Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder in which the red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body, develop abnormally or become sickle-shaped. This leads to various health complications. Therefore, it is essential that those who suffer from this disease stay away from any form of physical exertion to protect their health.
However, Ade Adebisi, a Nigerian born English professional rugby player in England, has continued to defy this.
Rugby is one of the most exacting team sports in the world, therefore Ade has to exert himself every time he plays this game, and this puts his life in jeopardy. Nonetheless, his passion for rugby has been able to transport the oxygen he needs, even when his red blood cells fail him, over the years. In this interview, Ade tells us how he finds the arsenal to win every battle that sickle cell throws at him, and how he hopes his life would inspire many sufferers out there.
This is a must read – story of ayoung man determined to succeed against all odds. Enjoy!
Sam Umukoro Interview: Despite the sickle cell disease,you still chose to play rugby, one of the toughest sports: was that deliberate or were you trying to prove a point?
Ade Adebisi: No, it wasn’t deliberate because I started off playing football. In school, I tried out for Tottenham Hotspurs but I just decided not to continue. Then, I just fell in love with the rugby game, and when you fall in love with something, you don’t always try to think if it’s bad for you or not, you just like it. That’s basically what happened.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How long did you play rugby?
Ade Adebisi: Fifteen years.
Sam Umukoro Interview:When you first started playing rugby, how were you able to keep it from your mum in the first couple of years?
Ade Adebisi: (Laughs). My brother helped me. And since I started off with football, I kept telling them that I was going for a football match every time we went for rugby training or to a rugby match, and that I was a goalkeeper. So she thought I was a football player. She only found out about two or three years ago
Sam Umukoro Interview: Wasn’t your mum or your doctors worried at some point?
Ade Adebisi:It was strange actually, when I told them they were quite surprised that I played rugby. But I received more encouragement from them than they saying, no, don’t do it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You mean your doctors?
Ade Adebisi: Yes, the doctors, they were more encouraging, I think my sickle cell specialist in London was always promoting me to her colleagues that they have a sickle cell patient here that played rugby. She just advised me on different things to do, different treatments I needed, and they made everything smooth for me because they knew it wasn’t going to kill me. Yes, I might have crisis due to the rugby, but it’s a good thing because it’s healthier. Also, it’s a good role model for kids growing up with sickle cell
Sam Umukoro Interview: Were you treated differently from other players, teammates by the coaches because of your condition?
Ade Adebisi: I would say no, I wasn’t treated differently. What I struggled with was the fitness and that’s just down to the sickle cell because the blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen for me to be able to do what I needed to do. So it was harder for me. The other difficulty with playing rugby was that some people were thinking I was lazy, unfit or wasn’t putting it in enough effort because they didn’t realize that I had a condition;even though you told them they would always think you were using that as an excuse. So that was always difficult for me. Even sometimes when I mentioned that I had sickle cell, they would ask, ‘what’s that?’ They didn’t know what it was anyway, so they couldn’t get their head around it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once said that during every game you always thought that you might let people down on the field of play, why and how did you overcome that?
Ade Adebisi: Basicallythere’s a lot of money involved, includingwinning bonuses, and you don’t want to let your teammates down because you’re too tired to try and make that tackle or do something else. So, it’s just that I always try and think about that and use it to push myself more and go the extra yard and just know that I need to do it, not just for myself, but also for my teammates.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Were you ever in a position where you let them down; did they ever blame you for any loss?
Ade Adebisi: No, it was always the other way round, with me scoring the trials and winning the game for us. It was good because I’ve always been the top trial scorer in most teams I’ve been played in.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you face any form of stigmatisation because you had sickle cell condition?
Ade Adebisi:Yes, everyone with sickle cell condition faces stigma.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did it affect your relationship with the opposite sex?
Ade Adebisi:No, not really. My life has been about rugby, even though they knew I had sickle cell, they just see me as a person who is a professional rugby player. So, it’s always from that point of view. It never affected me.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Were there moments where you had doubts about your ambition because of the sickle cell?
Ade Adebisi:Yes, when I played for Hull FC, I was 18. It was one of the best teams in the country. It was really hard during training. I figured some of the players were talking about me because of my fitness and as a young player, when older players are talking about your fitness and they just think you’re unfit, it gets you down, you know. I thought about quitting then. It was hard; probably the first six months were some of the hardest I had with training and the teammates.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did you overcome that?
Ade Adebisi:I just didn’t bother about it. I simply went to training, did my thing and went home. At the end of the day, I wasn’t there to socialise. It’s like a normal job, you train, you go home and that’s what I did. I thought, well they don’t know that I have sickle cell and they don’t know how much effort it takes to accomplish what I do. So, I just take it that I’m a better person than they are if they can’t see the bigger picture, and even though they can’t see it, they don’t want to see it because they don’t know what sickle cell isn’t, they don’t want to go read about what sickle cell is or they haven’t got time for that, I’ll just do my own thing, I’m better off.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once mentioned Steve Morgan as a big influence in your life. Apart from him, who else has been a big influence in your life?
