Bristol student returns to American football club as coach after suffering spinal injury

Archie says he didn’t want to ‘quit on my friends’ at his beloved sports club

Bristol Uni student, Archie Wills-Johnson, was forced to stop playing American football after a serious spine injury in 2022. Showing impressive dedication to his team, he has since returned to the Bristol Barracuda, as coach and team manager.

Joining the university in 2021 to study Biology, Archie took up American football, a club available to all students through Bristol University’s Student Union.

However, halfway through a match in December 2022, Archie experienced what he described as a “big electric shock” course down his right arm. This “electric shock” turned out to be no less than a herniated disk, which meant that the cartilage between his vertebrae was compressing his spinal cord. Archie remembers: “I was really scared, I didn’t know what was happening.”

He recounts the stressful and frightening experience of being rushed to hospital: A&E staff were calling specialist operating theatres around the South-West trying to find anywhere that had space for me.”

Archie is still uncertain as to what triggered this serious injury. He said: “I’m still not sure what caused it. I had some low-level nerve pain in my shoulder before the electric shock feeling so it was probably wear and tear followed by a sudden hit, but it’s hard to pinpoint it exactly.”

Archie risked paralysing himself if he continued to play contact sports; if the herniated disc was left untreated, he would continue to experience electric shocks, which could result in paralysis.

This was a dramatic change for Archie. Before the injury, he played up to 20 hours of contact sports a week, in linebacker and safety positions. Suddenly, he was battling chronic pain, losing out on both the sport he loved and the social life of the club.

Images from the University of Bristol Barracuda Media Day – Bristol Barracuda Media Day – University of Bristol Student Union – 19 September 2023

Archie was discharged from hospital care just three days before Christmas, and with help from the NHS and the university’s counselling team and Student Health Service, he began to recover physically and mentally.

Archie was adamant that the injury would not tear him away from the Bristol Barracuda. He said he refused to “quit on my friends or quit on my position” as a committee member of the club.

Impressively, Archie returned to the Barracuda as a coach, helping with technique during sessions, as well as through video analysis. He also plays an important role in the behind-the-scenes management of the 60-strong squad. Archie has since been elected Vice-President of Bristol Barracuda and has helped increase female participation through Flag Football (similar to tag rugby), including with a well-attended tournament.

For this incredible display of dedication and resilience, Archie has been awarded an ‘Outstanding’ PLUS Award from the University. More than 1,000 students achieve the PLUS Award every year, which rewards extracurricular activity such as volunteering, but only eight go on to win at the Outstanding level.

Via University of Bristol

Archie won in the ‘Resilience’ category – an appropriate reward, considering everything he has overcome. Bristol PLUS Award Manager, Celeste Waller-Carr, said: “We were really inspired by Archie and his determination to keep giving back to the club he loves.”

Featured image via University of Bristol.

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