Devin Ibanez: How 'lucky' escape from life-threatening injury started pro rugby player's coming out journey
When he suffered a double throat fracture while playing for Scarborough RUFC, flanker Devin Ibanez was told by doctors that the injury could have been fatal; four years on, the American professional player is now fulfilling a vow he made to himself to be true
By Devin Ibanez
Last Updated: 16/01/21 2:53pm
Devin Ibanez is a 27-year-old professional rugby player from Boston, Massachusetts, who was most recently with the New England Free Jacks in Major League Rugby.
Four years ago, he was a regular for Scarborough RUFC, turning out in Yorkshire Division 1, the seventh tier of the English rugby pyramid.
He explains how a serious injury and struggles with his mental health led him towards making an announcement on social media that has made headlines around the world...
"You're lucky to be alive," the doctor told me. "The injury you've sustained is most commonly associated with attempted hangings."
It was March 2017, I was miles away from home, and I'd just learned that rugby - the sport I love - had come close to killing me.
I'd been playing for Scarborough in a league match at North Ribblesdale when I sustained the injury. It was late on in a tight game when I saw an opportunity to make a big tackle on a winger.
As I accelerated and drew closer to try and make a strong hit leading with my chest, he stood upright at the last second. His shoulder ended up making direct contact with my Adam's apple, and I fell to the ground.
It felt as though something was wrong. The trainer came over to check on me, and I did my best to speak - but what came out was a raspy, forced whisper, like a bad impression of Christian Bale as Batman. I explained that I'd been hit directly to the throat and that it was very painful.
He said if I could breathe unobstructed - which I could, albeit with significant pain - I was safe to play on. I finished the game unable to communicate with my team-mates. We won 21-20 and I was awarded Man of the Match.
Afterwards, I sat in the clubhouse watching the Six Nations on TV when I felt a tickle in my throat and coughed into my hand. I looked down and saw blood.
The trainer told me I needed to go to A&E. Unfortunately, since we were in Settle around three hours from Scarborough, nobody was available to take me. There was a hospital near the ground, but the last thing I wanted was to be isolated hours away from the few people I knew.
I ended up sitting on the team bus, spitting into a cup because it hurt too much to swallow, while I waited for the post-match to end. By the time we got back to Scarborough, it was past midnight and over six hours from the time of injury. I figured that if I hadn't died yet, the worst of my injury and swelling was probably behind me. I decided to try to sleep it off until the next day.
I woke up choking on my own spit. I sat up and was able to breathe OK so I decided to go back to sleep. When I woke again, experiencing the same thing, I felt I needed to go to A&E. The team manager picked me up and drove me to the hospital where I expected them to book me an appointment to see a specialist later that week. However, the doctor felt my injury was so severe that I needed to be transferred via ambulance immediately to the nearest hospital with an ENT specialist.
When I arrived, they quickly put a camera down through my nose and saw severe swelling and badly bruised vocal cords. I would need to stay the night while they managed the swelling. They gave me steroids and painkillers. It was my first time staying overnight in a hospital. The next morning, I felt significantly better, with the swelling having gone down drastically.
The hospital booked a CT scan of my throat. Afterwards, the head of the ENT department came to my room and said: "The results were so severe that the head of radiology called me and told me to check on you in person, to make sure you were breathing OK.
"Due to the severe swelling restricting your airway, you are currently breathing through a hole about this size…" - and made a gesture with his hand to demonstrate the width of a pen or pencil.
I was shocked. This was even after the swelling had gone down so it would have been even smaller than that at its most serious. The doctor continued: "You've suffered a fracture in two places to the cricoid cartilage in your throat. You also severely bruised your vocal cords and punctured a hole in your airway and are currently leaking air into your chest. We'll need to start you on antibiotics immediately to avoid an infection near your heart."
As he told me how fortunate I'd been, and that my neck trauma was similar to that seen in suicide attempts, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It started to dawn on me just how close I'd come to a potentially fatal injury.
I started to evaluate my life and what I wanted to accomplish... the seed was first planted following my life-threatening injury in Scarborough.
Insecurity, and more injuries
The end of Scarborough's season was just over a month away. Over the next few days, I began to rethink my rugby career and what I wanted to accomplish. I had to evaluate what was important to me. Something right at the top of my list was finding my sense of pride as a gay man.
When I'd woken that morning choking on my own blood, I had been at my boyfriend's house. We'd begun dating soon after I'd moved to the UK from New Zealand, where I'd played my first full 20-game season and coached a local high school boys' team to success in their cup competition. Scarborough was such a great opportunity and I didn't want to pass it up, but I'd found myself struggling socially due to homesickness, having been away from Boston for many months.
Being in a small town, it had proved next to impossible to keep my relationship a secret. Eventually I was outed by my teammates when they discovered who I'd been spending my time with. Most people were supportive, but I felt uncomfortable because I hadn't chosen to come out on my own accord. Some teammates joked about my sexuality out loud and even in front of kids who I was coaching at the time. Now these insecurities were merging with thoughts of my own mortality, triggered by my injury. This continued to play on my mind.
