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Rob Burrow took on MND with same courage and humility he displayed as a player

Rob Burrow
Rob Burrow was one of the most iconic players of the Super League era - SWpix.com/Alex Whitehead

When Rob Burrow was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019, a benefit match was held between Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls the following month. Raw emotion dripped from every corner of Headingley as a tearful Burrow came on to play the final few minutes.

Reunited with his ‘band of brothers’ with whom he won so much, the likes of Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire, Burrow was centre stage once again, only this time in the face of tragedy. There was not a dry eye among the capacity crowd of 20,000 as the iconic former scrum-half wore the famous blue-and-amber jersey for one last time.

Rob Burrow, with his children, wearing the famous blue-and-amber jersey one last time
Burrow, with his children, wearing the famous blue-and-amber jersey - Getty Images/George Wood

Burrow’s wife Lindsey and their children, daughters Macy and Maya and son Jackson, watched on lovingly from the sidelines.

The effects of MND had already begun to ravage Burrow as he was starting to lose his voice, although the physical impact of the rare, degenerative condition had not yet taken hold.

Days before the fund-raising game, I met with Burrow at Headingley to interview him about his plight and to raise awareness of the match. Burrow was upbeat, thanked every journalist for coming to speak to him and tell his story, and spoke of his hope that a cure for MND could be found.

That week, he had visited Professor Christopher McDermott, a consultant neurologist with a special interest in the condition, at the University of Sheffield about potential drug trials. It provided a ray of hope for Burrow, who even joked about how the flippant response from his children when told of their father’s diagnosis had lightened his mood.

Burrow told Telegraph Sport in January 2020: “The middle one, Maya, said, ‘What are you telling us that for, Dad? It’s boring!’

“The way she said it made it funny and that was great. I do have a really positive family and it does help. I’m lucky enough to have loads of support at home, never mind here at Leeds.”

Rob Burrow alongside wife Lindsey, daughters Macy and Maya and Kevin Sinfield
Burrow's family and friends were always there by his side - PA/Danny Lawson

Burrow’s Rhinos career harvested a remarkable trophy haul of eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge wins, plus numerous international honours and individual accolades.

At 5ft 5in, he was one of the smallest players in the game but his courage and bravery saw him light up Super League for 17 years.

But it goes deeper.

Not only was Burrow one of the most iconic players of the Super League era, he was also one of the most respected and loved.

Rob Burrow celebrates winning the Super League Grand Final in 2017
Burrow's (bottom right) career harvested a remarkable trophy haul - Getty Images/Michael Steele

A devoted family man who would rather head straight home after a game than go for a beer, Burrow’s kind human spirit and positivity made him hugely popular within the game, be it with supporters, opposition players, team-mates and journalists. He had embarked on a promising coaching career in the Rhinos’ youth ranks when he was so cruelly diagnosed.

Burrow grew up in Castleford, a former coal-mining town in West Yorkshire, and came through the vaunted academy ranks at Headingley. Leeds’ serial Grand Final successes at Old Trafford saw Wayne Rooney, then of Manchester United, become a Rhinos fan.

Be it at half-back or hooker, Burrow was so difficult to stop because he was so small, agile and skilful. Never was this better epitomised than in the 2011 Super League Grand Final, when Burrow scored a breathtaking try to help Leeds to victory over St Helens.

In total he made 492 appearances for the Rhinos, placing him in fifth in the club’s all-time list of career appearances. Fittingly, his farewell competitive appearance came in Leeds’ last Grand Final win in 2017, against hometown club Castleford.

Following his diagnosis, many of his former team-mates visited him regularly at his home in Pontefract and the fierce dressing-room banter that fuelled Leeds’ glories was still there.

The humour was dark at times, but as Sinfield said: “Once you’ve been team-mates as players, you don’t stop being team-mates when that person needs you.”

Certainly nobody did more than Sinfield, whose remarkable charity work with Burrow has raised £14 million across the UK and Ireland.

Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield ahead of the 2023 Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon
Kevin Sinfield's charity work with Burrow raised millions for MND research - PA/Danny Lawson

This has included raising money to build the Rob Burrow Centre for MND in Leeds as a lasting legacy for those who follow him in their own personal battles with the disease.

There are plans for a statue of Burrow and Sinfield at Headingley featuring the pair embracing at the end of the fund-raising match in January 2020.

Kevin Sinfield crosses the finish line of the 2023 Leeds Marathon with Rob Burrow in his arms
Sinfield crossed the finish line of the 2023 Leeds Marathon with Burrow in his arms - PA/Danny Lawson

It is an image that deserves to be immortalised and will serve as an apt tribute to Burrow’s memory.

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