Bobby Copping went up for a routine header in a training game last July. He ended up in hospital for four days after suffering a mini seizure, losing his sight and going numb down one side of his body.
The Peterborough United defender hoped it was a one-off “freak accident”.
But in his comeback game the same thing happened. The injury has ended his career at just 19, having just started to make his breakthrough to the first team.
“That’s what makes it scary is how quick things can change because I was absolutely flying, playing really well, doing everything I could to be the best I can and then I headed a ball and my career is finished,” he told BBC Sport.
‘Still suffering with symptoms’
After the reoccurrence of the injury, Copping was sent to see a specialist and was diagnosed with trauma triggering episodes.
He’d never experienced any problems at any point of his career and had been heading a ball since he started playing football for Norwich, aged eight.
“I’m still suffering with the symptoms now on a day-to-day basis,” he says.
“I have memory problems and being a young lad that’s quite worrying but hopefully that will get better over time. I can’t be a passenger in a car because I get really bad sickness and just general headaches, and when I get them, I have to sleep them off.”
He tried taking medication, but it left him bedbound. “It completely knocked me out and I literally couldn’t move,” he says, while another drug available could have caused long term damage to his health.
“That’s the sort of thing that we weighed up and thought I don’t want to risk my long-term health and major organs, so we all came to conclusion that the best decision was to retire,” he said.
Peterborough United have been supporting Copping and have given him an off the field role in business operations. Manager Darren Ferguson dedicated the club’s win over AFC Wimbledon to the teenager and has been in contact with his family throughout the process.
Copping says working for the club has stopped him reflecting too much on the injury.
“I know that there was probably a two-week spell which was very bad for me, where I sort of sat in my room in the dark all day everyday not talking to anyone just eating rubbish and thinking about it all day,” he says. “So, I’m glad that I’ll be able to go straight into that and I’m enjoying it.
“It’s been a horrible situation, not just for me but for my whole family because in any interview I do, I say that they have invested so much into my journey.”
‘I you’re not heading the ball from eight years old that’s going to help’
There have been growing concern over links between head injuries in football and dementia, with studies set-up and concussion substitutes have been introduced into the professional game.
Although it has not been confirmed if heading the ball led to Copping having to retire, he believes that this is a step in the right direction.
“Your brain is your future and football is a very small amount of someone’s life,” he said.
“These things need to be looked at more in depth and taken seriously because I’ve seen my situation – one day and then everything’s changed. So, if we can do more to prevent these sorts of things then anything like that is great.
“I don’t know directly whether that’s caused this or something just came on. But you look at it and think if you’re not heading the ball from eight years old and then that’s probably going to help.”
He has received amazing support from the world of football. As well as messages from Africa, Brazil and Spain. England captain and Tottenham striker Harry Kane has reached out and sent him a shirt. Chelsea and England player Reece James has also been in touch offering his support and a meal out in London once the pandemic is over.
“My objective now is to help other people,” says Copping.
“Whether that is raising awareness for head injuries in football or any other sport, or whether that’s raising awareness for mental health because I know at one point after this after what’s happened and all through it it’s been a struggle.
“If I can help as many people as possible get through dark patches and raise awareness for certain things, then I’ll be a happy man.
“The advice I’d give is treat every game like it’s your last. I’ve been unfortunate enough to know what it’s like when it does just change overnight.”