Ben Kilner on quitting Wigan Warriors, mental health struggles and his next step
Former Wigan Warriors prop Ben Kilner has started a new career as a roofer – but he has no regrets about walking away from rugby league.
In a candid interview, the 22-year-old – who was a part of Adrian Lam’s first-team squad – has opened up about why he has quit the sport for the good of his mental health.
He detailed a time he broke down in tears at the training ground at his lowest point, and left the door ajar for a possible return to the game down the track.
But for now, he is coming to terms with his decision to step away from Wigan, which he kept private until revealing it on social media a week ago.
“It was pretty difficult, and if I’m honest, it still is now,” said Kilner, an academy-product who broke into Lam’s side last year.
“That’s the thing with sport, as soon as injuries start to take place, it begins to affect your mental health, and you need to make decisions for you rather than the benefit of the team.
“I decided it wasn’t right for me anymore, I wasn’t making the progression that I wanted to, and that’s as black and white as it is.
“It’s quite upsetting because I feel – as big headed as it sounds – I had an opportunity, and I could’ve gone somewhere with it.”
Since leaving Wigan, the 22-year-old says other clubs have enquired about his availability, while the Warriors would also be willing to take him back.
“It’s one of those things, do you be a superstar and a professional rugby league player for the next 10 years or do you think to yourself ‘my body hasn’t got it in it anymore’,” said Kilner, who had two shoulder reconstructions during his youth career.
“I have to accept it and move on otherwise it’ll eat away at me.
“I know I’m not going to be right if I carry on doing this for another year, so I decided to start a normal life.
“I would love to still be playing rugby and be in that environment, I wish I’d never left, but it is something I had to do for my physical and mental health.”
Whilst his decision to walk away from the sport has only come recently, Kilner’s battle with mental health started more than two years ago.
“It was a case of my mood was changing, it was really difficult for me to out of bed and walk into training, wanting to be there,” he revealed.
“Deep down I was really nervous and scared that something would go wrong again, whether it would be a minor thing that would keep me out for two weeks or a something big that would last months.
“Things just got a lot harder. I’ve been riddled with injury, and for such a young player it seemed like everything was against me.”
Kilner recalled how on one day in particular, everything he was going through just caught up with him.
“I went into training one day, and found myself in a room on my own, where I just cried,” he said.
“It was the lowest I’ve been, because I should’ve been outside with the lads.
“Tom Fitzpatrick (Wigan Warriors’ welfare officer) found me and I just said to him: ‘I don’t know where I’m going in my life, I’m just lost.’
“I never thought I’d say those things.
“People would say about how much of a happy guy I am and how I’m the first one to crack a joke.
“Just over a year ago Steve McCormack helped me out with Rugby League Cares as well as medication from doctors, which I’m still on till this day.
“I had spiralled to the point where I wasn’t myself anymore and everyone around me could see that. I realised I was in the wrong place, and it was time to branch out to new things.”
The youngster from Normanton, near Castleford, made his first team debut for Wigan last September, in a young side beaten by St Helens at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford.
Although the Warriors lost the Super League contest 42-0, Kilner’s whole-hearted display was one of the positives.
“The week building up to the Saints game I was really excited and desperate to play,” he recalled.
“Even though other things were going on, I got the game done and I loved it,” he said. “I got some good feedback from the coaches and the fans, but the day
after, I went back into my pit. I was sat there thinking all sorts.
“I had been knocked out and I thought, ‘It’s another thing against me, it’s another thing keeping me out for longer.’ Some lads get a concussion and are out for a week; I was out for two or three.
“When the highs are high, it’s crazy, nothing can bring you down, but when the lows hit me, they hit hard and I just wanted be by myself, away from everything.”
His message to anyone who going through similar struggles is to “speak out sooner,” and that the support from his team-mates made all the difference.
“It is scary but as soon as you say it, no one is going to laugh at you or mock you, everyone will be there with open arms,” he said. “I could tell you every conversation I’ve had with the lads at Wigan, where they have sat with me for half an hour to talk about anything.
“That changed my whole scope and made me a happier person.”
Kilner leaves the Warriors with fond memories, having signed his first scholarship in 2015 and progressed through the academy ranks to earn a first-team spot.
“I could be here for ages reeling off (the things I’ve enjoyed), even the little things like being offered new contracts and getting praise about the potential I have,” he said. “The thing that sticks with me most is, I’ve made such an impact that the club still want to be in touch with me and would welcome me back. That makes me the happiest, as I know it wasn’t for nothing and everything I did was really good, which makes me feel valuable.”
Despite no longer playing for the club, Kilner is still focused on how his former teammates are doing.
And though he has no plans to start playing rugby again he isn’t completely ruling out a return to the field at some stage.
“I’m happy to walk away from it and just be a fan, which is weird to say,” he said. “I’ve been watching it with a keen eye when Wigan have played, and I’ll continue to do that as the years go on.
“If I got back into it, then I would be further behind again, like I was at Wigan with my injuries. I won’t have time to focus and keep
myself physically and mentally fit. It’s definitely not a ‘right I’m done with rugby league,’ and if I do ever want to go back then I will see what’s out there.”
After stepping away from being a professional sportsman, Kilner is now training to be a roofer.
He added: “It wasn’t something I thought I’d do with my life as I’m quite scared of heights, but it was offered to me, and I took it. I’m loving it and I’m really happy. It’s a new thing, where I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m finding my feet.
“If this would’ve happened in 10 years’ time then I’d be in the same situation, so I see it as I’m starting my journey at an earlier time. It’s a new chapter in my life, and it is scary, but I’m excited for the challenge ahead."