Twelve months ago George Crook celebrated his 21st birthday with his parents in Madrid. But this was no mere family outing.
The former Bromsgrove School pupil was in Spain making his first start for Worcester Warriors, an occasion he marked by kicking all six of his goal attempts and playing well in a 38-5 Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Olympus Rugby.
He then convened to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu where he and his team-mates watched Real Madrid’s galacticos thrash rivals Real Valladolid. His embryonic career had gone to a new level.
A year on, however, and Crook this week spent his 22nd birthday trying to comprehend how markedly life has changed since he was instructed to give up playing the sport he loves.
Less than two weeks ago the ex-fly half was told by a specialist he must stop playing professional rugby or risk being confined to a wheelchair before he is 30.
The shockwaves are still reverberating as he describes an emotion similar to grief but detached from himself – as though the anguish belongs to someone else.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Crook says. “I have done a little bit of coaching since and I forget I’m not a player any more. It just seems bizarre.”
And so it might because less then two months ago Crook was starting the Championship campaign – as part of the Birmingham & Solihull team at Sixways.
He followed up with a decent display against Nottingham on September 5 but in recounting that match gives a painful insight into what had become his reality.
“That was the last sporty thing I have done. I was in a position where I could train for one day and then not again for three weeks. It’s been like that for the last three months – a bit of a nightmare.”
Crook’s problems started long before that, though, as he developed a back condition during his rehabilitation from the leg he broke in his second Worcester start against Scarlets.
Everything was fine until March at which point he begun experiencing back pain and learned that a slipped disc had caught on the sciatic nerve.
During this time he was released by Worcester but was given a chance by Russell Earnshaw to prove himself at Bees in the belief that he would make a complete recovery in time for the start of the new campaign against his former team.
Despite a pre-season restricted by stiffness and nagging pain in his legs he managed to get himself on to the pitch to do just that. But his body was telling him something was not right. “I was only operating at about 70 per cent and could barely stretch. I was moving like a 60-year-old.”
Crook had no choice but to go for more scans, which revealed the terrible truth. “The discs were in an unstable state and were likely to slip because they had almost flattened and were not absorbing any shock. I would always be vulnerable playing professional rugby.”
His specialist painted a stark picture. Continue playing and risk serious spinal injury or find something else to do.
“It was a no brainer,” he says. “I was relieved he put it in those terms because had it been a case of having a full career but a bit of stiffness by the time I’m 30, I’d have taken that. I have tried so hard for so long to catch this dream, I simply couldn’t have chosen to walk away.
“But in some ways the decision was taken out of my hands. My dad and me knew straight away what we had to do.”
As a result he is left at something of a crossroads in life. Marking time at university does not appeal and he is unsure about whether to pursue a career in coaching, though Worcester have offered to help him qualify.
He will speak to Earnshaw about a role at Bees in the coming weeks but for the meantime will continue coaching at Shrewsbury School, at least until the end of the season.
By which time he hopes to have discovered a new direction. “When I was playing for England Under 16s all I wanted to do was play for the Under 18s.
“Then I got into the Under 18s and all I wanted to do was get into an academy. Once I was there I just wanted to make it into the first team, My whole life was centred around getting to the next level in rugby.
“I had put all my eggs in one basket and even though I would not change it because I am proud of what I have achieved, I thought it’d last a bit longer than 21 or 22.
“Maybe I am not the most talented player but I would know I could work harder than anyone else and I would be alright. I got into the first team squad doing that. Maybe I was self-destructing all the time.”
If he ever needs to, however, he can at least console himself with the fact his outlook and ability took him further than most others.
His first Warriors appearance at home brought a try against London Irish in April 2009 and Madrid will forever remain the highlight of a career cruelly cut short. He prefers not even to countenance a life in the amateur game.
“The specialist thinks I should put it out of my mind completely. I have got to focus on something else and move on. I don’t want to be going to the gym for the next two years hoping I can play rugby at the end of it.
“If things clear up in a few years I can go back and get it checked and if I can play in a Sevens tournament with my brother, it will be a bonus.”
Which proves you can change career but not attitude,