The photo speaks to us all about the inestimable power of friendship; about how even our darkest times can be elevated by hope and love.
When England rugby coach Kevin Sinfield carried his former teammate Rob Burrow over the finishing line of the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon in May, the tenderness of the gesture touched a nation’s hearts.
Rob, who has motor neurone disease (MND), was pushed round the course in his wheelchair. Kevin, his former captain at Leeds Rhinos rugby league club, ran the 26.2 miles. And at the end, Kevin scooped his old friend up in his arms, cradling his frail body like a child’s, gave him a little kiss and carried him so they could finish the race together.
The act told us much about trust, courage, suffering and the enduring solidarity that adversity can bring: that two men who had won almost every honour in the toughest of sports, who had played together for club and country, could show their softness made us feel the strength of brotherhood at its best.
‘We’d planned to end the race arm-in-arm, but we’d underestimated how tired Rob would be,’ says Kevin now. ‘We’d had to stop maybe six or seven times on the route to get him out of his wheelchair because he was too hot and uncomfortable and we had to make sure he had the correct nourishment.
‘But we were really conscious that we wanted to cross the line together. Carrying him seemed a great way to finish. It was a really nice moment for us to share. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve given him a little kiss.
‘Our friendship has gone through difficulties and challenges but we have always stayed loyal and looked after each other. That epitomised the team we played in. People often think rugby is this macho sport but the best teams really care about each other and I think this showed it.’
Kevin, 43, who last month was in France as England’s defence coach at the rugby union World Cup, has done much more than remain steadfastly loyal to his best friend.
Rob was diagnosed with MND, an incurable degenerative condition affecting the brain and nerves, in 2019, and given just two years to live. Since then, he has not merely existed but remained defiantly and triumphantly alive; intent on raising money for, and awareness of, the ruthless disease that has left his agile mind trapped in a completely paralysed body.
In honour of his friend, Kevin has, in turn, undertaken a series of epic endurance challenges that would have defeated a less tenacious spirit, raising £13 million for MND charities.
First he ran seven marathons — more than 180 miles — in seven days. Then, in 2021, he ran 101 miles in just 24 hours. Last year was even more extreme. He ran seven ultra- marathons in seven days, clocking up an astonishing 37 miles a day for a week. And all this was born out of his love for Rob.
The two friends are together again today, speaking exclusively to the Mail to mark the publication of their children’s book, With You Every Step, which will raise more funds for MND. Rob, 41, is unable to articulate his thoughts except through his Eyegaze, a device which translates blinks into letters, then builds them into words on a screen.
‘Our friendship continues to inspire us both. It makes us braver and stronger,’ says Rob. ‘The deep bond we have now is unbreakable and knowing we have each other is one of the biggest comforts there is.
‘The qualities I most value in Kevin are his integrity and his ability to go out of his comfort zone. It takes a special kind of person to do what he has done for me and the whole MND community.
‘He doesn’t like fuss and he won’t like me saying it, but he puts his body on the line every time he sets off on his challenges. He could give James Bond a run for his money.
‘And he always has a cheeky message for me when I see him. You see him say a few words in my ear and those words are normally funny or not repeatable. I hope he knows that I would do the same for him. I am truly grateful for everything that he has done for me.’
The premise of the book is heart-warming. ‘Everything I’d do for you, I know you’d do for me’ is its message of reciprocal support.
At home in Pontefract, West Yorkshire with Lindsey, 40, the wife his family calls ‘superwoman’ because she cares for him, while looking after their three kids Macy, 11, Maya eight, and Jackson, four, and working part-time as a physiotherapist, Rob says: ‘I wanted to do this book with Kevin to highlight the importance of friendship and show that there are many ways to be strong.
‘I am hoping it will appeal to young boys in particular to show that friendships can be based on love and vulnerability. True friends like Kevin are always with their friends even when times are tough.’
That he can no longer read to his children is a huge regret: ‘But I hope that this book will give them an insight into what true friendship is.’
Kevin was ‘devastated’ when he heard that his former teammate — known as the Mighty Atom because of his tiny stature, devastating speed and agility — had MND.
‘Seeing Rob’s face rumple and the tears come, it just ripped through me. That is something that will stick with me for ever, the day he explained to the world he’d been diagnosed with MND.
‘Instinctively you try to find out about it and you’re hit with terrifying statistics. Fifty per cent of people die in the first two years. A third live for 12 months. You realise how serious it is. You can’t think straight. You’re in a tail-spin.
‘When you have a friend diagnosed who is a similar age to you with three kids under ten, you try to put yourself in their shoes (which is very difficult by the way). You ask why?
‘The very best of us are diagnosed with MND. They are fighters. They have unbelievable spirit. But it’s so difficult for friends and family because what MND does to the body is gruesome and tragic and some people can’t face it.
‘I felt helpless. What could I do for Rob besides being a good mate? I knew I wanted to be there for him and try to show him that I would be, no matter what.’
Then he hit upon the idea of pushing himself beyond the boundaries of normal human endurance in his runs.Rob asks: ‘What sort of friend would put his life at risk for me, forgoing sleep, spending time apart from his family and risking permanent injury or worse?’
