Rugby: Brain injury from head knocks discovered in late Blues halfback Billy Guyton

Billy Guyton in action for Tasman.
Billy Guyton in action for Tasman. Photo credit: Photosport

By Dylan Cleaver, RNZ contributing author


This article deals with mental health problems, including suicide.

Billy Guyton - the former Blues and New Zealand Māori halfback who died last year, aged 33 - had a brain injury likely to be connected with repeated head knocks.

The stunning diagnosis of stage 2 chronic traumatic encepahlopathy (CTE) was relayed to his family following extensive testing at Auckland's Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank.

Guyton becomes the first New Zealand-based professional rugby player to be diagnosed with the condition, following on from US-based Kiwi Justin Jennings, who died in 2020, aged 50.

The Guyton family has received a report from the Brain Bank that confirmed the CTE diagnosis. It also noted Guyton had "background changes consistent with global hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy", which is an umbrella term for a brain injury.

Guyton - who played more than 50 games for Tasman, and had stints at the Hurricanes and Crusaders, before joining the Blues in 2016 - took his own life in Nelson, after years of what father John described as "cries for help".

"I figured out Billy had CTE a few days after he died," John said. "My wife and I were watching a documentary on it, and I said, 'F*** me, that's Billy. That's what he had'.

"If I can work it out based on a documentary, what the hell were all those specialists Billy saw missing? I hope Billy's death blows a lot of bulls*** out of the water.

In a written statement, New Zealand Rugby said it acknowledged the Guyton family for their loss and continued grief surrounding the passing of Billy.

“We share the family’s concern at his diagnosis.

"NZR is concerned about the possibility that repeated head impacts during participation in rugby may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases in later life.”

"Rugby is so keen to pass it all off as depression that they're happy to ignore what's obvious."

"These guys aren't depressed, they're sick and there's hundreds of them," said John Guton. "I read that Carl Hayman described it as an epidemic and he's right.

"I believe Billy's death was his final 'f*** you' to all those who ignored the obvious, when he tried and tried and tried to get help."

Billy Guyton in action for the Blues.
Billy Guyton in action for the Blues. Photo credit: Photosport

"The poor guy would spend hours in a small, dark cupboard, because he couldn't handle being in the light. Some mornings, he'd just sit in the bottom of his shower tray crying, trying to muster up the energy to get moving.

"Can you imagine what was going on in that guy's head?"

Guyton senior says he does not absolve himself from blame. He describes himself as far from the perfect father and has spent the last year beating himself up over his son's death.

At one point, not understanding what his son was going through, he tried tough love, something he regrets to this day.

"He started making some mistakes financially, and rather than get in there and help him, I decided to give him some space to figure it out on his own. In my mind, I was trying to be a good dad, but he didn't need space, he needed me there beside him.

"A couple of times, I got random, hurtful messages from him, and again, my attitude was just to write it off as him being on something and to leave him alone.

"For a long time after he died, I felt disgusted with myself, but I didn't understand about CTE. Now I do and eventually I have been able to give myself some grace."

John Guyton says the family remains wrecked by Billy's death, and finds it difficult to rationalise the idea that the sport he loved so much and gave so much of his life to "slowly tore his life to bits".

Billy received numerous concussions, the final big one coming in a club game for Waimea Old Boys, when he received a knee to the side of the head. When he returned to Tasman Mako training following that concussion, the slightest bump would trigger symptoms again, so in 2018, at the age of 28, the former Māori All Black made the gut-wrenching decision to retire.

He told the Nelson Weekly at the time: "It was a bloody tough decision.

"I still don't like that I have had to make it, but I know it is the best thing for my health and family.

Billy Guyton in action for the Blues.
Billy Guyton in action for the Blues. Photo credit: Photosport

"Watching TV would bring on headaches, doing too many tasks, loud noises, some days I would need noise-cancelling headphones or I would feel nauseous, and have blurry or double vision. It was not very fun."

He sought the advice of best mate Shane Christie, who was also forced from the sport, after suffering head injuries.

"The key thing for Bill was that he couldn't understand why he was so up and down with his emotions," Christie told RNZ. "That was the thing that was haunting him.

"He would see people and they would talk about concussion, but they would never talk about CTE. Managing concussion is a massively different proposition to managing a degenerative disease and I can't say for certain, but I don't think Bill had this information."

Christie has suffered from many post-concussion symptoms and suspects he might have CTE himself, but needs the appropriate medical guidance to understand.

"I can handle a diagnosis of CTE," he said. "I can manage that, but first it needs to be acknowledged as a possibility by specialists provided by ACC.

"Rugby and the ACC can't hide behind this line that you can't be diagnosed until after death, because if they don't acknowledge that, people like Bill can't get the proper care.

"There will be many more like Bill. These players need to be treated on a case-by-case basis and not with broad statements."

In its statement, NZR said it continues to prioritise player safety which reduces and mitigates against the risk of injury and the exposure of head impacts to participants at all levels.

“This includes the introduction of smart mouthguards, lower tackle height, contact guidelines, law changes, compulsory education for community coaches and many other initiatives.

“NZR is also supporting world-leading research to better understand the long-term impacts of participation in rugby, including a focus on understanding any link between concussion and long-term brain health."

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