An autistic teenager who dreamed of a career with his beloved Sheffield Eagles admitted today after his hopes were dashed: “I used to feel like somebody but now I feel like nothing.”
Reece Lee, aged 18, was left devastated after the Eagles announced their reserve side had been scrapped.
The promising centre, who dreamed of emulating his hero Menzie Yere and playing for Eagles’ first team, has instead had to come to terms with the devastating decision – and now hopes he will be given a second chance.
“Sheffield Eagles is my life,” student Reece told The Star.
“It means the world to me, honestly. I’ve put my heart and soul into every game, every training session, because I want to make something of myself and go as far as I can.
“But this decision has been devastating. It’s not about the money or anything else for me – I’d play for them for free if that’s what it took – but all my life, I’ve wanted to be an Eagles player.
“I never go to nightclubs or anything – I had it all at rugby. They were my brothers. There, I felt like I had become somebody, and now I feel like a nobody.”
A wide-eyed grin breaks out across Reece’s face when he remembers the first time he pulled on the shirt of his beloved Eagles.
“It was the best day of my life,” the promising centre smiles.
“I was only a kid but felt like Menzie Yere, my Eagles hero. My heart was pounding and my body lit up. It was the best feeling I’ve ever experienced.”
Reece’s smile fades, though, when he remembers that he may never experience that feeling again. He is just one casualty of Eagles’ decision to scrap their reserve programme, which they confirmed last month after failing to secure tier two academy status.
It is a devastating blow to the Eagles, and for rugby league in this city. For 18-year-old Reece, a career – and a future – has been left ruins.
“Eagles were my life,” the teenager told The Star from his house on Bawtry Road, within walking distance of the club’s current home at Sheffield Hallam University’s Sports Park.
“They still are, to be honest. I’d play for them for free if I could. This isn’t about money or anything like that – the club means everything to me, which is why I put everything I had into every game and every training session.
“I want to make something of myself, and make something of my life. To go as far as I can.
“I still have ambitions of playing for the first team; no decision like this will stop me trying everything to get there. It’s just a matter of how I get there now.”
Reece’s path is further complicated because he suffers from autism, and has been plagued by eating disorders in the past.
“It means stuff has to be in a set routine for me,” Reece, who also studies public services at Peaks College, said.
“And with the rugby, it was. I had training, games, a set schedule. And now I don’t have any of that, my head has gone and I’ve strayed from that path. It’s harder to control my emotions, my anger sways and I don’t have any self-control.
“When I was a part of the Eagles, I felt like someone. Like I had achieved something. But now, I feel like a no-one.
“I find it difficult to mix and have friends but with the rugby lads, we had something in common and they understood me.
“I’m sure I made everyone laugh! But I never felt out of place. I fitted right in.
“Time is a big thing for me, and it’s slowed my development down. I’ve got to get my head straight now and get back in the right path again.
“A lot of my friends go out to nightclubs or whatever but that’s not my thing. At rugby, they were my brothers. We trained together, ate together... as daft as it might sound to someone else, that was my life. That was everything to me.”
Reece fell in love with rugby league while he was a pupil at Brinsworth Comprehensive School, and within six months was playing for South Yorkshire’s representative side.
“Jonny Woodcock, the former Eagles player, was my PE teacher and he saw something in me,” Reece remembers.
“I played football as a youngster, too, but that wasn’t enough to get my aggression out. So I started at Hillsborough Hawks and got picked up by the Eagles from there.
“I remember being a ballboy at Don Valley when Eagles played there, watching and thinking: ‘When can I wear that shirt?’
“Then, back in the scholarship days, we beat Bradford Bulls and I knew I wanted to be a rugby player.
“My grandad Philip has followed the Eagles for years, and one of the biggest things driving me on was him seeing me play for the Eagles first-team.
“Obviously, no-one lives forever and it would have been the best thing he’d ever see.
“I wanted to make him proud.”
Reece plans to return to the amateur game with Hawks and will continue to help the Eagles where he can.
“I’ll be there at the next game...I love being with the boys,” he said.
“I’ll be helping out with the kit, which is a bit disheartening because I’ve worked so hard to be carrying someone else’s kit that I should be wearing.”
Mum Rachel added: “The easy thing would have been to walk away with his head down, but Reece will keep fighting. It takes a bigger person to carry on.
“He’d play for free if he could because his heart is with the club. When they won back-to-back Championship Grand Finals at Leigh in 2013, Reece was the mascot with the big Eagle head on!
“And we’ll continue to support them, no matter what. Reece is still determined to play for Eagles’ first team, but where does he go from here?
“We’re hoping he gets another chance from another club, but time is ticking. Reece just needs that opportunity to work hard and become the best player, and the best person, that he can be.”
Jon Roberts, director of performance at the Rugby Football League, the game’s governing body in the UK, said: “We’re working with the Eagles to build a long-term pathway to grow their young talent.
“The RFL are willing to sit down with Reece and discuss the next steps in his career, as we are keen to ensure young, talented players stay in the game.”
Ian Annis, development director at Eagles, added: “We have drawn a line under what has gone on and we are now working on our structure from the bottom.
“We now need to make sure we come forward with a proposal that makes sense and is sustainable.
“We have had a terrible knock but we are already laying the foundations again. We have looked on the feedback we have received and we are looking to come back stronger.”