Over the last two weeks we have been sharing the personal stories of several Vulcans and today we are sharing something equally as special. Tom Stephens joined the Sheffield Vulcans in August 2019 and since then he has deep-rooted himself in the team to exist as one of our most valued players. Off the pitch has forged life-long friendships and has used his time to combat his personal demons. This is Tom’s story:
After a series of collapses, seizures, second degree burns, and a multitude of other medical anomalies, I had spent 3 years of university unable to sit any exams and feeling like I wasn’t going anywhere. I made the hard decision to take a year out of uni and move back home in hopes that a change of scenery might alleviate the rut I’d found myself in. It worked to some degree; I no longer thought of myself stuck at the end of those long 3 years. However, I was now isolated away from the friends I’d lived around for 6 years, feeling like I’d somehow given up or failed. I withdrew into myself, preparing for a year of simply waiting for it to be over. I barely left the house and was sleeping into the afternoon most days. I was in an unhealthy place, both physically and emotionally.
A month or so before Sheffield Pride I heard about a local inclusive rugby club which trained close to me. I’d had a passion for rugby when I was younger but had lost touch with it in the years since secondary school. Finding a need for both physical exercise and something to get me out of the house, I wanted to give it a try, but fear stopped me walking 10 minutes down the road and throw a ball around. A stupid fear that I’d be terrible, and people would laugh at me. A stupid fear that my lack of fitness would make me stand out for all the wrong reasons. I thought that even though the Vulcans were branded as ‘inclusive’, somehow that wouldn’t apply to me. A lot of stupid reasons when I think about it now, but back then they all seemed very real. When Sheffield Pride finally came around, I headed down to Endcliffe park with the intention of stopping by the Vulcans stall just to have a quick look and see what I was missing. That’s when I noticed the Vulcans were throwing a party that night. Whilst I may have been self-conscious about my sports prowess, my ability to drink has never been in doubt and so I went out. That night was exactly what I needed to snap me out of my fears. Instead of me standing in a corner awkwardly dancing, several of the Vulcans made a clear point to chat to me and bring me into other conversations. I didn’t feel like the new guy that people felt obliged to speak to, I felt like I was with people who wanted to get to know me. I decided that the Vulcans might be a place for me after all.
3 days after Sheffield Pride and the amazing after party, I attended my first training session. It was miserable weather, I was exhausted and sweaty, and I didn’t care about any of that. I had fun. I proved to be just as out of shape as I thought I was and had forgotten most of what I knew about how to play, though there was no judgement from anyone there. Getting out of the house for an hour of rugby gave me back some of the energy I’d lost in the last 3 years. It wasn’t some miracle cure for everything I was thinking and feeling, but I knew I needed to go back for the next session. Training quickly became my favourite part of the week partially for the rugby, more for the wonderful people I was getting to know. I joined at the same time as a few other players, and having some fellow newbies definitely made me feel better about how I compared to everyone else, but It soon became apparent that this wasn’t a club where being new meant you were on the outside. Within a few weeks I realised that my teammates were going to become my friends whether I wanted it or not. The worst year of my life was beginning to turn around.
As I began settling into the team properly and played my first game as a Vulcan, my worries over being accepted had completely gone. What I was scared about now was not being good enough and letting everyone down. Before this year, I would have let that fear sit with me while doing nothing to change the situation. Instead, I listened to the voices of the people around me. When you’re surrounded by so many incredible friends and role models, it’s hard not to take in what they say to you. I worked hard at improving not just my physical fitness, but the way I viewed exercise in general. I started to see my fitness as a measure of both my physical well-being and how much I cared about myself. In order to improve my ability on the pitch and impress the people I care about; I’d have to start treating myself better. It sounds like a terrible cliché to say that this rugby team changed my life, so instead I’ll say that joining the Vulcans changed the way I looked at myself and the value I put on things. For several months I continued to improve myself and make sure I earned the spot on the team that meant so much to me. Unfortunately, things started to decline for me very quickly when lockdown began.
Going from seeing my friends at least once a week to suddenly not seeing them for months hit me hard. I began to slide into my old unhealthy habits almost immediately. I retreated back into myself, barely talking to the people I considered my close friends and leaving the house only to go to work. The sudden halt of routine exercise and lack of motivation to work led to a rather rapid weight gain which only further demoralised me. I was back in a slump that had no clear end in sight, the exact circumstances I had taken a year out to escape from. This would not last for too long thankfully, as the friends I’d made in the Vulcans weren’t going to just let me feel sorry for myself. In particular, I want to give massive credit to Tiago and Lefty, for sending me so many messages and terrible Instagram memes that it was truly impossible to ignore them. Starting by getting me to just reply to messages and not cut people off, my teammates were dragging me out of the slump. The initiation of a weekly zoom quiz and subsequent after-dark hangout helped to somewhat restore the social interactions I desperately missed. Introduction of a weekly Strava leaderboard for the team gave me the incentive to start exercising, building back up from just walking to running again. Piece by piece, the joy and well-being I had lost was coming back, and every part of it was thanks to the Vulcans. Pushing myself with a flood of support around me, I started running greater distances than I’d run before, and topped the Strava leaderboard multiple times, a small achievement that means a lot to me. With the restart of small group training sessions and more in-person interactions, there has been a significant boost in the progress I’ve made, and things look increasingly positive going forward.
Looking toward the future, my relationship with the team is going to be changing. I’ll be returning to the University of Birmingham in September, and as such will be leaving the Vulcans. However, I know for a fact that I won’t be leaving the friendships I’ve made here behind me. I’ll be keeping in touch with many of my teammates and I’ll be visiting every chance I get. One year ago, I was making plans on how to make it through my year away from uni, now I’m looking forward to completing my degree next year so I can make a full return to the Vulcans. This inclusive rugby club taught me a lot about how to play rugby, but it taught me far more about what’s truly important and for that I will always be grateful.
We’d like to take this opportunity to thank Tom for everything he’s brought and continues to bring to the Vulcans. Tom might be leaving Sheffield for the delights of Birmingham to complete his studies, but we don’t need to tell him that his spot on the Vulcans will be waiting on his return.