The answer was Kevin, who in turn says of Rob: ‘He’s an inspiration. He inspires me to be better, to take risks, to do the right thing as far as I can. Our friendship is unconditional. They are the best friendships. And I know he would have done the same for me. He’s told me so.’
So Kevin kept on running, through nights of crushing tiredness when his knees were stiff with fatigue and the tears constantly threatened to engulf him. But thinking of the agonies his friend endured daily was enough to keep Kevin going. All the way through,’ says Kevin, ‘There was no way I was going to surrender. Just no way. I was representing Rob. I didn’t want to let him down. I just couldn’t fail. It wasn’t an option.
‘I’d said I wanted it to be horrible. And I really meant that. I wanted to show there are people who are willing to go through pain for some greater good. I knew it needed to be extreme to make that point about pain and commitment.
‘The big message for Rob was for him to know I was willing to do anything for him, to make sacrifices to show him how much I care.
‘I met so many people in the MND community along the way whose stories and pain were horrific, and no matter how difficult it got I couldn’t put myself in Rob’s shoes or theirs, but I could put myself through difficulties to support him and the MND community.
‘Sport — being part of a team — gives you something deeper. It’s to do with adversity and coming through ordeals together.’
Completing the challenges, he reflects, was greater than all his rugby triumphs, his honours, awards: ‘It goes beyond any special moment in rugby,’ he says.
How did Kevin’s wife Jayne, 43, and their sons Jack, 19 — who also plays for Leeds Rhinos — and Sam, 18, react to his absences and the toll his challenges have taken on his body? ‘Jayne and the boys are very supportive. Jayne understands why I do it, although she thinks I’m crazy at times.’
I say I heard he had missed her 40th birthday for one of the challenges. ‘Well, she certainly hasn’t suffered. She made me pay for it,’ he smiles.
He hopes Jack and Sam forge strong friendships like the one he shares with Rob, whom he met when they were just 14 and 12 and training with Leeds Rhinos juniors. Kevin remembers that Rob — who is just 5 ft 4 in tall and was always the shortest player in a field of giants — was, ‘like a mouse in a cartoon, causing absolute mayhem’.
The two men graduated to the first team. Rob danced rings round huge defenders to score spectacular tries. One of the Super League’s most successful players, he also won 15 caps for England and played five times for Great Britain. Kevin, among the most celebrated rugby league players of all time, has represented his club and country in more than 500 games and won seven Super League titles, three World Cup Challenges and two Challenge Cups.
But what does Rob remember about those heady playing days at Leeds? ‘First up, the man smells fantastic,’ he jokes. ‘Kevin was always a very well-presented player. I once even bought the same moisturiser as him so I could smell the same whenever I breezed into the changing rooms.’
I ask Kevin about this — he looks like a man who moisturises — and he laughs: ‘Well he was always looking in my kit bag so he’d know all about that.’
Rob has never lost his humour. Since the tears that came with the shock of his diagnosis, he has been unfailingly upbeat. He instituted a ‘no crying’ rule and is determined to wring every drop of happiness out of the time left to him.
Known in his rugby days as a joker — as quick and agile with repartee as he was running with a ball — he radiates happiness with a wide smile during the time I spend chatting to him and Lindsey.
Kevin says they still banter: ‘Rob is still very witty, always joking. To read his text messages you’d think that nothing had changed in his life. It’s remarkable.
‘My time with him is precious. If I go to see him with a couple of teammates, we reminisce about the good times and we get him laughing. It makes him feel he’s back in the dressing room.
‘It’s always a joy to see him. I’m always sad when I leave. I have this range of emotions when I drive home: I feel fortunate; massively inspired to help and terribly sad that such a good friend is fighting this and we are no nearer finding a cure.’
Lindsey talks about those visits, too. ‘I have to get the emergency chairs out. It sometimes feels as if the whole rugby team has come to visit. They’ll all talk about their memories, Rob beaming away. He is still the same person. He just has a body that doesn’t function.’
These days he sleeps downstairs. Lindsey used to haul him upstairs, lifting him under his arms, but now the daily ritual is too exhausting for both of them. ‘And the last thing I want to do is end up in a scrum at the bottom of the stairs,’ she smiles.
Rob sums up the unquantifiable value of Kevin’s support: ‘Kevin and I have been shoulder to shoulder from day one, fighting this battle against MND.
‘Having someone who you trust completely is a gift. We know we can always be honest with each other, and just be ourselves. Our book is really special to us, and we are very proud of it. We hope that we’ve captured a little of our friendship in it.
‘And we hope that everyone, young and old, is fortunate enough to experience the type of friendship that we have found together. And to treasure it when they do.
‘Kevin was my captain and he still is my captain. He always will be. We sat next to each other in the dressing room. We went through the highs and lows of rugby league. The highs were amazing. But he always looked after us. And here he is now, still looking after all of us; me, Lindsey and the kids.’
I wonder if Kevin has more challenges planned and he assures me he has. ‘My knees are shot and there will come a time when I can’t run,’ he says. ‘I can find a million reasons why I shouldn’t go again but I can always find one reason why I should — and that is Rob.’
- With You Every Step: A Celebration Of Friendship by Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield (£10) is available from all good bookshops. 50p for every copy sold will be split equally between the MND Association and Leeds Hospitals Charity.