Edinburgh Rugby's Darcy Graham opens up on brother's crash in powerful interview - 'we prayed every night Clark was in a coma'
Darcy Graham, rugby whizz-kid, tells two stories illustrating the scrum-tight closeness which has seen his family through good times and bad. One of them concerns his father, Ally, a brawny Borderer with a chainsaw who took on the might of TV’s Gladiators.
In the smash-hit Saturday night show back in 1997 Ally left the woodcutter behind but brought what seemed the entire town of Hawick to the fiendish, foam-based, all-action contests. “You can still find them on YouTube,” says Graham. “We’ll dig out the recordings at home if we want a laugh winding up Dad – especially for the bit when he presents [host] Ulrika Jonsson with a haggis and she’s not quite sure what it is.”
Certainly Graham, 24, can appreciate the old man’s lycra-clad endeavours nowadays for as the hilarious footage confirms the future Scotland flier was just a couple of weeks old and being cradled by mum Leah as she and Graham’s big sister Rhianna lead the chanting of a reworked “Ally’s Tartan Army”. And unfortunately when the lumberjack hero gained his only points against Gladiators Ace and Hunter by racing up a steep wall, wee Darcy was fast asleep.
Then there’s the second story. This one’s more serious and indeed plunged the close-knit clan into desperate darkness until what they’re calling a miracle happened. It concerns the star Edinburgh winger’s kid brother Clark, who back in January was left fighting for his life in a coma after having to be cut from the wreckage of a car involved in a crash on an icy Broders road.
Clark, who suffered a severe brain injury, is now recovering back in Hawick. Graham, when we speak via Zoom, is in Edinburgh where he lives with his partner Louise and readying himself for club rugby’s return today. But the youngest member of the family – “My hero” he calls Clark – is never far from his thoughts.
“For Christmas, just before the accident, Rhianna gave me a necklace, an angel wing with a really sweet message about how wherever you are there there will always be someone watching over you. I wore it every day until the accident when I gave it to Clark, wrapped it round his hand. He still has it, and now that he’s out of hospital I’ve bought a replacement for myself and one for our brother Brodie. We’ll always wear them. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Coming into this interview I didn’t know how much Graham would want to relive the terrible night of January 4 but knew there was plenty more we could discuss: the Hawick heritage, his jet-propelled performances on the rugby field, striking a blow for wee guys in a land of giants. He admits he finds the crash a trickier subject than in the immediate aftermath but as you can tell, he speaks well about it and wants to say more, prompted by his admiration for Clark, and his love.
“Clark is getting better, definitely – he’s just an absolute miracle,” Graham beams. “He’s my hero, on my mind the whole time and I look up to him every day. We were a close family before but what happened to him has brought us even closer together.
“I find it harder to talk about now because you almost forget how bad it was. It was deep in the middle of winter – incredibly dark – and it was Covid. The night the accident happened the rest of the family came to my house and we all stayed here for two weeks, barely eating, not going out.
“Normally we could have had one of us by Clark’s bedside from 8am til 8pm but because of the restrictions we had to fight just to get Mum into the hospital. We even went to Nicola Sturgeon and eventually Mum could be with Clark, but only for an hour a day.
“I never saw Clark for three whole months but there were moments when I wondered if I ever would again. In those first few weeks every time the phone rang I felt physically sick, worrying about what it was going to bring. We would get good news then bad news, a wee bit of light and then dark again. It was horrible, horrible.
“I look at Mum and she just lived and breathed the whole nightmare. She’s stopped working to look after Clark and is doing an amazing job. His girlfriend has been amazing, too. He and Holly were seeing each other before the accident but it was a secret. She never got anything from us about how he was doing because we didn’t know her, which must have been tough. But now we’re all putting our heads together because Clark wants to start his own business. He’s been inspired by Brodie who runs a car wash with a mate which is really flying so we’re trying to think of a good set-up for Clark.”
Growing up in Hawick, the three brothers did everything together – “Catapults, quad bikes, tree houses, building stuff.” And rugby. But Brodie has grown to 6ft 2ins and Clark one inch taller. “I know,” laughs the 5ft 9ins Graham. “What happened to me?”
By the standards of Hawick lore and legend, when you imagine that babes in buggies are tossed an oval ball by Mansfield Park old-timers shuffling along the high street, Graham came late to the game. “It was P6 before I played, although my papa loves to tell the story of the day he took me to soccer school, full Barcelona kit with my name on the back, and when the ball trundled towards me for the first time, I picked it up and started running.
“I tried most sports before rugby, running and horse-riding mainly. And I found that rugby slotted into my activities quite nicely. The Hawick Common Riding, then the sprinting season with races in a different Borders town every week, then rugby. And I arrived for that quicker and sharper because of the other things.”
When we watch Graham play for Edinburgh and Scotland, his lack of inches doesn’t seem an impediment. Not when he’s as fast as he is. Not when he’s as brave as he is. And not when he’s able to dance out of the clutches of three England man mountains, as he did for the first of the two tries which announced his fizzing talents in the phantasmagorical 38-all Calcutta Cup match of 2019. But was he ever viewed as too small?
