live in a world free of MND.

“By the time that you watch this I will no longer be here.

“I am just a lad from Yorkshire who got to live out his dream of playing rugby league.

“As a father of three young children I would never want any family to have to go through what my family have since my diagnosis.

“I hope I have left a mark on the disease.

“I hope it shows to live in the moment.

“I hope you find inspiration from the whole story.

“My final message to you is: whatever your personal battle, be brave and face it.

“Every single day is precious.

“Don’t waste a moment.

“In a world full of adversity we must still dare to dream.

“Rob Burrow, over and out.”

Thank you for your attention.

(This assembly drew heavily on an obituary for Rob Burrow published last week in The Guardian)