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Stephen Prescott The Life and Times of a true Sporting Legend

Alex Service pays his own special tribute.

There are four words in particular that described Stephen Prescott: competitive, resilient, courageous and inspirational. These qualities were prevalent throughout his life, in which sport played a dominant role. To reach the top in Rugby League like Stephen did, a fiercely competitive attitude is needed, together with great self-belief and courage. Stephen also had to overcome several set-backs during his sporting career and, in the face of terminal illness, he showed terrific courage and has become an inspirational figure to thousands, not just within the Rugby League community itself. The Stephen Prescott Foundation has been established to provide funds for both The Christie Hospital in Manchester – one of the world’s leading cancer hospitals - and the Rugby League Benevolent Fund, which offers help to those who have been seriously injured playing one of the world’s toughest sports.

From a very early age, sport became the major focus of Stephen’s life. His father, Eric, was a successful professional rugby league player with St. Helens, Salford and Widnes, so it is true to say that sport was ‘in the genes.’ Even in the early days, it became apparent that Stephen would make his mark. He revelled in the challenging, competitive atmosphere of matches and his skills were much in demand to the extent that he played two sports – soccer and rugby league, regularly on the same weekend. He attracted the attention of scouts from the St. Helens Rugby League club and achieved a burning ambition by signing for his home town team in the early 1990s. Rugby League is a physically demanding sport and Stephen was never the biggest of players. Initially it was thought that he was not going to make it, yet the club kept faith in him and, from some superb performances in the Reserves, he gradually forced his way into the First Team, first of all as a winger, then as a full-back – the position he made his own at Knowsley Road. The full-back position is such a vital one which involves making crucial ‘one-on-one tackles,’ catching soaring kicks from the opposition and setting attacks in motion from ‘broken-field’ running. Stephen did all this and more. It was his pace that was his biggest asset and he scored many memorable tries for the Saints, including some fabulous ‘length-of-the-field’ efforts. The crowd really took to this flamboyant little guy who was prepared to give his all during a match, tackling and running above his weight. He was one of them, after all, and they loved him!

Stephen became a full-time professional with the Saints with the advent of the European Super League in 1996. During this time he worked hard in the gym and became one of the strongest players at the club when body weight was taken into account. Stephen and the team also enjoyed a fabulous season overall with the club winning a memorable trophy ‘double’ of Challenge Cup and League – their first such achievement for twenty years. It was a truly marvellous time for Saints’ supporters and the town of St. Helens itself. In the Challenge Cup final at Wembley against Bradford Bulls – one of the greatest matches of them all - Stephen was superb. He scored two tries and was denied a hat-trick by the ball bouncing off the cross-bar when he surely would have caught it and grounded it over the line! Stephen was a virtual ever-present in the 1996 season and well-respected by his team-mates on and off the field. Indeed, the friendships made at the time were important in the organisation of a special match some eleven years later at Knowsley Road, when the ‘Boys of 1996’ were only too pleased to turn out for their former full-back for a special fund-raising ‘Legends’ game on his behalf. Stephen’s superb form meant further recognition in the game. He graduated to the full England international squad for the 1996 Super League European Championships. In his first match against France at Gateshead, Stephen scored two tries and kicked seven goals in England’s 73-0 success, breaking the previous points record set by another former Saint (and full-back) Geoff Pimblett. Stephen had also represented Great Britain Under 21s against Australia in 1994 and France in 1995. After the Australian game, Stephen was picked out by the Australian Coach Bob Fulton as having exceptional ability and recommended his promotion into the full Great Britain side for the Test Matches.

At the end of the 1996 season, Stephen’s achievements at club level were recognised when he was selected for the Super League tour of Oceania and New Zealand, together with seven of his team-mates. Although he didn’t play in the Test Matches, it was a supreme honour for Stephen to be a member of the British rugby league elite. Clearly the years of dedication and determination to succeed had brought due reward for his efforts. Stephen returned from the tour to achieve further success with his club, as the Saints retained the Challenge Cup for the first time in their history, ironically against the same opponents as the previous year – Bradford Bulls. He produced another marvellous display and was denied a sensational ‘length-of-the-field’ scoring opportunity only after a last gasp tackle from the Bradford defence. Saints’ fans loved his flamboyance and enthusiasm, yet there were troubled times ahead. 1997 proved to be a relative disappointment after Wembley and Stephen suffered an injury which blighted the rest of his campaign. At the end of the season, it was decided to transfer him to Hull Sharks – a decision that did not exactly prove popular with the St. Helens fans and Stephen himself. Yet he was to show typical grit and determination which was to see him succeed in his new environment.

