To this day, Dale Middleton dreams of playing in the NRL, but a freak on-field accident prematurely ended his promising career.
Dale Middleton had the recipe for NRL success: he was talented, fast, had caught the eye of the right people, and had the determination to make his dream come true; but this all ended in a heart beat when he received a career-ending blow.
The 25-year-old Sydneysider laced up his first pair of footy boots at the ripe age of 10 for his local club, the Sawtell Panthers. By 13 he was representing the NSW Mid North Coast in group two representative football, and by 15 he was playing well above his age in an under 18s squad: it was here his dreams to play in the National Rugby League (NRL) competition began.
“When I was watching the big boys play and the professionals my first thought was ‘man that would be great to go play with them’, I idolised them and that’s where the dream began,” Mr Middleton told The Newsroom.
Local, notable football heavyweights said the small town boy was destined for success and was on the right path to reach his NRL dream. At 18 he was approached by an Intrust Super Cup (Q Cup) scout who offered him a position to play in the Colts Cup: an under 20s competition that covers a wide area of Queensland.
“It was nerve-racking, I had five days to decide weather I wanted to make the move away from my family and friends, but professional footy was my dream and I just followed my heart,” he said.
After an impressive Colts Cup season on the Sunshine Coast, he received an offer to play for Penrith in the Toyota Cup: the under 20’s version of the NRL, where he played one season. He eventually made his way back to the Sunshine State to play in the Q Cup, where he signed with the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles.
By now Dale felt as through he had the world at his feet; he was making a mark on the Queensland competition, was happy with the physical gains he’d worked so hard to attain, and was mentally ready to take the next steps to reach his goal. It was then a freak accident happened which turned the young man’s world upside down.
Two seasons into his Q Cup debut, the then 22-year-old was playing North Brisbane in a tough match; as he ran up the sideline, an opposition forward dived in from the side while throwing his bodyweight of 115 kilograms onto Dale’s ankle.
“In the tackle I heard a crack, but it wasn’t for a few seconds till I looked down at my ankle and it was facing a 90 degree angle.
“I thought it was a dream but then the pain started kicking in and I went into a bit of a panic thinking ‘Am I going to lose my leg?’
“It’s just something your body is not prepared to see, it was pretty gruesome,” Dale said.
Dale laid on the field for 40 minutes after the tackle, waiting for an ambulance to arrive; to make matters worse, the host club had no pain relief available, which Dale said made the experience all the more traumatising.
Dale compound dislocated his tibia and compound fractured his fibula during the tackle. That was it. Dale’s dream career was over in the blink of an eye. However, despite this he remains in good spirit that it was just an unlucky blow.
“It was a freak accident, there could be a tackle like that 100 times and nothing would happen, but just this time yeah I was unlucky,” he said.
Dale’s accident happened on the same field where James Ackerman received the tragic blow that took his life in June this year. Dale is heartbroken for the young father-of-two, but was thankful to hear the football club and local ambulance service had ample fast care available for James, suggesting they may have learnt from his injury.
“I’m glad the club [Brisbane North’s club] now have some kind of pain relief available to help an innocent person struggling with injury or something along those lines,” Dale said.
After the injury Dale took six months off to heal, he eventually played another season, but due to other parts of his body overcompensating for the injury, he unfortunately couldn’t regain his pre-injury form.
Dale gained numerous other injuries during this time, including a dislocated elbow. He also found the distressing experience hard to forget while on the field – often pulling back on plays due to the fear of a re-break.
Dale had to make the difficult decision to give up the sport he loved so much, and said the injury is still with him, mentally and physically.
“I think of the break on a daily basis really, and I feel it everyday, it’s something you can’t forget too easily.”
Injury aside, league is still a big part of Dale’s life; he watches NRL avidly throughout the season and when he gets the chance, goes to matches when his past clubs are playing. He also admits, like many other NRL enthusiasts, he’s unhealthily addicted to Fantasy Football.
“Even to this day I’d still love to play NRL, but I haven’t been fortunate with injuries, but definitely through my whole footy career I chased the dream until it inevitably became unable to obtain,” he said.
Dale’s advice for other young men following their dream to NRL stardom.
“Some of the best memories of my life happened through footy, so if you love the sport then follow your dreams, whatever they may be.”
He said not many players get to play the game they love while being handsomely paid for it, so if you love what you’re doing then go for it as it’s worth the risk.
However, when it comes to injury Dale stresses all players should listen to their bodies and make sure they have a ‘life after footy’ plan, in order to make sure players have other things in life to look forward to. – Photo and report by Charmaine Perry
Top photo of Middleton now watching on from the sideline.