“I knew folk were saying that about me although no one actually said the words to my face. I was usually always smaller and lighter than the guys I faced. Playing for Hawick Albion I regularly came up against Robbie Nairn at Currie, a good pal now. I was literally half his size and there were a few times when he ran right over the top of me. I just regarded being a wee lad as a challenge to go out there and prove that it doesn’t matter what size you are – that if you’ve got the heart and the determination you can do anything.”
What Graham was going to do, he decided early, was play for Scotland. It was this kind of single-mindedness which compelled him to disobey his mother and play in an under-18s game. “I was injured and she told me I had to stay at home, but I got my gear and ran out the back door. She and Dad went down to watch that game and got a bit of a shock when I went on as a sub.”
With teenage pals Grant Huggan and Fraser Renwick, Graham was hitting the gym at 6.30am, trying to build up his strength. “We were dedicated, as were our parents in driving us to camps all over the country. We’re still very close and I’m gutted they haven’t made it as far as me because they’d love it. Both of them had the talent, easy.”
The clubrooms at Mansfield Park are adorned with photographs of every Hawick man who’s ever worn the dark blue and one in particular inspired Graham. “My uncle, Scott Macleod. I’d go to his house and just stare at his jerseys and the photo of him playing against the All Blacks. He won 24 caps and he knows I want to beat him.”
Dad Ally’s sport was motocross. “He was three times Scottish champion. Unfortunately I never saw him race – he gave up when us kids started coming along – but those who did say he was brilliant.” It’s funny watching the re-runs of Gladiators with Graham the gurgling tot in his first experience of a crowd going bananas, a reaction he’s eminently capable of replicating now he’s grown up to be one of a sold-out Murrayfield’s biggest and most exciting attractions – 18 appearances and counting. When he dozed off, the TV commentator couldn’t resist the line: “And Darcy has missed the bustle.” Now, corny headlines referencing the ballet star and former Strictly Come Dancing judge are commonplace.
Not so much thus far in 2021, admittedly, although there are good reasons for that: a shoulder injury which required surgery and the near-tragic events at New Year. “After those first few weeks when I never left the house I trained with Edinburgh for a few days and then it was camp for the Six Nations. That was pretty dark. I kept what had happened to Clark close to me and, with us each having our own rooms, cried myself to sleep every night.
“But I appreciated the support of the boys and just being with them helped me get through that time. Those training sessions were my escape; for a couple of hours every day I could lose myself or at least try to forget. I was in no state to play the first game against England but Gregor [Townsend, head coach] wanted me to travel as the 24th man. Finally we won at Twickenham. It could have been when I played there two years before and it’s maybe because I still don’t know how we didn’t do it, but I’ve never watched that one back and probably won’t until I’ve retired.”
This is the third time today Graham has fantasised about his life post-rugby. First it’s to confirm that after he’s dashed for the tryline for the last time he’ll move back to Hawick. “It’s where I’m from and where I always want to be. I’m nobody special there, just Darcy.” The second time it’s to look forward to getting back on a horse, something insurance cover on his pocket-rocket skills forbids. But before then there will hopefully be plenty of action, more Six Nations with a young national squad looking to build on having smashed some hoodoos and pursue the ultimate prize, another Lions tour to make up for the one in South Africa he’s just missed – and a new season in a new competition in a new home with Edinburgh under new coach Mike Blair.
Others at the club may not have been exactly weeping at the departure of predecessor Richard Cockerill but Graham will always be grateful for the faith Cockers showed in him. Now, though, he’s hoping the new start will bring a free-flowing style with plenty of touches for the guys out wide like him. “The pitch is tight to the stands in the new stadium so I think it’s going to be fun playing there. I really didn’t like there being no crowds during the pandemic. Before, I thought I didn’t notice the fans, just went out and did my thing, but I was obviously wrong because I missed them. So it’s great to have them back and now, right up close to the action.”
Edinburgh open this evening against Scarlets. Graham doesn't think Clark will make this game – "He's bound to be with the girlfriend!" – but hopes his brother and the rest of the family will be along to watch him soon.
“We thought we’d lost Clark,” he says quietly. “When he was in the coma we phoned him every evening to say goodnight then again every morning. We made him a tape. There’s one song which Brodie said he would like which, right before my first game back for Scotland, I played on repeat. It had me in tears then, still makes me cry now and probably always will.
“As a family we didn’t pray before but we did every night when Clark was in hospital. What happened has hit home to me that life can change in a moment and it can go in an instant. It’s short as it is, and in the event of something tragic can be even shorter. So we should enjoy it. Live every day and be with loved ones and don’t regret anything.
“There’s a part of Clark’s brain which is dead now and will never heal. He knows that. But his personality hasn’t changed; he’s still hilarious. He’s always been really droll – quick and funny – and still is now. It’s frustrating to him that he can’t drink for the time being because he’s always the life and soul of any party but he can make jokes about that. And he loves this amazing scar he’s got on the side of his head – he thinks it makes him look dead hard!
“He’s still Clark, still 100 per cent my wee brother – and that’s amazing.”
A message from the Editor:
Get a year of unlimited access to all of The Scotsman's sport coverage without the need for a full subscription. Expert analysis of the biggest games, exclusive interviews, live blogs, transfer news and 70 per cent fewer ads on Scotsman.com - all for less than £1 a week. Subscribe to us today
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.