Steve Folkes, the late, great Canterbury player and coach, is the first Australian rugby league player to be diagnosed with a brain disease commonly linked to repetitive head injury in American sports.

The local discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease most likely caused by repeated head traumas – in Folkes has huge ramifications for the National Rugby League.

Researchers and clinicians from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW Health Pathology and the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre found evidence of CTE in two brains that were referred to them for diagnostic purposes.

Given confidentiality agreements and the sensitivities involved, the identities of the deceased players were not made public. The only information previously available was that they were middle-aged professionals who had played more than 150 first-grade games.

However, with the blessing of his family, The Sun-Herald can reveal that legendary former Canterbury, NSW and Australian forward Folkes was one of the players to present with CTE after it was diagnosed following a standard autopsy.

The premiership-winning player and coach died of a heart irregularity last year at the age of 59.

Steve Folkes in 2008.

“It’s been a tough 18 months without him and hopefully something positive can come from it,” Folkes’ daughter, Hayley Shaw, said.

“That’s important to us and we’re pretty passionate about making something from it.


Michael Buckland of RPA examines a brain.

‘We want to diagnose CTE in living patients’

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“We don’t want to be alarming about it, but Dad had some problems and he looked after himself. If his story can help some of his mates and then help more research then that’s what we want out of it.”

Folkes was considered one of the toughest players of his generation, making 245 first-grade appearances for Canterbury between 1978 and 1991.

The NRL now has strict protocols regarding concussions. Club doctors and concussion spotters, both on the ground and in the bunker, quickly take players from the field for a head injury assessment if they are suspected to have sustained a concussion. However, in Folkes’ day it was a badge of honour to play on after suffering a head knock to ensure their team wasn’t left a player short.