Mark Hughes battles brain cancer

The story has been told before. And, like most rugby league stories, it grows every time it gets an airing. It never gets old …

Newcastle and the Hunter have partied for days after the Newcastle Knights won the 1997 ARL grand final against Manly.

The last two men standing are captain Paul Harragon and spindly winger Mark Hughes. They are standing in the middle of the Empire Hotel on Hunter Street.

The Empire Hotel is the 24-hour bar every joint like Newy needs. At 6am, that’s where you’ll find the desperates, the bikies, the wharfies and shift workers. Think of the bar scene from Star Wars.
Harragon isn’t standing. He’s sitting on a stool, asleep, leaning up against the men’s toilet door. Nobody can get past him let alone say anything because, well, it’s the Chief. He’s just inspired the Knights to their first premiership.

“That’s when I thought it was time for the big man to go,” Hughes recalls. “I walked across and threw him over my shoulder. I tell people it must’ve looked like the Winfield Cup, with Norm Provan cuddling Arthur Summons. I got him up and people formed a guard of honour. They gave the big man a big clap as he was carried out. We got to the footpath and fell over. I used Chief as a cushion. Then I put him in a cab. Chief’s such a mentor and a leader, it’s nice that I could help him once.”

The Empire Hotel is now gone, all part of the gentrification of Newcastle from a big country town best known for its steelworks to an urbane harbour city with a thriving university and, soon, a light rail.

We meet in a busy café not far from where the Empire once stood, and not far from Civic Park, where Knights players crowd surfed across the top of delirious fans as the Screaming Jets played an impromptu concert to celebrate the 1997 premiership.

Hughes has needed plenty of love and support in the last four years after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. More than two decades after he slung his 112-kilogram captain over one shoulder, his teammates have been carrying their popular teammate through the toughest of periods.

They have walked the Kokoda Trail, climbed to base camp at Mount Everest and essentially done whatever is needed to support the Mark Hughes Foundation, which has raised more than $5 million to fund research into brain cancer.

Before that, they drove him to specialist appointments, to treatments and now the scan every four months that tells Mark Hughes if he’s going to be OK.

This weekend, for the second year, the entire game is behind the Beanies for Brain Cancer round, which is already starting to look and feel like the annual Pink Test at the SCG that supports those suffering from breast cancer.

“‘Boozy’ is one of those players every club needs,” says Andrew Johns, the halfback from 1997. “He keeps all of us together, he’s the glue. When he needed help, we were always going to be there for him. It’s just what we do.”

Andrew Johns helps sell fundraising beanies from the Mark Hughes Foundation in Townsville.

Says Hughes: “Everyone rallied around me. I had so much support from all my old teammates. One day, Joey drove from Sydney on a Friday to John Hunter Hospital to spend a couple of hours with me before driving back to Penrith to call a match for Channel Nine.”

Hughes is the type of man you want to rally around.

This reporter first met him in his parents’ kitchen in Kurri Kurri in April 1997, just before he made his first-grade debut for the Knights. It was all ahead of him, the good and the bad. As a player, he came on late, winning a local competition with Kurri before the Knights started getting interested in him. When he first walked into training, Matty Johns took one look at his gangly frame and said: “How can that guy be a footballer?”

Hughes’ former teammates take great delight in telling the story from grand final week in 1997 when one Sydney newspaper published profiles of each player. “Shoulders like a brown snake. How is he even playing first grade?” was the description alongside his head shot.

He played 187 matches for Knights, in their 1997 and 2001 premiership-winning sides, and also three State of Origins for NSW.

“I had limited tools but I squeezed everything I could out of the lemon,” he says. “I wasn’t the big explosive guy. I just worked to what strengths I had and with the players I was with.”

His life turned sharply in July 2013. He started suffering severe headaches and couldn’t get out of bed for days. Scans revealed a tumour that needed to be removed.

“They first thought it might be a low grade but they can’t tell until the surgery,” Hughes says. “I was busting to get the answer. But it seemed to get a bit worse each time I spoke to them until the eventual answer came. It was grade three. Before the operation I was told you want grade one or two, but don’t get three or four.”

This time last year, I interviewed Nine rugby league boss Matt Callander, who was the driving force behind last year’s brain cancer round. He said he refused to research his brain-cancer diagnosis on Google because it would send him down a rabbit hole.

“Nope,” says Hughes. “Never Googled. It was four years ago, which is good because I’m still here. There are times when you are wondering if you’re going to make your 40th birthday. You think about your kids. About all the milestones you are going to miss. Then I had to start taking control of my thoughts because you can really wander off and go into some bad places. If you start controlling what you are thinking about, everything is better.”

Death is something Hughes has had to grapple with as much as trying to give hope. He’s met countless of people who have been devastated by brain cancer. There’s the guy who died a year after getting married. Another who never met his unborn child. It is the biggest killer of children under 10 and people under 40. Callander’s death late last year rocked him harder than most, though.

Mark Hughes with Cowboys supporters in Townsville.

“You know it’s coming but it still hurts,” Hughes says. “You can’t help but wonder, ‘When is it my turn?’ This is the thing about brain cancer: nobody will ever tap you on the shoulder and say you’ve beaten it. That day is not going to come for me. I get scans every four months and as long as I pass those scans everything is good for the next four months.

“It’s a good thing to be getting scans because if I am not getting scans I know what the alternative is. I know Matt Callander would like to be getting scans every four months. And I know all the other people with brain cancer who want to be getting scans. I hope it’s something I have to deal with for a while. That’s the life of a brain cancer patient. People who have it and are dealing with it will know exactly what I am talking about. It’s not a cancer where you get tapped on the shoulder and they say, ‘Well done, mate. You’ve graduated’. That’s why I live in the now.”

Living in the now: it sounds like a cliché. An Oprah-ism. For Hughes and others afflicted with such a brutal cancer, it’s the only way they can live their lives.

“Through the foundation, I meet many people with brain cancer and their families can be destroyed in six to 18 months. It’s luck of the draw. I look at it and go, ‘I’m lucky here’. For some reason, I am staying around. I don’t believe you are here for a reason because I have seen too much devastation. I do believe that some people are better equipped to handle certain situations than others. I can handle it. I know I’ve got a mission to solve the answers to this problem. I need to stick around.”

Harragon says he has no recollection of that morning at the Empire Hotel.

“I was still snoring when he picked me up,” he laughs, before offering this: “We were down at Bondi earlier this week, setting a world record for the biggest gathering of people wearing beanies. I nudged him and said, ‘This is all you, mate’. He might have slender shoulders but he’s got a lion heart.”

When we finish our interview, the waiter tells us we don’t have to pay. A woman, who has already left, has covered the bill. Hughes is genuinely blown away and humbled. Then he smiles.

“They must’ve thought I was Kurt Gidley.”

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