Tom Philip started all of Scotland’s games in the Six Nations in 2004. He remembers the last of those matches vividly. He says he should have been sent off against Ireland for a high tackle on Brian O’Driscoll. Still, the Irishman was impressed enough to give Philip his No 13 jersey at the full-time whistle. Shortly after the game, O’Driscoll said the 20-year-old would have a great future in the sport. Philip never played another Test for his country.
Today, Philip is 38 years old and struggling with anxiety. The last six months have been some of the hardest of his life. “I have nightmares about rugby every night. My hands don’t work. My laces are undone. Things are not working. I have PTSD and very vivid nightmares, most of which are violent towards people who have hurt me.”
From a young age, Philip knew he was different. He suffered from severe mental health issues that left him barely able to speak or feel heard. He was a passive child who learned to keep his head down and answer only when addressed. This all changed when he stepped on to the rugby field. “My childhood wasn’t a childhood until I found sport. Everything was anxiety. I was riddled with it. I felt severe pain in my groin and back. I felt I wasn’t being heard at school. I didn’t even want to play rugby. I was put on the wing and hated it. I didn’t like hearing parents shouting to give me the ball. I didn’t want the attention. I would score 10 tries, but all I wanted to do was hide.
“When it got more physical in rugby I finally had an outlet for my anger and pain. I’d stick my face in the middle of a ruck, literally because I wanted to experience huge pain. Later in life, I’d give myself black eyes and scars as physical pain was better than mental pain. I had an utter disregard for my body, just like my coaches and physios. I’d train while injured. Pain didn’t register. It gets to you eventually but, compared to the terrors, it was nothing.
“I played through the under-age groups for Scotland and then made my senior debut very young. On paper everything was great, but I was a mess. I was masking my OCD. I couldn’t sleep. I’d wait for my roommate to fall asleep then go through my rituals. I was haunted. I felt I was a terrible person. I’d wash off anything from my body, scrubbing it raw. Then I’d try to make sure everything was neat and tidy. The culture in the early 2000s to the younger guys was very much: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ I was shy and kept my head down. I remember overhearing people saying: ‘Don’t share with Tom, he’s a fucking nutter.’
The culture of rugby still retained some of the last embers of the amateur game and Philip felt unable to talk about his struggles. Even though he was plagued with injuries to his back and knees, he felt he had no choice but to play on. “I played that Six Nations 30% fit. Before my last game for Scotland, I was in tears in Dublin. My back was hurt but I was treated like a hypochondriac. It was workplace bullying, looking back.
“If you see me in that game, I was an angry, dirty player. I could bring that out on the field and was encouraged for it. Players would come up to me like I was their pal, saying: ‘Come on Tommy, there’s fuck all wrong with you, get on with it.’ I was questioning myself, thinking: ‘Am I soft?’ I’d always played with injuries, but it was just too much in the end.”
Philip’s career ended early, with chronic groin and back pain. He had saved £40,000 from his career, which he spent on physical and mental therapy. He worked as a personal trainer, in a residential home for children and attempted to make a comeback in amateur rugby union years later, and rugby league in Whitehaven.
“I came back because it was only on the pitch I could express myself. There are no questions on the pitch, no doubting, no thinking. I couldn’t let the game go. I wanted to fight. I thought about MMA. In my last game for Whitehaven, I couldn’t see. I was vomiting before the game and blacking out after every hit. I was the physical manifestation of what I’d gone through in my life.”
Although rugby gave Philip savage injuries, he found some kindness in the game. He made close friends in Whitehaven, where people accepted him and showed him care he had rarely experienced. His rugby captain at school, Mike Blair – the former British and Irish Lions and Scotland scrum-half – also provided a calm voice in a turbulent world.
Blair put Philip in contact with Jonny Wilkinson. When he emailed Wilkinson, Philip didn’t expect a reply. He just wanted to thank Wilkinson for his advocacy on mental health. Wilkinson replied, insisting they talk. “Jonny Wilkinson never told anyone about helping me. He just did it and I guarantee I’m not the first guy he’s done that for. I emailed, told him about myself and thanked him for his leadership. I talked about my own struggle and left it there. He emailed and said: ‘Thank you for reaching out to me. This is too important to write about. Can I call you?’ I just thought ‘wow’. He didn’t need to do this. He was commentating at the World Cup in 2019. He calls me from Japan and says: ‘I’m here anytime to chat.’ The kindness he showed me was incredible. I will never forget it.”
Philip is trying to pass on the kindness he has been shown and spread some light in the world. For the last 15 years, he has been his mother’s primary carer, working alongside her partner. Even though he has often struggled to hold down a career outside rugby – he found himself in a cycle of working, having a breakdown and then having to start again – he now has a job in the care sector working with vulnerable adults, which gives him great pride. He has also trained as a counsellor and can finally see a better life ahead.
Philip still has O’Driscoll’s jersey folded neatly in his Edinburgh flat. It reminds him of a previous lifetime. Today, he takes pride in the fact he is still alive and is trying to make the world a better place. “I’ve worked hard and I am continuing to evolve and cope better. I have hope now and I will strive to make a difference. With the counselling certificate, I have found something I’m good at, passionate about and get recognition and praise for my input, insight and empathy – feedback I’ve missed for so long. Settling down and having a family now feels realistic, as I now realise my qualities. I may be 38, but I have continued the work and believe the best is yet to come. Otherwise, why carry on?”