Cowboys star relives brain bleed terror
Te Maire Martin suddenly felt a crushing sensation, like his brain was about to explode.
The Cowboys utility back was 35,000 feet in the air on a domestic flight. Totally helpless. As the plane began its descent, Martin put his hands to his head in a desperate bid to stem the pain.
His teammate Michael Morgan, sitting next to him, was jolted by Martin's reaction.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Martin had run onto Sydney's ANZ Stadium to be bashed by 100kg Canterbury forwards, all the while unaware he had a bleed on his brain.
"It all came as a big shock," Martin says.
"The whole ordeal just sort of crept up on me."
Today, Martin speaks for the first time about the most harrowing ordeal of his NRL career. He returned to Cowboys training on Tuesday, 73 days after being diagnosed with a small bleed on his brain which put his NRL career in jeopardy.
The bad news is Martin won't play again this season. The good news is fresh scans last month have shown his minor bleed has fully healed, with brain specialists telling the playmaker they see no reason why he cannot resume his NRL career in 2020.
But amid Martin's renewed appreciation for how fleeting good health and a top-level rugby league career can be, the New Zealand Test ace is left with the nagging frustration of finding solutions to questions that may never be answered.
How on earth did a fit and healthy 23-year-old, in the prime of his life, suffer a brain bleed?
"We did a whole load of tests, but so far, even the best brain specialists in the country haven't been able to work out how it happened," Martin says.
"I did some blood tests last week to try and work out about 20 factors that may have caused it and I'm awaiting the results of that.
"It's been a shock for the doctors as well. I've seen a number of specialists and we have gone through all the games, gone through all the tapes, and looked for some big collisions.
"We've found nothing.
"I saw a specialist in Brisbane, Peter Lucas, and he seems to think it was a one-in-a-million occurrence. I asked him some questions about whether I will play again and he says I will be fine to play.
"According to the experts, I'm as much chance of getting it again as anybody else, so that's the best news I've had so far."
Martin's sighting at Cowboys training on Tuesday triggered speculation he could be back this year to help the club's finals push, but he is taking no risks.
"I'm definitely not coming back this year," he said.
"I'm pretty gutted that I can't play this year, but it's a relief to know that I can play next year.
"There were some fears that I might have to retire because if I got another head knock that I might need care for the rest of my life. It has been scary, but on the plus side it's comforting to know I can play again.
"I'm not rushing back into it. At first, I said I'm coming back the minute the headaches go away, but it's taken a few doctors to point out to me how serious this is.
"The Cowboys have been fantastic. Paul Green (coach) rang me every second day to ask if I was OK and if I wanted someone to pick me up to bring me to watch training. The boys always wanted to visit me at home to see how I was.
"I don't have any symptoms, no headaches, no sickness, so I'm back training which is good. We are building slowly.
"I haven't done any contact work. The last test is getting through contact. If I can do that without any more headaches, that will give me complete confidence I will be able to play again and eventually get back on the field."
The inside story on Martin's brain battle is frightening.
His head pounding, he twice took ibuprofen tablets just to get through the Bulldogs game, once in the sheds before kick-off and again at half-time.
The pain had started a week earlier against the Warriors.
"Before the Warriors game (in round six), I was getting a little headache once a day," he recalls.
"I didn't think anything of it, so I played the Warriors and then the week after I was getting headaches twice a day.
"The morning of the Bulldogs when I woke up, I had a virtual migraine, my head was hurting whenever I moved.
"I decided to play anyway.
"We were doing shoulder pummels just before the game in the warm-up and everytime I was hitting my teammate, it felt like my brain was banging around in my head.
"I stopped and thought, 'Geez something isn't right here'. I took two Nurofen before the game. I played the first half and my head was still sore. So I took some more Nurofen at half-time and managed to finish, but after the game, I started to think I need to do something.
"The next day, I feel asleep on the plane and as the plane started to land, I woke up. It felt like something was squeezing my head, like it could explode.
"It was so painful I started grabbing my head with my hands. 'Morgo' was sitting next to me and he said, 'Mate, what's going on, are you OK?'
"I then told him about the headaches."
Scans the following day uncovered the brain bleed. Martin was initially so crook he struggled to talk.
"It was a head pain I couldn't shake off no matter what I did," he said.
"Even little things became hard. Driving a car was making me sick. Watching TV was too much, all the bright lights would give me headaches, so I'd close the curtains and try and sleep for days and days.
"For an active guy like myself, I just wanted to be outside enjoying life, but I was stuck on the couch.
"My parents flew in from New Zealand to help cook me breakfast and dinner while I was there resting in my room.
"It was bloody boring. I got through a lot of TV series. Even talking on the phone for too long would make me sick."
His head healed, Martin now has something else on his brain - his future in the NRL. He is currently off-contract and hopes to remain at the Cowboys club he famously steered to the 2017 grand final.
"It's pretty tough," he concedes.
"I'm off-contract and it's hard to negotiate with anyone when you aren't playing footy. No-one will want to sign someone with a head condition who may not play for another nine months.
"I love it at the Cowboys so hopefully they can sign me up for another year or two. My manager says clubs are taking a wait-and-see approach because they don't want to spend money on a guy who can't play which is fair enough.
"But my preference is to stay here. I love it in Townsville. The people are friendly and the whole area reminds me of being back home in New Zealand, so I don't want to leave the Cowboys.
"I'd love to repay the club for all the support they have shown me through a tough time like this."