Former Red Voss offers mental health support following Coventry release
‘I MIGHT be 6-feet 6 and weight 19 stone, but mental health can affect anyone ... it’s okay to say you’re struggling.’
Day-to-day life has taken on countless burdens in recent months as communities around the globe attempt to adapt to a once-in-a-century pandemic, alongside incalculable consequences to overall wellbeing that could, for some, take years to overcome.
For Jersey Reds academy product James Voss, those consequences represent a rather sour ‘icing’ on top of what was already a challenging period, but he is now taking solace from the fact that he is converting previous frailties into a stronger future.
Released by Championship outfit Coventry earlier this month as part of the club’s attempts to plug a £1.5million financial hole, Voss admits he has struggled to deal with the fall from the brink of Premiership rugby with Leicester Tigers – caused in no small part by severe and successive bouts of concussion.
The former St George’s School pupil, who celebrated his 26th birthday this week, is taking time to reassess his options this summer while promoting the work of mental health charities that have provided him with a crucial outlet.
‘Time away from rugby has been really good for me,’ said second-rower Voss, who left Jersey for Tigers midway through the 2017/18 campaign. ‘It’s a good time for me to step back and reflect on what I want to do.
‘It was a volatile industry before the pandemic and now people are losing money out of their ears with the [Championship] season being cancelled. I’m lucky that I don’t have a mortgage or kids to provide for ... it’s a really tough time for professional sport.
‘Going from having a job next year to finding out I don’t – it came as a surprise and it was the icing on a very tough year. But I’ve come through the other side now and I feel like I’m in a good place, which is down to the support I’ve had around me.’
Describing the path taken since his departure from St Peter in 2018, Voss said: ‘I signed for Leicester and I think I had quite a good start. I was in a travelling squad for Sale and I was fortunate enough to play against Treviso and Cardiff Blues in pre-season [2018/19], which was an awesome experience. Then I was told I was going on loan to Coventry, which I was absolutely fine with and I played the first six games for them. Matt O’Connor [Leicester director of rugby] pulled me in after those six games and said he wanted to terminate the loan deal and bring me back to Leicester full-time. That meeting was in the morning and in the afternoon he was sacked. Leicester were having a tough time and they weren’t winning many games, so they got rid of him. It was all a bit crazy.
‘I had correspondence with Geordan Murphy when he came in and he said he was keen to get me back on board, but then other things took priority. I was not a marquee player so I went to the bottom of the list.
‘I carried on at Coventry and didn’t hear much back from Leicester. Then I had a concussion, which put me out for about three months, and after a few games back I had another concussion. I was out for another two months after that.
‘I went through a dark stage with my mental health. I was in a bad spot with the concussion and the pressure of being injured in a professional sports environment and then Leicester decided I wasn’t going to be a part of their plans. They had signed some high-end second-rows, so I went full-time with Coventry.’
A full-time deal in the Championship offered a solid platform for Voss to rebuild, but that opportunity was also taken from him.
‘I had another head knock which put me back to square one,’ he explained. ‘That put me in a dark space and I was seeing a counsellor but then Covid came in and Coventry had to cut their squad from 56 to 19. They found a loophole in my contract and said they couldn’t afford to keep me on, so they terminated the contract a year early and the counselling ended.
‘It was a really tough time on and off the field. Within the space of 18 months I went from nearly achieving my dream of playing Premiership rugby to having no job.’
He added: ‘Everyone’s got their own pressures, especially in the world we’re in now, but there is a way out. I’m a massive advocate of charities like Noggin Sport [formed by former Reds back-row Conor Joyce] and Mind and I want people to know that there are people around who are only a phone call away. I might be 6-feet 6 and weigh 19 stone but mental health can affect anyone, it doesn’t discriminate and it’s okay for people to say they’re struggling. If me speaking out gives others the strength to say they’ve had struggles too, then I’ll feel proud to have had that effect.
‘I want to get heavily involved in mental-health awareness and hopefully use the platform I seem to have gotten from rugby to raise that awareness. I want to organise a march in Jersey, after Covid, so people can have a walk and meet new people. I think it would be a powerful message, having lots of people from different social circles in the same place, showing that people are stronger together.
‘It’s a show of strength, saying you’ve had struggles, not weakness.’
Covid-induced uncertainty is complicating matters in terms of finding a new rugby chapter, although Voss admits he would be at peace with retirement from the professional game.
‘If I do step away from rugby now I will be happy with what I’ve achieved,’ he said. ‘But I still believe I can play Premiership rugby. The decision will make itself over the coming months.’
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