“You could say football saved my life.”
On Thursday, April 21, Gympie Devils Under 13 coach Steve Daniel almost passed away after he went into cardiac arrest at his team’s training session.
It was a terrifying experience for all involved, but as Daniel reflects on the incident six months on, he also knows he was exactly where he was meant to be on that day.
Surrounded by rugby league volunteers trained in CPR and first aid, Daniel believes if he had been at home, he wouldn’t be here now.
Here is Daniel and the Gympie Devils’ story.
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at Jack Stokes Oval in Gympie, the fields are packed with kids from the club’s Under 13, 14 and 16 teams.
This day was no different as Daniel led his 13s boys through their usual training routine, engaging in a bit of a catch and pass with his players.
Then things started to take a turn for the worse.
“I wasn’t exerting myself very much at all,” Daniel said.
“But I started to suddenly feel a bit dizzy. I stopped for a second and then I was having trouble breathing. I sat down before I fell down and the boys came running over to see what was going on.
“I said I was in a bit of trouble and needed some help. It was about 10 years ago when I had a triple bypass, but I’ve been fine ever since that.
“They sung out and an FAO (first aid officer) came running.”
Two FAOs rushed over - the Under 13 FAO and team manager, Holly Weddell, and club secretary, Patrina Benton.
At the exact same time they came to Daniel’s aid, the Under 13 assistant coach and trainer, former NRL player Kris Kahler, also arrived at the oval.
Daniel was losing consciousness when Kahler got to his side.
“I think they thought he had fainted, but I checked his pulse, which was very weak,” Kahler said.
“Steve came back to, and he said he’d had heart problems in the past. I opened his shirt and could see he’d had surgery, so I said to get an ambulance straight away.
“Then he went fully unconscious and I knew we had to start CPR.”
Kahler did the chest compressions while Benton did mouth-to-mouth, Weddell checked his heart rate, and another person at the club went to locate the defibrillator.
Daniel continued to move in and out of consciousness and remembers moments of what was happening, but said he felt “comfortable and relaxed.”
He lost consciousness again as the defibrillator was brought out to the field, with the ambulance sirens getting louder in the background.
“The ambulance turned up and did the defibrillator and took me off to the hospital,” Daniel said.
“I went to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital and they fit me with a pacemaker.
“A week later I was back on the field, letting the boys know I was all okay.
“If I wasn’t at the footy club that day, if I was at home by myself, I guarantee I wouldn’t be here now. Without my assistant coach and the FAO, I wouldn’t have made it. I was very fortunate.”
Right place, right time
Benton strongly believes there was a reason both her and Kahler were at the fields on that particular Thursday.
The mother-of-four – with three of her children having played for the Devils – isn’t always at the oval on a Thursday. Former Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast Titans player Kahler, meanwhile, can also often miss training sessions or be late due to his work commitments.
“We don’t normally have FAOs at training,” Benton said.
“It’s not a requirement, but it actually is something I have raised in the past because training can be just as risky as playing.
“But yes, I wasn’t normally there. Sometimes I would turn up, sometimes I wouldn’t. This day, I happened to be there.
“I think it was fate. It was just meant to be that way. We’d only bought the defibrillator a few months before that incident occurred.
“Kris was also there and had a lot of the (CPR training) fresh in his mind. And thank God he was there because he helped me, prompted me, reminded me.”
Kahler, who said he knew everything was going to be okay with Daniel as soon as paramedics arrived, is trained in first aid, not just through his volunteering in rugby league, but also through his job.
Working for a company that is contracted to Energex, Kahler must do resuscitation training every six months.
“It’s really drummed into you, which is really good,” he said.
“They do tell you that when there is an emergency, it will be a natural trigger, which it was. It was like second nature.
“In my life I have done that training about 25 times. That made it so second nature and easy.”
While Daniel was on his feet and back at the club within a week, there were many who were impacted by what happened on that day.
The club immediately rallied around the young kids who witnessed the cardiac arrest.
There were a few who were left “rattled”, which is why Daniel was so determined to get back quickly, so he could reassure them.
Queensland Rugby League Central wellbeing operations manager Ryan Charles also visited the club to check in with the players.
And the bonds between Daniel and his players grew over the course of the season, becoming so strong that the team actually went on to win the Rugby League Sunshine Coast Under 13 Division 2 premiership.
“We started the year in first division and they were getting an absolute hiding every game,” Daniel said.