Like the Saints’ fans, the Hull crowd love a battler and took Stephen to their hearts almost immediately. They appreciated his commitment to his new cause and he became the regular goal-kicker for the Sharks. After two seasons, however, financial problems meant that he was transferred to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, who as it happened, were hardly solvent themselves. Despite further difficult times when wages were not paid Stephen continued to gain the respect of his team-mates and supporters on the terraces with many fine displays for the Wildcats. Twelve months later, however, he was back at Hull (now minus their Sharks tag), where he remained until injury ended his career in 2003, ironically after representing his county, Lancashire, against Yorkshire at Odsal stadium in Bradford.

He was loved by the Hull fans and made many friends in the city. The respect and affection was mutual. After his playing career came to an end, Stephen became a teacher at Hull Community College, in the Sports Department, where his enthusiasm and engaging personality made him a popular figure with students and staff alike. Apart from teaching a Level 1 BTEC course in Physical Education, which he helped to develop, he also coached the College’s Rugby League team with great success. Although his days as a Super League professional were over, Stephen continued to participate in sport by joining Hull Ionians Rugby Union club. Although the matches were still competitive, it was a chance to enjoy himself after the rigours of Super League and he relished the opportunity to learn new skills and generally muck in with his new team-mates. He also had a few games for the England International Vets XV, who relished the opportunity of obtaining the services of such an experienced rugby player.

Unfortunately, just when Stephen was settling down in his teaching role, things were to take a turn for the worse. At the age of just 32, he was cruelly diagnosed with Pseudomyxoma Peritonei, or PMP, a rare tumour that has a tendency to grow very slowly over many years. The diagnosis came in the same week as the birth of his second child, Koby, in September 2006. The Rugby League community responded superbly in the face of such news and pledged support both in financial and emotional terms. Stephen was able to have an operation at a specialist hospital in Basingstoke. It was a measure of his popularity that people came forward to help from all walks of life to help, not just from the Rugby League fraternity. One particularly poignant fund-raising gesture came from his former team-mates at Hull FC, who, ironically, were playing against another of Stephen’s former clubs, St. Helens in the 2006 Grand Final at Old Trafford. In front of a crowd of over 60,000 they entered the famous arena in special warm-up tops emblazoned with PRESCOTT on the back, which were later auctioned on his behalf. This was a clear indication of the man’s popularity and the tremendous respect he engendered from everyone who met him.

Stephen responded well to further treatment at The Christie Hospital in Manchester, (one of only two centres in Britain dedicated to the treatment of PMP), although there is still no cure for his condition. Yet Stephen steadfastly refused to let the situation get him down. He was thankful for the many fund-raising efforts done on his behalf when his illness was diagnosed, but, being Stephen, the onus then shifted towards working tirelessly to help others in similar situations.

The Rugby League community clearly took Stephen to their hearts. Despite his own extreme situation, he has become a beacon of hope for those in similar circumstances. He continued to fight ceaselessly against the odds – something that had been apparent from his early years when he strove hard to reach the top in the most physically-demanding sport of them all. His positive personal qualities helped him to achieve on the rugby field, as a College Tutor and were integral to his success with his Foundation work over the past few years. He significantly raised the profile of the Rugby League Benevolent Fund and highlighted the importance of fund-raising for a specialist cancer hospital like The Christie. The Stephen Prescott Foundation is now recognised on a national and international basis. From his own experiences, he was always willing to offer support and solace and he remains an inspirational character for anyone who has been affected directly or indirectly by serious illness. Indeed, many people from all walks of life have been inspired by his sheer enthusiasm and determination. Stephen is the ultimate role model for showing that it is possible to make a genuine difference and help other people despite facing insurmountable personal odds. He was a passionate believer that illness and disability should not prevent a person from undertaking challenges and achieving hitherto inconceivable personal goals. Overall, his achievements were both significant and considerable

Stephen was so proud to receive the MBE in 2009 for those achievements and, of course, he was quick to praise those who had helped him on the way, not least wife Linzi and the two boys, Taylor and Koby. His fighting spirit remained even when his chances of survival seemed in the balance. When the end came, in November 2013, there was a massive out-pouring of emotion. Who could ever forget the crowds at his funeral and the sight of the England Rugby League World Cup squad outside Lowe House Church in the rain, listening to the service inside. They didn't mind – they just had to be there to pay their respects, like so many on the day

We all have our own special memories of Stephen and it is great to know that his name will remain forever in the public domain with some marvellous tributes: Saints and Hull compete for the Stephen Prescott trophy and you will probably walk to the match at Langtree Park over the Stephen Prescott Bridge. In 2014, the Rugby Football League announced the Stephen Prescott Man of Steel trophy will be awarded at future Grand Finals. Enough said!

There will only ever be one Stephen Prescott!

 

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