The incident that cut Ian McKinley’s career short occured in January 2010; while playing against Lansdowne, a fellow UCD player accidentally perforated his left eye during a scuffle. He was immediately rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and a week-long stay. At the age of twenty-one, and after only having played six games for Leinster, he was forced to take a break from the sport. He had been at serious risk of partially losing his eyesight- according to McKinley, after the initial operation, his doctor dubbed him a ‘’medical miracle’.
While initially being advised to take a year off from rugby, McKinley made his first triumphant return only six months after the incident, after having regained 50% vision in his left eye.
It wasn’t until the next May before his injury reared its ugly head again. After only fifteen minutes of play, he was alarmed by his vision suddenly turning blurred- something that had never happened before. After being again rushed to hospital, it was revealed that a cataract had developed in his left eye, eighteen years after the initial injury.
Later, while driving, he became concerned when he suddenly realised that he could no longer see the traffic lights. A visit to the doctor confirmed his worst fears: his retina had detached. McKinley battled through three failed operations before admitting defeat, and publicly announcing his retirement.
A promising rugby career cut short, McKinley turned to coaching. After being offered a job by Leinster, he began working as an under-16s coach in the Italian city of Udine. While the city lacked a large rugby presence, McKinley has stated that it was ‘’the perfect fit’’ for him. While rugby-obsessed Dublin placed him under constant scrutiny, in Udine he was able to pursue his passion for the sport without those pressures. But while McKinley was grateful for the opportunity, he still felt that something was ‘’missing’’. After having his career so abruptly ended when it should have been just beginning, he wasn’t prepared to give up his dreams of playing professionally so quickly.
In the end, it was McKinley’s brother who put him back on track. After having had one freak accident postpone his career for years, and having dealt with two subsequent ‘gouging incidents’, McKinley wasn’t prepared to return to the game without some extra protection. In a collaboration with a NCAD student, Johnny Merrigan, a plan was put in place for the development of a pair of protective eye goggles, suitable for professional play. Eventually, the sports company Raleri took up the task. Raleri’s Rugby Goggles were specially designed to be safe not only for the player wearing them, but for their teammates and opponents alike. While at the time not permitted in professional play, McKinley’s case pushed World Rugby to allow for a trial run in 2015. He went from coaching for the Italian club Leonorso, to playing for them. In only ten games, he scored a total of 128 points, culminating in being offered a two-year contract with the rugby club Viadana.
Currently, in 2018, McKinley is thriving. After having finished up a season with Benetton Rugby in May, and making his international debut with the Italian team last November, he’s been going strong. It’s been an undeniably rocky road to get there, but McKinley has achieved the best of both worlds- success in both his career and his personal life. He’s happily married and settled in Italy, while being able to play the sport that he loves.
McKinley’s impact goes beyond being a “romantic” story, as some have dubbed him. The goggles that he helped popularize are now being used by over 500,000 people, allowing players that may have been barred from rugby before to now be treated like any other player. And as a source of inspiration, he’s a testament to the power of resilience and of forging your own path. When McKinley lost the sight in his left eye, it didn’t seem feasible that he could continue playing rugby- there was no precedent for his situation that made it seem like a possibility for him. But now, as our scientific knowledge is evolving, and sport is becoming increasingly inclusive, McKinley’s story shows the value in being the first to do something, and how the choice to carve out your own path can inspire others.