At a first glance, the great American sports writer Henry Grantland Rice and the British Rugby League player Mike Gregory have nothing in common. In fact the connection is more than tenuous. When Rice coined his most famous poem, Alumnus Football, he clearly was not thinking about a Rugby League player from the North of England. How could he? They were separated by time, generations, continents and sports. However, our imagination is not stretched too far when looking for a connection. Rice’s poem is very relevant to the subject of our story, how relevant will become apparent; but more on that subject later.
November 19th 2017 was a significant day in the world of Rugby League. It was 10 years since the death of one of the sport’s greatest players. Michael Keith Gregory graced the sport of Rugby League Football for more than two decades and to say that he is still missed by people within the game, and much more importantly, by his family, would be a gross understatement. Very few players in any sport command and earn total universal respect. “Greg” did and much more.
Mike Gregory’s achievements in Rugby League as a brave and skillful loose forward are legendary. He played for and captained Warrington, his club side, in more than 200 games. He represented and captained his country with pride and honour and had the rare distinction of captaining Great Britain to consecutive series victories over the New Zealand Kiwis. However, those are just figures to be typed or written and there is considerably more to our story than that.
Mike started his Rugby League career as a 13-year-old at the famed Wigan St. Patricks Amateur Rugby League club. And yes! He captained them also. It was very noticeable, even at that early age, that Mike was destined for a great career. “St. Pats” are one of the most famous Rugby League clubs in the world and have produced more Great Britain international Rugby League players and captains than any other club. It was at the St. Pats University of Rugby that Mike Gregory first learned his trade.
He signed as a professional for the Warrington club and made his debut in September 1982 and he never played for any other club side. It quickly became apparent to everybody that he would be a future leader for club and country. He was one of Great Britain’s first full-time professional Rugby League players and one of the new breed of forwards – committed, smart, mobile, fast, strong, and he also possessed good ball distribution skills. His drive, courage, skill and commitment in an exceedingly tough and physically demanding sport made him a formidable opponent on the field. “Greg” was a tough and uncompromising player; however, he always played the game straight and fair. During his exemplary career he was only dismissed from the field once.
He captained Warrington in the 1990 Rugby League Challenge Cup Final, the annual showpiece event for the sport at the national stadium, against his home town club Wigan. That Wembley appearance, when he scored one try and made another in a 36-14 defeat, was the highlight of his 12 seasons with Warrington, for whom he had signed as an 18-year-old from St Patricks after Wigan, his local professional club, showed no interest. Greg spent a season on Sydney’s southern beaches with Cronulla in the Australian League before moving into coaching with low-profile roles at St Helens, Swinton and then with Wales in the 1995 Rugby League World Cup. He joined the staff at Wigan Rugby League club in 2001. Mike took over as acting head coach midway through the 2003 season and earned the position on a permanent basis with a long unbeaten run that culminated in an appearance in the Super League Grand Final.
However, it was when he collapsed on the way to Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium for a press conference ahead of that final that Mike Gregory first began to worry that something was seriously wrong. He had been suffering from lethargy, muscle stiffness and occasional involuntary twitching since suffering an insect bite on a short trip to Australia as coach of a Great Britain sevens squad in January 2003. We could talk about a stone bringing down a Goliath.
When Mike was appointed head coach of Wigan, he took them to a Grand Final and Rugby League Challenge Cup Final in that first 12 months. However, the signs were already beginning to show of the debilitating illness that would eventually claim his life at the age of 43. Mike had begun to suffer from progressive muscular atrophy, a form of motor neuron disease, affecting his nerves and muscles which he had possibly contracted on that trip to Australia. The illness blocks signals from the brain getting to muscles, causing weight-loss and affecting speech.
The proudest moments in Mike’s formidable career came when he was selected to represent his country and he will be best remembered for the try he scored, when at the peak of his playing career in Sydney in 1988, galloping more than 70 metres and outpacing the Australian greats Wally Lewis and Wayne Pearce to seal a completely unexpected 26-12 victory for Great Britain, their first against the Kangaroos for a decade. Famously, he was able to ignore the supporting Martin “Chariots” Offiah. The easy option was to give the ball to Offiah, surely the fastest man in World rugby. Later Greg explained his thought process: “If I’m going to run all this way, I may as well score.”