“We were put back into second division about halfway through the season and we started to have a little bit of success and made it into the grand final. We won it.
“The boys were so excited… their footy improved really, really well throughout the year. That’s partly because of the relationship the boys and I have.
“Our relationship was already good but after what happened, it made it even stronger. We ended up coming home with the flag.”
The aftermath wasn’t smooth sailing for everyone, however.
For Benton, it took her a while to come to terms with what had happened.
Having known Daniel for 20 years after he coached Benton’s oldest son, Steve, in his first year with the Devils, she struggled with almost losing a friend and with the “what ifs”.
“For the first six weeks, it wasn’t out of my mind,” Benton said.
“You just always go back and go, ‘what if? What if he didn’t make it? What if he died and I couldn’t have helped him?’
“It took me a couple of weeks afterwards to come good. It was a bit traumatic for me… I’ve known him for the last 20-odd years.
“It’s a bit different when you personally know somebody.”
But just as she used her FAO training to help save Daniel’s life, Benton also utilised her training as a member of the QRL’s Support Squad to guide herself through the weeks following the incident.
She also found support from many people within the game, including Charles and sports trainer, Dwayne Kangan.
“What got me into Support Squad is the injuries… I see a lot of kids get injured in the game and they’re out for quite a long time and that really affects their mental health when they’re away from the field,” she said.
“But I’ve learnt so much from that program and the support you have in that space, like Ryan (Charles)… even the other volunteers who did the course. Without a doubt it’s helped me since.
“Ryan helped me out a lot and I reached out to Dwayne… for a man I’ve never met face-to-face, his support was definitely helpful.
“I came across him on the Sports Trainers Queensland site and there are so many supportive people on there happy to share their knowledge. He took my calls for a couple of weeks afterwards and we engaged at length.
“It’s the rugby league community. Everyone has their different roles, but everyone is putting themselves out there to help people, regardless of what their actual role is.
“The football world, the Queensland rugby league world, if you want to look out and reach out for people, they’re there.”
It also helps Benton to see Daniel now thriving.
He was cleared to begin driving again midway through October and she said he was doing as much as he could for his beloved Devils.
“He’s doing brilliantly,” Benton said of Daniel.
“He volunteers for our club every Thursday and runs a bingo at the clubhouse, even though the football season is finished.
“Life is getting back to normal. I can’t think about the ‘what ifs.’ It didn’t happen. He is here.”
The power of the rugby league community
From Benton and Kahler being there on the day of Daniel’s cardiac arrest and being trained to save his life, to the support Benton has found in the months since, plus the way Daniel’s Under 13 team rallied to win the grand final, the one thing everyone at Gympie has been reminded of this year is the power of community within rugby league.
After starting 2022 with the grounds getting wiped out by floodwaters, it’s been a big year for the Devils.
But everywhere they have turned, they’ve found support.
Gympie Devils: 'It was pretty much sink or swim and we're swimming'
“Gympie’s got a great little club there and everyone contributes,” Kahler said.
“We have a good little team and they love playing the game. They just enjoy it. I’m glad there’s so many young kids getting out and playing footy and I’d just like to see it continue.”
This year has also been a reminder for them on the value of learning through sport, whether it be CPR or mental health first aid or just how to be a support person for someone else.
Benton, who works at home to raise her son with autism, said rugby league was not only her passion, but it had provided her with a whole new skillset.
“It’s something I wouldn’t have had if I had not got involved with the club,” she said of her FAO and Support Squad training," Benton said.
“Can I afford to not have that in my life? No. I need that in my life. Other people need me in their lives. You’re hand-in-hand, helping each other on and off the field.
“Rugby league gives me a reason to step outside of the house everyday, knowing that I’m helping out other kids. Football is a big part of my life and no matter what I do, I’ll never stop watching it, engaging in it, or loving the game. It’s my passion.
“That connection that Steve and I had since we first met, it’s always been strong, but now it’s that much stronger knowing he’s alive due to something I did.”
And that sense of community will keep Daniel around for a lot longer too.
He has no intention of slowing down, with an eye on coaching the new Under 17 team next year for the Devils.
“I’m on the pension so rugby league is my outlet,” he said.
“It gets me out and about, associating with other people. It gives me an identity. If you’re not working, you need something else, so for me it’s footy and coaching. I find it very rewarding.
“I’ve been doing it for around 20 years now and the boys I first coached are now young men with families. They see me and want to show me their families, introduce me to their children.
“That’s what it’s all about. You could say football saved my life.”