SIX months after Matt Hilder feared a succession of big hits had ended his career, the Newcastle Knights warhorse is preparing for a return to the NRL’s school of hard knocks.
Hilder, 30, missed almost two months of last season as he recovered from brain trauma caused by a series of concussions that left him suffering from headaches, blurred vision and amnesia.
Told by his neurological specialist to ‘‘take six weeks off and come back and see me’’, Hilder spent much of that period pondering the prospect of enforced retirement.
‘‘There was definitely a lot of thinking about where I was going to go after footy,’’ Hilder told the Herald yesterday. ‘‘But whatever will be will be.
‘‘I didn’t want my career to end there, but I also wanted to look after myself.
‘‘I didn’t want to risk any further damage. I’ve got a wife and three kids, so I wanted to be able to give them my full attention. I didn’t want to be walking around in a daze for the rest of my years.’’
Hilder, who has averaged more than 30 tackles a game in 95 matches for Newcastle, became concerned about his well-being early last season.
‘‘I was playing a reserve-grade game and I was seeing blurry rings and stuff. I’d been having a bit of trouble with my memory and so I went and saw the specialist.
‘‘Most games I was playing I’d get the slightest little hit and it would sort of rattle me more than usual, so that was another reason I went and saw the doctor.’’
The diagnosis unnerved the battle-hardened veteran more than any opponent.
‘‘He said I had a bit of fluid sitting there [on the brain], so he suggested I have six weeks off to let it calm down.’’
Hilder’s symptoms seemed remarkably similar to those that threatened the rugby union career of Wallabies and Waratahs star Berrick Barnes.
‘‘The funny thing is only maybe once or twice I’ve been knocked out cold, where I’ve woken up on the ground out of it,’’ Hilder said.
‘‘But I’ve had a lot of knocks where you get whacked and you’re a bit dazed for a while, and the doc says that takes its toll. I’ve been playing footy all my life and I guess it just takes its toll.’’
After the longest six weeks of his life, Hilder underwent MRI scans and a series of cognitive tests and was cleared to resume playing.
He returned late in 2012 and played a handful of games in Newcastle’s NSW Cup team, but said: ‘‘I still wasn’t back to my usual self.’’
Now he is in full training with Wayne Bennett’s NRL squad and steeling himself for a top-grade comeback.
‘‘I’ve done all the tests and everything and I’ve seen a few guys, and they’ve all said I’m perfectly fine to return to playing and there’s no worries, so I’ve got a bit of confidence to go back in there,’’ he said.
Hilder said he had been treated by a number of specialists but in particular Professor Chris Levi, who is researching brain trauma and rugby league players – a high-profile topic after recent revelations in the US linking repeated concussions and a type of dementia known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
‘‘I think the whole world’s going a bit safety-conscious and sport’s just following that way,’’ Hilder said.
‘‘I think it’s a good thing. You’ve got to look after the players. But it [the risk] is no different to what it was 30 or 40 years ago, and those blokes seem to be all right.’’
One of Newcastle’s fittest players, Hilder has added five kilograms of muscle in the pre-season and hopes that will help him win a position in Bennett’s forward rotation.
He needs just five more NRL appearances to register a twin milestone – his 100th game for the Knights and the 200th of his career.
But the popular clubman would swap both individual landmarks for the chance to play in the finals and challenge for a premiership.
‘‘That’s what I’ve wanted to do since I first started playing,’’ he said.
Off contract at the end of this season, Hilder’s dramas of 2012 have not dimmed his passion for the game.
‘‘I’m realistic and it could be my last year,’’ he said.
‘‘I’m looking to give it all I’ve got and hopefully I can hang around for another couple of years.
‘‘But you can’t always get what you want, so I’m just looking forward to playing it like my last.
‘‘I just want to get back there and finish my career on a good note over the next couple of years or however long.’’