As for so much of his career, Mike was carrying injuries, and was so anxious the night before that Australian game that he had accepted an invitation from his unrelated namesake Andy, Great Britain’s scrum-half whose pass sent him away, to break his lifetime’s rule and prepare for the game with a couple of pints of Guinness. “It was one of the defining moments of my career,” he conceded in Biting Back, the autobiography he compiled in the year before his death largely so that his young sons would be able to better remember their father. “It still doesn’t rank with the birth of Sam and Ben, but in sport that has to be number one.”
Ellery Hanley, Mike’s predecessor as the Great Britain captain, who lifted him back to his feet after that famous try against Australia, sought out Mike in the Wigan dressing room at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium before the 2004 Challenge Cup final – when news of his illness was starting to spread – and presented him with the cup winner’s medal Hanley’s Wigan had denied Gregory’s Warrington at Wembley in 1990. “If there was ever a player who deserved the Lance Todd Trophy (awarded to the cup final man of the match) that day it was MG,” Hanley explained. “I wanted him to keep my medal as a mark of the huge respect I have for the man.”
The exact nature of Mike’s illness was to become the subject of a bitter wrangle with the Wigan club after he informed them of his condition in March 2004 immediately after a Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Warrington. Gregory flew to Houston, Texas, for treatment the week after the cup final, but insisted that the club should have been more sympathetic to his desire to return to work in some capacity after that, and was offended by the assertion of Wigan’s owner, Dave Whelan, that he had motor neurone disease. The increasingly acrimonious dispute ended with the Gregory family taking Wigan to an employment tribunal, though a hearing was averted when the club agreed to pay £17,500 as a goodwill gesture.
However, there was much more to Mike than just a famous, successful rugby player and coach. So what was Mike Gregory like off the field? This writer can offer his own humble opinion through personal experience. Many people walked up to Mike Greg for an autograph: a request that was never refused. Many a hand was offered out in friendship: it was always willingly grasped. Requests for his time were numerous and it was always freely given. Many spectators, players and coaches asked for his advice and opinions; also freely dispensed.
Mike had wonderful sense of humour, and an engaging smile. He enjoyed life. He enjoyed his rugby and the social side that went with it. He enjoyed the “craic”. He played his rugby hard and fair; he expected nothing less, yet he always had time for an opponent after the game. Mike never carried grudges. Warm words, an equally warm handshake and a pint generally meant that all was right with the world. He was a fierce warrior on the field, and the very personification of kindness and thoughtfulness off it.
Mike Gregory’s plight attracted an unprecedented response from the wider British Rugby League community, with numerous fundraising efforts to help provide for his sons and his wife Erica, who gave up her job in the pharmaceutical industry to help care for him. Close friends insisted that he maintained his sense of humour, for which he had always been renowned, right until the end.
Jack Roden, respected chief scout at Wigan Warriors Rugby League club, recalled that fateful day when Mike’s funeral took place. “Mick Gregory’s funeral took place at Sacred Heart Church in Springfield and the church was packed and hundreds of people outside, the funeral party was very big. We then all went to St Pats Club for the wake. What a great turn out that was, stars of Rugby League and lots of other sports gathered to give the great man a well-deserved send off. A few months prior to Mike’s death we held a charity game at St. Pats. The club raised £26,000 with top stars playing a charity game against a St Pats team. Sad times but great memories.”
One can only imagine Mike’s response to that party in the “St Pats” clubhouse. Songs would have been sung, beer copiously consumed, hands shaken in friendship and laughter into the wee hours of the morning. Mike would have loved it.
When Mike Gregory passed away he was surrounded by his immediate family, however, there were thousands and thousands of Rugby League people present in spirit “winging” the great player on his final journey. So where does the previously mentioned poem by Grantland Rice come into all of this? I’ll let you be the judge of that one: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name. He writes – not that you won or lost – But how you played the Game.”
Michael Keith Gregory: Captain, Wigan St. Patricks, Warrington, and Great Britain, Rugby League legend, was born on May 20th 1964 in the town of Wigan and he died in his home town on November 19th 2007.