Dr. Stephen Durant, 59, laughs about it now, but for most people, having your eye accidentally gouged in a rugby game is not funny.
“I’m literally in the blood and the mud, praying, ‘Dear Jesus, I’m in trouble,’ ” said Durant, recalling the incident last October that ended his rugby career.
Once he was rushed to the emergency room, a resident took a peek at the bloody mess where his left eye was and fainted right on top of him.
“In my best Irish accent, on the worst day of my life, I looked over at Brian [his son and teammate], and said, ‘That inspires a lot of effin confidence, doesn’t it?’ ” said Durant.
Durant, a Massachusetts General Hospital clinical psychologist and co-director of the Paces Institute at MGH for sports psychology, loves rugby almost as much as life itself. He has been playing it for 41 years, logging more than 800 games with the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and a variety of other teams dating to his undergraduate days at Holy Cross.
In 2007, Durant and Brian, then 24, made history as the first father-son duo to play for a USA Rugby national champion. He wanted to play rugby with his son until he was 70, as his father did with him. His father was legendary MGH humanitarian Dr. Thomas Durant, who played with Stephen while battling cancer.
Now Stephen Durant, a bald-headed, big-hearted warrior, has been left blind in his left eye and wearing a patch he says makes him look like a “James Bond villain.”
But Durant is no villain. And he calls the horrific injury “a blessing.”
“I have weathered the storm and learned a TON,” the Dorchester native wrote in a letter to family and friends. “I will be wiser, kinder and maybe even braver in some ways. I have a ‘knowing’ now that will help my patients, especially the trauma victims and combat vets. Good can and will come from this. Already has.”
With one eye gone, he now sees from the heart. The outpouring of love from his family, friends, and co-workers has energized him.
“Here’s the biggest take-home lesson for me in all this,” he wrote. “Pain and suffering is not the enemy. Loneliness is. I was NEVER lonely or alone . . . I was in terrible pain and fear but I always had God, family, and friends to love and strengthen me.”
His family members all wore eye patches for the Christmas photo, calling themselves “the Pirates of Durantz.” His old Boston College High School football team sent a doctored 1970 team picture with eye patches drawn on every face. His buddies at USA Rugby teased him, telling him to “stop being a baby.”
Dr. Larry Ronan, the Red Sox medical director and director of the Thomas S. Durant Fellowship in Refugee Medicine at MGH, called his colleague and friend Stephen Durant “an articulate pilgrim.”
“His story is a compelling story, it speaks to a lot of our journeys,” said Ronan. “Now he’s had something bad happen to him that has knocked him off his trajectory. And that’s also going to happen to all of us at some point, and he wants to talk to us.”
“He’s a guy with a huge heart,” said Dr. Paula Rauch, who works with Durant in the Home Base Program for veterans and their families at MGH. “He refers to others as ‘Hall of Famers’ when he should be referring to himself. He’s a master at translating psychology and spirituality into language that people in the neighborhoods can understand.
“He’s essentially living the Serenity Prayer. It’s a big gift. For others, showing up matters, then you need to listen. Don’t be afraid of things you can’t fix. There’s a lot of little things that can make a difference if you change them.”
Durant is an eternal optimist.
“You lose hope, you’re in trouble,” he said.
Durant has talked to Red Sox minor leaguers in Fort Myers, Fla., in years past.
“I tell them that the No. 1 rule of emotional health is do not suffer alone,” he said. “If you’re going to follow that rule, there’s two things you need to do. You have to identify your go-to people and your go-to behaviors.
“Go-to people are people you can empty your belly to and it won’t wind up on Facebook. Go-to behaviors that work are prayer and meditation. Make your brain get quiet and avoid distractions.”
After more than a month of sleeping 14 hours a day from the trauma, Durant, a workout maniac, has resumed physical exercise.
“Exercise is the best antidepressant there is,” he said. “Do something for somebody else so you get out of your own crap. And then, music, nature, golf — that would never work for me — but that’s how you get through things.”
Durant used to tell his rugby teammates, “Every game is a gift.”
He still loves the game; he even briefly mentions playing again before dismissing the thought.
“He loves the camaraderie,” said teammate David O’Rourke of the Boston Irish Wolfhounds. “He loves the opposites of trying to not murder a guy, but physically beat a guy and coming off the field and drinking a beer with him and talking about kids and family.”
Don’t expect him to come out for mandatory goggles or other safety rules.
“That’s not the game,” said Durant. “You pay your ticket, you take your ride. It was really a fluke. In 41 years, I never heard of a guy losing an eye. Just lucky I guess.”
Men’s Health magazine calls rugby “officially the most dangerous team sport.”
Durant calls it “the greatest game in the world.”
“There’s no place to hide and no real protective armor,” said Durant. “Plus there still exists that rugby code on and off the field that places a high value on camaraderie and fair play.”
Teammates say they have lost one of a kind.
“If General Custer had Stevie in the circle at Little Big Horn, the outcome would have been on Custer’s side,” said O’Rourke, who played nearly two decades alongside Durant. “He gets very fired up, he lives it and he breathes it. I’ve never played with anybody who lives it and breathes it the way Stevie does.”
Pain and perspective
The game on Oct. 20 was in an over-35 league, between the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and a New Haven team at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton.
“He was trying to rip the ball out of my hands, instead he ripped my eye,” said Durant.
“I’ve had pain and dislocations and separations and cuts, but the pain was through the roof, immediately. I checked to see if my eye had been knocked out of the socket; it wasn’t down, it was split, and pushed down through the orbital floor.
“I started to go into shock almost immediately. On the sideline, Brian was great; he stayed cool as a cucumber. The other guys were going, ‘Who did it, Stevie? We’ll [expletive] kill him!’ ”
But Durant is not an eye-for-an-eye guy.
“It wasn’t malicious at all,” he said. “It was a total fluke. The guy who did it was horrified.”
There was also the immediate realization that things could have been worse.
“When I was on the ground, I looked up and I saw Patrick ‘Punter’ Culleton, a teammate paralyzed in a game in 1990, and the founder of the Wolfhounds,” said Durant. “I was on my knees in pain and he was in his wheelchair, and I could see he was upset.
“I kind of vowed to myself that I would not feel sorry for myself because I’ve never seen him feel sorry for himself and I admire his grace in adversity.”
“This is not the worst thing in the world. Hurts like hell, but I thought about my patients and people that witnessed hellacious trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse, death of a child, and I thought, ‘You know what? I wasn’t doing anything heroic. I was playing a selfish game that I loved to play. I zigged when I should have zagged. I got hurt and lost an eye. OK.’ ”
He had surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, but decided against a glass eye at this time.
“If God said to me when I was 18, ‘I’m going to give you this sport and you’re going to love it. You’re not a great athlete; you’re an OK athlete, and it’s perfect for you. You’re going to play with both of your sons, one of your brothers, and with your dad. You will play touch rugby with both your daughters, and your wife. You’re going to make all these great friends and go to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and have a blast, but you are going to have a day in Hell,’ I would’ve been, ‘Where do I sign?’
“I’d do the same thing again even if I knew the outcome. I’d absolutely do it all over again.”
In his wallet, Durant carries a 40-year-old newspaper clipping; it is browned, brittle, taped together. The words on it are from G.K. Chesterton, the great English writer:
“For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”
But not for Durant. Not anymore.
“My New Year’s resolution is not to lose any more body parts,” he said with a smile.