Brain injury could have ended Neil's NRL grand final dream
COME 7.15pm on October 4, more than 80,000 people will have travelled from far and wide to pack out ANZ Stadium in Sydney for the NRL Grand Final.
But one man will have made a tougher journey than most to arrive there.
Eleven months ago, Kawana's Neil Espley was in Sydney enjoying an annual boy's trip for the big game when disaster struck.
A fall down stairs at a restaurant left the Kawana Rugby League stalwart in a serious condition at St Vincent's Hospital for the next seven weeks after suffering a traumatic brain injury.
His skull was left caved in on one side after striking his head on the steps.
Life has changed completely for the Espley family since then.
Work and regular life were replaced by physio and rehab. But it's all been worth it as Mr Espley makes a remarkable recovery, buoyed by fantastic community support since the accident.
"It'll be quite an emotional journey for him," Mr Espley's wife Anita said yesterday.
"It's sort of like going the full circle. He already cries about it now when he thinks about it (being at the game)."
Last year was the first grand final Mr Espley had missed seeing live in 15 years. This year's event will be the first with his wife by his side, along with several of Mr Espley's closest friends.
"The guys are already making up stories to tell people about how Neil got his scars ... one of them's going to tell people: 'That's where we pulled the croc off him'," Anita said with a laugh.
The pair had plans to travel to Europe next year, but Anita has had to take time off work to deal with the changes to their situation. Priorities have shifted from overseas travel to areas such as buying a new car for easier everyday travel. But there's no resentment at their circumstances, only relief that the accident wasn't worse.
"We're so blessed that we've got a husband and a father who remembers us," Anita said.
"We're blessed that he's going to have a quality of life and we're so lucky to have some very good mates who have really stepped up."
The husband and wife will embark on a southern road trip a few days before the grand final with Mr Espley currently unable to fly after a recent operation to replace his skull plate due to infection.
The pair plans to spend some time post-grand final in Sydney, taking time to drop in and see the team at St Vincent's who worked tirelessly to save Mr Espley's life.
"We'll try and meet with the operating team at St Vincent's and just go back and say thanks, really," Anita said.