Grit and determination are words that come to mind when hearing the battle that Mark faced from the first moment he was born. From birth, Mark was diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia; a disease that can damage the brain, spinal cord and other nerves affecting speech, co-ordination and balance. Explaining his condition, Mark said: “At the back of everybody’s brain is what they call a cerebellar. I’ve had the condition since birth and mine hasn’t developed properly.
“If somebody saw me on the street, walking along the pavement, they would probably think I was drunk if they didn’t know about my disability. I try my best with it to get around it, but it does limit me. I just do the best that I can.”
Participating in sport, and more specifically rugby league was always on Mark’s radar and from his mid-teen years he played at Kippax Welfare. However, Mark’s condition had impact on his muscle development, and it became difficult for him to continue in his team.
“At the age of 15 or 16, when I was playing with the local team, all the other lads were getting bigger and stronger whereas I was getting left behind and struggled to keep up.
“It wasn’t until a master’s training session at Kippax Welfare that I heard more about physical disability rugby. Former Castleford Tigers player Andy Lynch was there, shortly after he retired from playing. He could tell there was something wrong with me. I fell over a few times and cut my knees.
“Andy pulled me to one side and invited me down to a PDRL training session with Castleford as he was the Head Coach there. That is where it all began.”
Now, Mark has been a Castleford player for almost four years and upon joining, playing competitive rugby league was an achievement he never imagined was in reach. But Mark achieved the unthinkable.
PDRL is a competitive sport that carries along with it a fruitful social side and these are aspects that Mark so clearly loved, and still loves about the game.
“A driving factor for me is the enjoyment of the game especially when I’m playing. Although on the pitch it is a competitive environment, off the pitch everybody is still very friendly – even all the lads from the other teams. I think I just want to play because of the people I play with, against and off the pitch as well.
“I’ve always had a passion for rugby league in general, but I never thought I’d be able to play this game competitively.”
Mark’s avenue into PDRL fell almost by chance, but fortunately, the sport has gained rapid exposure over the past year, through the Yorkshire vs Lancashire Origin match as well as this year’s World Cup. The PDRL variant is inclusive to a highly diverse set of physical requirements and whilst it’s not an exact duplicate of the professional game, it has been designed to be as similar as possible. In relation, Mark discussed how his disability can sometimes limit his action.
“I try not to let my disability get in the way but sometimes there is nothing I can do from it restricting me. I try to think that I’m not any different to anybody else.
“I do get frustrated with myself sometimes because I see other people doing things that I want to do but I can’t. It’s definitely a learning curve because every time something happens, I try to think of ways I can get around it.
“Being able to speak to other people that have other conditions or disabilities and having something in common with them is brilliant.”
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Mark at times, but the variant of rugby league has tailored its requirements to a new, emerging audience and one that is becoming increasingly popular. In closing, Mark shared why he would recommend the sport to other disabled people.
“I’d definitely try and get somebody who didn’t know anything about PDRL involved with the game. Whether they are supporting a rival team or want to come down to Castleford. I just think it’s a great way for everybody to get involved.
“I don’t know if I can speak for everyone else but the feeling that you get when you’re on the pitch with all your teammates and other teams and you are all wanting the most desirable outcome that you can. Everybody is playing for the same thing.
“The Foundation have been great. They have given me the time I need and tried to adapt my abilities to the game. They can get the most out of me and I have started to enjoy the game more.”
For more information on how to get involved with the Tigers’ PDRL team, please contact [email protected].