Ade Adebisi:Steve has been a huge influence in my life. Of course, there are others. I’ve got my CEO; he’s been a great influence also.I’ve never had a father figure and the only person I knew as a father figure was Steve Morgan, I was brought up by my mum. I have my brothers and sisters. My dad died when I was younger, soI didn’t have any person to look up to. It was difficult for me in that sense to try and capture a father figure when there’s no one there apart from your mum.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In an interview, you said rugby has brought you everything. Is there something rugby deprived you of?
Ade Adebisi:Yes, like when your mates go out every Saturday night, and you have to stay in for six months prior to the season. Every time people go out to have parties, I’ve got to be home on Saturday nights watching television because I know I have a game on Sunday. It is a lifestyle. Although rugby has deprived me from having friends apart from rugby friends, it has also brought me good things. It has taught me discipline and fitness. Rugby has taught me never to give up even when I’m tired and feel like I’m going to pass out;it just gives me that passion to want to go that extra yard.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You once mentioned that at some pointyou had to take morphine, how often did you have to take that and what impact did it have on you?
Ade Adebisi:Yes, as a sickle cell patient, every time you have a crisis, you need that, that’s what you need for the pain. The impact it had on me was the drowsiness. It made me sweat a lot when I came back into training. The downside of it was the after effect or side effect, it made you sluggish and gets you depressed.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You’re an ambassador for the Sickle Cell Society. How has that helped to raisethe awareness of the disease?
Ade Adebisi: It has raised the awareness in sports, and I’m going to continue doing my best in raising awareness for the Sickle Cell Society.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What drives you?
Ade Adebisi: Now, I just try and make a sickle cell patient’s life easier. I just tell them it’s not all doom and gloom if you have sickle cell. Of course, it’s not just sickle cell, you can put that into every aspect of life, you know, with young kids out there who think they can’t do this or that, to try and teach the kids that you can do whatever you want to if you can put your heart to it, and if you train hard for it. It’s just that sometimes people expect things to be given to them, life is not like that. Just go out and get it.I’ll be a happy person if I can help people and kids with sickle cell realise that.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Considering that you were raised in a first world country, do you think, if circumstances had changed, you still would have had this positive attitude towards life?
Ade Adebisi: No, I didn’t overcome it because I’m in England; I overcame it because of mental toughness. Everybody has mental toughness. Also, rugby, being a tough game, helped me to overcome it. If I was in Nigeria, and there was a sport, if there was rugby in Nigeria and I was coached the same way, if I was taught to have that mental toughness, it will be the same. It has nothing to do with being here. In fact, the mental toughness of people in Africa should be a lot tougher to what I have gone through.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So, you don’t believe in alibis for failures?
Ade Adebisi: Yes, I don’t. I just think you make your own luck, and no matter what environment you are in, you need a lot of mental toughness. Some people talk themselves out of doing some things, that’s the thing with humans. Like we learnt in rugby, sometimes when you play against a good team, you wonder, ‘this team is so good, how are we going to beat them?’ You’ve already talked yourself out of it before you go onto the pitch. So when it comes to the main game, they are going to obviously run over you, or do whatever they are going to do. I just think the key is mental toughness and that can come from anywhere.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you still work (for Wilson James) as a support manager?
Ade Adebisi: Yes,I still work for him. I’m a specialist service manager. It’s going good, and they support me.
Sam Umukoro Interview: I know you are an Arsenal fan. Outside rugby, being a support service managerand other charity work you do, what other areas of interest do you have?
Ade Adebisi: I’m trying to start my own business. I just want to be successful, establish my own company. I’m thinking of doing a few things in solar. Now that’s what I focus on outside rugby. Maybe it’s because of the way I’ve done things all my life, but it’s hard just to try and sit down and say all I want is something to come to me. I’ll rather go out there and work, and try to be successful in doing just that.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Talking about solar energy, does this mean you are coming to Africa soon?
Ade Adebisi: Yes, to promote solar, rugby,andof course, raise awareness about sickle cell.I’ve already spoken to the Sickle Cell Foundation in Nigeria and hopefully I’m going to go theredo a few things, including teaching rugby in Nigeria. I’m currently in the Nigerian squad for the rugby unit, not rugby league. We are thinking of having a rugby match in Nigeria to raise money for charity. That’s the sort of thing we are thinking of doing. There are a lot of ideas; hopefully at least one will come through. Our main goal is to organisea charity match, maybe in London and then another one in Nigeria, we’ll try and see how that goes.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You’re 26 now. Is there a moment or circumstance that brings joy or a smile to your face or tears to your eyes when you look back?
Ade Adebisi: Oh, yes! When I was 18, 19, I was picked for Great Britain. I played for the Under-19 team against Australia, and France. They picked the best kids from England, Wales and Great Britain. And that to me was huge, especially with the sickle cell. I think that was what always drove me when I was much younger. Also, winning the grand final when I was at Hull, where I scored a trial, that was a big moment for me. Those are the two I can talk about right now, these make me smile.