Sam Ward tilts his head forward to show a scar running all the way across his scalp down to the bottom of his left ear. ‘I had my face off,’ explains the Great Britain hockey striker.
‘They sliced from the top of my head to past my ear and then basically flopped my face back to get access to what was underneath. The operation was about four hours and I was knocked out for six. I had 31 staples put into the top of my head, plus all the stitches down the side. I also had 31 screws put in my face, plus four plates.’
Ward, 29, was forced to have such serious surgery after he was smashed in the face by a shot by team-mate Harry Martin during the second leg of November’s Olympic qualifier against Malaysia – a tie his side won 9-3 on aggregate to secure their spot at Tokyo 2020.
‘He absolutely leathered it. I was probably about five yards away and it was travelling at a pretty, pretty high speed,’ recalls the Leicester-born forward, one of the country’s best players with 72 goals in 126 caps for Great Britain and England, including two goals in the game he suffered his gruesome injury.
‘I fell to the floor, looked down and there was blood everywhere. I was in a lot of pain. While I was on the floor, what was in my head was, “Mum and Dad are in the crowd, get up and get off”.
‘No one would like to see their son or daughter in that scenario. I remember asking the performance director if I could go back on and he said: “Definitely not, we need to get you sorted”.
‘I looked in the mirror and you could see there was no facial structure. There were six or seven fractures. I’d sheared the eye socket off, which crushed my eye, and my cheek was in half.’
Ward was rushed to hospital that night and had maxillofacial surgery the following week. But it was not until he visited an eye specialist a few days later that he learned his injury was one which might end his career.
‘I was told, “There’s a tear through the back of the retina and it won’t repair, it’s got to be left”. I just turned off and went silent. I cried. I said, “Just get me out of here”.’
At home in Maidstone, three months after the incident, Ward is still coming to terms with the fact that he will never have full vision again in his left eye. He describes seeing a ‘slight dot’ or a ‘little hazy line’ when he looks, but he still has full peripheral vision and he claims his life is unaffected, apart from his job – playing hockey.
It is a sport Ward took up at the age of four and has played full-time since 2014, when he quit working at a Volkswagen dealership in Loughborough to sign a professional contract with England.
But while he will do everything he possibly can to make a comeback and play at his second Olympic Games this summer, it is too early to say what the future holds.
And, as he explains, it is not just physically that he has to recover: ‘The biggest thing was getting over the trauma of the noise.
‘I struggled massively before Christmas with any form of hearing a stick hit a hockey ball because the last time I heard it was when I got hit in the head.
‘The Saturday after my injury, I went to watch my club, Old Georgians, against Surbiton. My friend said, “You don’t look very well”, and I was like, “This is not a comfortable noise to be around”.
‘A week later, I went to watch a game at Reading and went on the pitch while the boys were warming up, but I thought, “I’ve got to get off”.
‘That was quite challenging but last month I went to watch coaching at my club and was around the boys pinging balls around and I wasn’t flinching any more. That was the first step forward of getting over that fear of hockey balls.’
Over the New Year, Ward enjoyed a much-needed holiday in Cape Town. A club cricketer himself, he had tickets to see England’s Second Test win over South Africa. But sitting in the stands at Newlands was not all enjoyable.
‘I’d say the first time it’s really hit me, the thought of the unknown of what’s going on, was when they sang the national anthem on morning one,’ he explains. ‘That is the first time I sat there and thought, “You might not do it again”. I wouldn’t say I am a depressed person but I’ve gone through a tough time.
‘There are dark days and tough days. Often it is anxiety – “what if I can’t do this?” That’s the bit that spirals out of control but it’s just nipping things in the bud early doors.
‘Those tough days make us tougher as a person. The biggest thing I have learned is don’t isolate yourself. Never be afraid to have a conversation with someone. It’s OK not to be OK.
‘In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. I’ve got two legs, I’m fully fit, I can drive perfectly. The worst case scenario is that I don’t play hockey again, but that is not something I am currently looking at.’
Indeed, as soon as he returned from holiday, Ward met his physio and strength and conditioning coach to work out his programme to play again. ‘Having 10 weeks without any form of exercise was tough. After I did my first proper running session on the treadmill, I felt horrific.
‘But I have worked very hard physically over the last month and I am now starting to move back into hockey. I have started to be on the stick and ball a lot more, practising trapping the ball. I will start to move into more contact-based stuff over the next few weeks.
‘I’m also doing things like hand-eye co-ordination, catching balls. It’s a bit of depth perception on a moving ball that I need to work on. When the ball is on the floor, it is completely normal, it’s the moving, bouncing ball that I am working hard on.
‘Yes, it will be a long journey, and I can imagine there will be times I’ll really struggle, but I will be doing everything I can to be back for Tokyo. I am not going to give up. I will be fighting as hard as I can.’
If Ward does make a successful comeback, he will look rather different from the last time he stepped on a pitch.
‘I’ve been looking at eyewear that I am going to wear on my return. I will be allowed to wear glasses to protect my good eye as any damage to that ruins my whole life in a way because I would then be partially sighted in both eyes. I’ve found out you can customise glasses and get them in your own colours, so I was really excited about that!
‘I think I will get banter from my team-mates about the way I might look. I have to wear leggings already because of infection issues, so with glasses, I am going to look like some form of superhero!’
Any comments Ward may receive will be a small price to pay if it takes him a step closer to his goal of a place on the podium at Tokyo.
That is something he has been striving for since Rio four years ago when, despite going into the Games ranked fourth in the world, Great Britain’s men failed to even get out of the group stage, while the women won an historic gold medal.
‘We underperformed in Rio and we had a pretty bad experience,’ admits Ward. ‘But being a competitive athlete, you want to go and put things right; go and improve as much as you can and that’s what I want to go and do.
‘Seeing the women win gold spurs you on to want to go on and achieve the same.
‘It’s a completely different ball game, winning a medal at an Olympic Games.
‘If you are a top-level sports-person, you don’t go to be part of it, you go to win a medal and achieve everything you can.
‘If I was to go and win a medal now, it would mean absolutely everything. It makes me well up thinking about it because of the last few months I’ve had and the challenges I would have overcome.
‘If I did medal, I don’t think there would be anything better in the world.’