Wally Lewis calls for $18m change as NRL legend lifts lid on 'fear and embarrassment'

The Brisbane Broncos and Queensland Maroons icon has been doing it tough.

NRL legend Wally Lewis has called for a blanket ban on tackling at training in junior rugby league, while also asking for an $18 million government investment towards support services and education about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The 64-year-old Lewis revealed last year that he'd been diagnosed with a form of dementia and has been told he almost certainly has CTE.

The condition can only be properly diagnosed after death, and is commonly seen in athletes who played contact sports. Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday, the Brisbane Broncos and Queensland Maroons legend called for more government investment and awareness about what living with CTE is like.

Wally Lewis, pictured here with Patrick Carrigan.
Wally Lewis at the National Press Club and alongside Patrick Carrigan. Image: AAP

"It's a journey marked by the twin shadows of fear and embarrassment, a journey through the fog of dementia and the erosion of my memory," he said. "I once had the confidence in myself to succeed, lead a team to victory, captain my country, remember the strengths and weaknesses of opposition teams, organise myself each and every day and feel well and truly in control of my everyday life. Now, much of that confidence has been taken away from me by the effects of probable CTE dementia."


Lewis is part of the Concussion and CTE Coalition, which wants money invested in community awareness and prevention programs. Lewis said on Tuesday that tackling at training should be banned at the junior and amateur level, and techniques around tackling at the elite level must continue to be developed and altered.

Wally Lewis, pictured here at the National Press Club in Canberra.
Wally Lewis at the National Press Club in Canberra.

The former Australia and Queensland captain recalled one experience when he received a concussion and lost control of his body to the point he was urinating in his pants. "From that moment forward we used to make sure every training session was about putting the head in the right spot," he said. "I used to have a challenge for perfection in making sure it didn't play a part in every game I played.

"Technique is probably the No.1 priority, there has to be a perfection of the skills. They're not just practising a simple technique that can stop the opposing players from scoring, they're doing it for the health and wellbeing of the players.

"If it's being seen as too dangerous by the parents of the kids that possibly could play the game, then it's a matter of time before it's the end, the end is coming. You have got to take it to every level possible to be able to encourage people firstly to play, to encourage parents their kids are okay to be playing that sport. It's certainly a situation where the numbers in sport … contact sports, really do appear to be dropping at an alarming rate."

Wally Lewis, pictured here in action for Australia in 1998.
Wally Lewis in action for Australia in 1998.

Lewis was joined on Tuesday by Collingwood premiership player Nathan Murphy, who announced his retirement from the AFL earlier this month due to a string of concussions. The 24-year-old, who played his last game in the 2023 grand final, said more education is needed at the grassroots level to create a safer playing environment.

"I coach a school team and there's kids there who are suffering concussion, but they get told to miss three weeks of football - it's very hard for them to understand," he said. "If they're educated on this stuff, and they know the consequences, that's where the impacts can come. (Collingwood had a training) block called the fundamentals which is all about making our technique perfect (but) growing up in school football and local football we didn't get taught that."

Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression, while some patients go on to develop motor neuron disease or Parkinson's disease. It is the only preventable form of dementia, with estimates that several thousand people are affected by the condition.

"Imagine a life where the tapestry of memories that define your very essence begins to unravel," Lewis said. "I am living with the constant fear and anxiety that I'll let people down. This is my reality and the reality for all those living with dementia. One thing we do know is that CTE is the only form of dementia that is preventable, and we only get one brain."