Joe Ansbro can still remember his dad climbing in the car with a lampshade on his head.
“My dad had been testing whether I fit into his car by putting a lampshade on his head apparently, in trying all these different ways to get in.”
The former Scotland centre smiles at the thought of it now. Yet the bizarre image was borne out of paternal worry and genuine fear for his son’s wellbeing – a son who just weeks earlier had been carried off a rugby pitch with a broken neck and now had to adjust to life with a halo brace screwed to his head.
Ansbro’s tale is quite extraordinary. A talented centre who became the first black man to play Test rugby union for Scotland in 2010, and who would go on to suffer a brutal neck fracture two years later.
Now a teacher at Harrow School, he admits he is defined these days by none of the above, but as “that bloke who headbutted Ally Strokosch when Scotland beat Australia” by his eagle-eyed pupils.
Ansbro can still remember plenty about the afternoon of 24 August 2012. A pre-season match against Munster for London Irish started like any other, but ended in a horrific injury that would cut short his rugby career at the age of 27.
“I didn’t think I’d broken my neck,” he told the Chris Iwelumo Meets podcast. “I assumed I concussed myself – probably like my 30th concussion. I had a lot pain going down the front of my face. I knew something neuro had happened.
“I was quickly pinned down by all the medical staff for Irish and people in the venue and they kind of did the whole thing on the splint, not moving in that ambulance, waiting outside Cork University Hospital for about two hours. It was a Friday night.
“After about three hours, I’d lost sense of blood flow to the back of my head and it was really uncomfortable. I started to ask to loosen the straps because in my head I was fine. You know, I hadn’t broken my neck. It was just a precaution. And then I kind of moved up a bit and I heard a clunk and then I was straight back down.”
A week in hospital “staring at a ceiling” followed, but Ansbro insists he always felt confident he’d make a full recovery, even if a question mark remained over his rugby career.
“They put the screws into your skull. And you’re kind of like that for three months and you sleep like this. You’re upright, you don’t lie down any more,” he said.
“The day I broke my neck is the day I completed on a flat in the Richmond area and my first bit of furniture was a hospital bed – which in a way was lucky because they’re not easy to get hold of.”
A move back to his family home followed with dad and his lampshade. It was that kind of support which helped nurture him back to health, and on to the life after rugby that would follow less than a year later.
A ‘surreal’ Scotland debut
Ansbro says he is still working out his own path, but his journey until this point is some story. Adopted into a white family, a young Ansbro grew up in Dumfries before being schooled in the art of rugby in Lancashire. Soon the call of university at Cambridge followed, but it was the attention of Northampton while on the field that would change the trajectory of his rugby route.
“I was probably about 85 kilograms playing in the centre against a bunch of big lads,” he said of a fateful afternoon. “I got to start outside centre and I was unconscious within 30 minutes. But it was an important 30 minutes because obviously it did enough to get Northampton interested.”
Four years at Northampton Saints eventually offered a move to London Irish in 2011. By that point, Ansbro had already made history by playing for his country, which he would do on 11 occasions before his time on the field was cruelly cut short.
“I’d watched Scotland play the All Blacks at Murrayfield with my family the week before,” he said of the build-up to his debut against South Africa in 2010.
“Six days later, I’m on the pitch up against the world champions. And it was surreal for someone who probably didn’t think they were going to play professional rugby, never mind represent Scotland.”
In doing so, Ansbro became the first black man to feature in a Test match for Scotland. But was it something he was aware of?
“I was probably more concerned about my accent than the colour of my skin when it came to playing to Scotland,” he jokes with an accent not typical of a Dumfriesshire twang.
“I played a lot of rugby in Scotland before as a kid, and it was never brought up then. So in my head, I was just like: ‘Let’s just acknowledge it, and then just move on.'”
‘Ah, I know who you are…’
Life now is very different from the highs of beating South Africa and Australia in a mud-stained Scotland shirt.
A biology teacher at Harrow, 34-year-old Ansbro splits his time with coaching. Rugby is clearly still important to him, but so too is family, and continuing on his unique and unpredictable path. Although, a reminder of the past is never far away.
“I already know how I’m defined. I say I work in a school. I am defined as the bloke who headbutted Ally Strokosch when Scotland beat Australia,” he laughs, recalling an over-exuberant celebration during a Scotland triumph in 2012. “Happens every year, a new group of kids and: ‘Ah, I know who you are, you’re that guy.’
“I’ve had six years teaching, six years rugby. And in a way I’m still trying to learn.
“But in terms of what’s most important to me at the moment, then obviously it’s my boys, my family, and I wouldn’t want any of that to become problematic. That’s my priority, to ensure they have as good a life as I had and they can make decisions and judgments and perhaps speak a bit more fluently about contentious issues than I than I can.
“So yeah, that’s certainly important to me.”
The first episode of the Chris Iwelumo Meets podcast will be available this Wednesday on BBC Sounds.