While I recovered, I left Scarborough. My relationship with my boyfriend ended around the same time. I'd set my sights on playing for the USA in the summer at the World Maccabiah Games, having just missed out on the previous edition. It's one of the world's biggest sporting events, held in Israel every four years - there were over 10,000 athletes competing in 2017. I was selected for Team USA and had raised the funds for the trip - but then just nine days before leaving, I suffered another injury, in a game of touch. It was a grade 2 hamstring tear.
I was devastated, but decided to travel anyway in the hope my hamstring would heal enough for me to play in the latter stages - and thankfully, that's what happened. I started the final against South Africa and we recorded an upset victory, giving the USA their first rugby gold medal at the Games in 20 years.
Having returned to Boston, I started seeing a guy called Fergus towards the end of the year - he was from England and was studying at a Harvard Lab. However, I was intent on keeping my personal life distinctly separate from my rugby life. As Fergus and I got more serious, I even asked him to lock his Instagram account so that people wouldn't find out about us.
I had been recruited by my local club Mystic River in the American Rugby Premiership - then the top tier of rugby in the US - and we won the title in my first year. With Major League Rugby forming, I joined the New England Free Jacks as one of the team's original members, playing exhibition games as they prepared for their MLR debut in February 2020.
I should have been hitting my stride as a professional athlete, but I increasingly found it difficult while with the Free Jacks. I had good relationships with my teammates as well as the coaching staff, but I was constantly on edge. I knew if I were to come out publicly, I could do a lot of good - I could potentially have a positive impact on other closeted athletes as well as on my own happiness. I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power so that if I came out, I would be a prominent member of the team and be as visible as possible.
I was constantly on edge... I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself and struggled to build up confidence.
However, this way of thinking also put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself and I struggled to build up confidence. Any mistake I made in training or in a match felt like a blow towards my goal of being the best advocate for the LGBTQ+ community that I could be. I felt like there was no room for error and no matter what injuries I accrued, I wouldn't let myself rest out of fear of the opportunity passing me by.
My body began to break down from the combination of pushing through injuries and the additional stress and pressure I was putting on myself. It wasn't until the Free Jacks expressed an interest in re-signing me that I felt I was able to take a breath.
Along the way, I would often set dates for when I would come out publicly, but I'd always find a reason why it was not the right time. While I continued to stall, the pandemic hit; the Free Jacks had only played a handful of MLR games in their debut season before the 2020 campaign was called off altogether.
The impact of an Instagram post
As the year dragged on, everything became harder. Fergus was back in the UK and being separated from him with no real certainty of when we could see each other again was heart-breaking. In addition, like so many others, I had to physically isolate myself from my friends and family. The death of our beloved dog, Ruby, came as another heavy blow, sending me into a state of depression.
As 2021 approached, I came to a realisation. There was never going to be a perfect time to come out and if I wanted to, I could always find a reason not to. Fergus's birthday was approaching in early January and soon after that, it would be our three-year anniversary. The idea of waiting another year to celebrate our love publicly was gut-wrenching. It felt wrong.
I created a new Instagram account, and the first post was three pictures of Fergus and me together, accompanied by what I wanted to say. Within the post, I wrote: "What I considered as casting a shadow I've slowly realised can also act as a beacon. So I have decided to embrace what I once felt embarrassed of, and be proudly and shamelessly myself."
The reaction has been swift, supportive, and overwhelmingly positive. Over 4,000 people have followed the account, I've received hundreds of welcoming messages, and media outlets have carried my story worldwide. The Free Jacks shared the news too - in fact, the whole rugby community has been incredibly supportive.
My goal now is to get back into competitive professional rugby, when the pandemic relents and we can play again. That could mean signing with Major League Rugby, or finding a team in the UK, closer to Fergus's home. Also, the next World Maccabiah Games has been bumped to 2022 - and I'd love to captain Team USA there.
Beyond playing, I also hope to pursue coaching across the globe and be an advocate for LGBT+ inclusion in sport. I want to reach as many people as possible who may be impacted by my story and try to inspire them to be themselves without fear of backlash.
I chose the name @thatgayrugger for my Instagram account because one of my greatest fears before coming out was that my sexuality would eclipse all my rugby achievements and make me a token. Instead, I decided to embrace the moniker in the hope of dispelling this fear for any other gay players. I'm confident enough now to know my identity is more than just my sexuality.
I think back now to that moment in hospital when I vowed to myself that I would come out publicly before my rugby career was said and done. I didn't have a plan of when or how, but it clicked that it was important to me and to anyone else who felt uncomfortable in sport for the same reason.
Now, more than ever, we must recognise that life's too short to be stuck in the closet indefinitely. If you're lucky enough to be safe and secure in who you are, it's important to try to embrace that feeling today - because tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Story editor: Jon Holmes.
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