James Cunningham just wasn’t feeling right, as if he was about to come down with something.
So the Toronto Wolfpack hooker/scrum half, recovering from earlier hamstring surgery, was sent home some five weeks ago by the transatlantic rugby league club’s physios.
“And then I just started to get a real subtle tickle in my throat,” Cunningham recalled. “Which sort of progressed as the week went on into a more aggressive cough. And then it was literally at the point where my fever just got so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. I was coughing, my chest was tightening up, [I was] struggling to breathe.
“And then as all of those symptoms sort of wore off and I started to settle down, my cough stayed aggressive for three weeks and I completely lost all sense of smell and taste, which was quite worrying at the time … it was just a really horrible experience in general.”
The 25-year-old didn’t get tested, following instructions to self-isolate at home, although he was in regular contact with the club doctor and did a couple of video consultations with another doctor.
And while he had no official word it was the novel coronavirus, he believes that’s what laid him low.
“I’ve had flus before and I’ve had colds and I’ve never had an illness quite like that one … the symptoms seem to line up.”
It all started one week before Britain went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Cunningham, who lives alone, didn’t leave his home in Manchester for some three weeks. Wolfpack teammate Blake Wallace, who lives close by, and others helped with provisions and other supplies.
Today, Cunningham is still coughing up some mucus. His doctor told him that people who have endured the virus sometimes go through another wave of illness because their immune system is so depleted.
But he says he is getting back to normal.
“My sense of smell has started coming back, but only for certain things. I can smell deodorant and perfume and things like that. But there’s still quite a lot of things that I can’t quite smell. And my taste is very temperamental at the minute. I can taste things that are quite high in salt, but there’s still quite a few things that I can’t taste, which is annoying. But hopefully that will come back in time.”
He lost some 10 pounds during the illness.
“I looked good in the mirror, but I just didn’t feel myself,” he joked.
Several other Wolfpack players also self-isolated as a precaution after showing mild symptoms, but Cunningham seems to have had the worst of it.
“From speaking to the boys, I don’t think that illness lasted very long,” he said. “I think it was a pretty quick thing [for them] and it was over pretty much straightaway, luckily.”
A professional athlete in elite physical condition, Cunningham has a healthy respect for whatever knocked the stuffings out of him.
“That’s why I was so vigilant with staying at home and making sure that I let everyone else know that they had to stay away. Because for more vulnerable people to contract this sort of disease, it’s going to be a real struggle for them.”
Cunningham, who joined the Wolfpack from the London Broncos last November, has restarted his hamstring rehab. He is able to go out for long walks but can’t run yet.
He injured the hamstring in a Feb. 13 loss to Wigan. He had sensed a little tightness in the pregame warm-up, but felt better after a massage and some stretching.
During a tackle, Cunningham was trying to pass the ball to his right. Hit from the left, he twisted and felt his hamstring pop. “A bit of a freak accident,” he said.
“I looked over to the physios and I said, 'My hamstring’s gone.’“
Then he looked up and saw the play was coming back toward him. So he did what rugby league players do.
“I got back up and sort of made a couple of tackles without a hamstring, which wasn’t a nice experience,” he said with a chuckle.
The physios then got him off the field. And once the adrenalin wore off, the pain started.
“It was just the most agonizing pain ever, really,” he said.
He had surgery five days later, with the club saying he would be sidelined for six months. Some three weeks later, he started getting sick.
Crutches and a knee brace were seemingly followed by the novel coronavirus.
“It’s been a tough couple of months, for sure. I’m glad to be over it now,” he said.
The Wolfpack is currently on hiatus, as Super League awaits word from government and health authorities that it can resume play.