Five years after his NRL career was cruelly cut short by a debilitating illness that could have killed him, Ryan Stig is taking the first tentative steps towards an unlikely rugby league return.
For the past three weeks, the former Knights playmaker has been dipping his toe in the water, training with the club’s NSW Cup squad.
Stig stops short of talking up a potential comeback but admits that even at the height of his illness, he never lost his passion for the game.
“I’ve done more running in the last few weeks than I’ve done in the past five years, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised how the body has handled the load,” Stig said.
“I’m enjoying it and I’d love to play again. But in saying that, I’m still conscious that my health and my family comes first and I won’t be jeopardising that.”
Stig burst onto the scene in 2011 and after a man-of-the match performance against the Dragons in just his third top-grade game for the Knights, he appeared to have the rugby-league world at his feet.
He went on to play 13 games for Newcastle that season under coach Rick Stone, including the playoff loss to Melbourne, and was rewarded with a two-year contract by incoming coach Wayne Bennett.
But in early 2012, the former Australian Schoolboys playmaker was sidelined with a blood clot behind his eye and then battled chronic fatigue-type symptoms that saw his health deteriorate.
It took two years for specialists to diagnose Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by ticks, but treating the illness proved more complicated than anticipated.
“I had a lot of neurological issues and towards the end of 2013, there was damage to the brain and I was in a bad way,” Stig said. “I started to lose effective function of my limbs and I just wasn’t getting good results from traditional treatment which is when we started looking at alternatives. “I knew if it blew out for another year – people I know have died because they didn’t get the right treatment and were too sick to travel.”
At the recommendation of specialists, Stig went to Mexico for stem-cell therapy and vitamin courses in late 2013 for limited results.
But it was after a decision to travel to Germany the following year, that Stig finally felt like he was headed in the right direction.
“I underwent hyperthermia treatment,” he said. “They put me to sleep, almost like I was on life support, and heated up my body to 42 degrees and held me there for eight hours. “I felt that treatment was the trigger that finally got me going in the right direction.”
Indicative of his strong motivation to beat the disease was Stig’s decision to take the advice of a friend the following year and go on a water fast.
Remarkably, over a five-week period, he ate nothing and drank only water.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life but it is right up there with the best things I have ever done,” he said. The idea behind it is the body uses a lot of energy for digestion but when there is nothing to digest, it turns its attention to healing. I lost 20 kgs but it was instrumental in me getting better.”
Stig has been on another two water fasts since, and in mid-2016 travelled to Swiss clinic Paracelsus for more hyperthermia treatment.
“Up until then, it was all about trying to fight the disease and kill it but I finally felt I was winning the battle,” he said.
Stig says his wife, Andrea, has been an enormous support and his family [daughters Norah 3, and Hazel, 6 weeks] are his priority, but he is also looking into a foundation to help people like him who can’t get answers.