Rebuilding Burt: How cricket changed a life

The rise, fall and rise again of Burt Cockley, who overcame personal tragedy and a broken body to find love and start a new life

Martin Smith

17 April 2019, 11:00 PM AEST


Martin Smith is a writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for Yahoo!7 Sport and Fox Sports.

Burt Cockley can't sleep.

Lying alone in the main bedroom of his apartment in Sydney's south-east, he stares up at the ceiling, trying to focus on his breathing, just as he’s been told to do. But there doesn't seem to be enough air in the room, and his breaths come short and sharp.

The rest of his place is empty; earning a good wage for the first time in his life, Cockley has invested in his first home, which overlooks the park in the bayside suburb of Botany. There are two bedrooms, but he's the only one living here. With no-one for company, his thoughts run unchecked.

He spends most of his days here, choosing to stay home even when his friends ask him out for a coffee or lunch. He knows they're only trying to help, but his mind is already crowded enough without their constant questions and advice.

He's never been one to do much talking, after all. So all he does is think.

Think about the guilt he feels for earning money as a professional cricketer even though he can't play cricket, and doesn't know if he ever will again.

About his girlfriend – his future wife - who he hasn't seen in months.

About the long phone calls with his older brother, and how they had stopped so suddenly, leaving behind only heart-breaking questions that will never be answered.

About the mother he barely knows.

"I was basically self-destructing," he says. "I'd never spent much time paying attention to my feelings or emotions and how I could express them in a healthy way. I'd just internalise them. I'd train harder, push myself harder."

Through his 24 years, he hadn't known any better.

"I used to think talking about how I'm feeling is a sign of weakness. That's something, as men, we don't want to show … there's a lot of puffing your chest out and not wanting to show that you're weak, or you're going through something and you've got some feelings you're trying to resolve.

"Now I understand that it's OK … but I had to learn the hard way. I didn't have the skills when I was younger to deal with the things I went through."

*****

Three years earlier. Ash Doolan is standing where no wicketkeeper should, at least not in the amateur ranks of Sydney grade cricket. Crouched down, his gloves cupped on the turf in front of him, the teenager is halfway between the stumps and the boundary rope at Chatswood Oval, the tree-lined former home of Victor Trumper and Charlie Macartney, wedged between the old rail line and the brand new skyscrapers of the city's rapidly-expanding lower north shore.

Standing to Doolan's right and a few metres behind him at first slip is Australia batsman Simon Katich, who has joined the wicketkeeper in taking up his position beyond the 30-yard fielding circle.

Standing at the top of his mark is Randwick-Petersham's broad-shouldered young tearaway Burt Cockley. As he begins his loping run to the crease, his coach can't look away.

"He was bowling thunderbolts that day," recalls Peter Devlin, a 40-year-old veteran of the Sydney Premier Cricket scene. "I reckon he injured two blokes that afternoon. He was frightening."

Frightening, and a little bit wild.

"He bowled a beamer that nearly hit me in the foot on the full," Doolan remembers. "He finished the over, bowled some good balls and Simon said it was the quickest over he'd been in the slips for, other than Brett Lee.

Cockley in full flight // Getty
Cockley in full flight // Getty

"I've played first grade for 11 years now and he's still the fastest I've ever kept to. I've played a bit with Brett since as well and I reckon Burt was definitely up there around that mark."

Billy Anderson, the club's head of operations and a lifelong coach in cricket and rugby league, was watching that day as well.

"Simon came off and said, 'Jeez, that was one of the quickest spells I've seen for a long time'," he remembers. "There were batsmen getting carted off left, right and centre. No-one was too keen to come out late in the day and face Burt Cockley, I can assure you. He was a bowler that batsmen were genuinely terrified of."

Rumours about the raw and rapid young quick from Newcastle quickly spread through the competition, his name mentioned in hushed tones, like a headmaster quietly warning a new student about the school bully.

But Cockley didn't terrorise Sydney's club cricketers for too much longer in that 2007-08 season.

After just a handful of grade games, and a nudge from Randwick-Petersham president and former Test quick Mike Whitney, NSW rushed Cockley into their Second XI and then their Shield side. Less than a year after quitting his labouring job and moving to the big smoke, he was playing with Phil Jaques and Phil Hughes and training alongside superstars like Lee, Shane Watson and Michael Clarke.

And he was loving every minute of it.

"Cricket was the only thing in my life," he says. "I'd moved to Sydney and I had nothing outside of cricket. I was working as a groundsman at North Sydney Oval, that was paying my bills, and everything at that point was just headed towards getting a contract, playing for New South Wales and making a career of it."

And for one exhilarating summer, it looked like that was exactly what he would do.

Having secured the NSW contract he cherished, Cockley finished the following season as their leading wicket-taker with 27 Shield dismissals in seven games. Victorians still remember the way he dismantled their title-winning top-order on a flat early-season pitch at the SCG, taking four wickets in four overs before returning later in the innings to claim his fifth. All five batsmen– Matthew Wade, Dave Hussey, Bob Quiney, Andrew McDonald and Darren Pattinson – were current or future internationals. Pattinson aside, these were batsmen who were used to getting their own way on that sort of wicket. The Vics had breezed to 3-330 before Cockley's hour of power that morning, the third-gamer forcing some of the finest players in the competition into retreat mode.

Cockley during a Shield game against Tasmania // Getty
Cockley during a Shield game against Tasmania // Getty

"Burt bowled thunderbolts," Hussey recalls, adding the Blues quick had felt "at least 10kph faster" in that spell than he had the previous day. "It confused me greatly. He had the potential to bowl super quick."

Cockley never had a speed gun on him during those golden summers, but teammates and opponents alike are in no doubt he was capable of bowling 150kph. Sometimes even faster.

"When he had all his rhythm going, he was as quick as anyone I've ever seen," says Usman Khawaja, Cockley's long-time Randwick and NSW teammate. "He was absolutely rapid. He had those spells in him when he was just bowling absolute lightning."

*****

Cockley still remembers the looks he was getting at Blues training; his teammates watching on as their spearhead from the previous season, their terrifying strike weapon, sent down relative powder-puffs that barely pushed the speed gun beyond 130kph.

"Everyone was like, 'Come on Burt, start bowling, crank it up'," he recalls. "And deep down I'm like, 'I can't. I literally can't do it'.” 

He would later reflect on a surprise stint in the Indian Premier League that was, in some ways, the beginning of the end. A deal with Kings XI Punjab had been struck after their coach, Tom Moody – who was also in charge of Western Australia at the time – had been so taken with the young speedster during that memorable Shield season. Remarkably, Cockley hadn't even entered his name in the player auction, nor had he played a senior T20 game, when he was offered a contract. He didn't end up playing a game in that 2009 tournament, but he did add the names Sangakkara, Jayawardena and Yuvraj to his already star-studded list of teammates.

Cockley at the peak of his powers for NSW // Getty
Cockley at the peak of his powers for NSW // Getty

Their presence, however, proved a double-edged sword. With tournament rules allowing no more than four non-Indian players in each team, Cockley knew he would have to do something truly special to earn a debut. So he viewed every training day as a cut-throat selection tryout.

"I was just full throttle, every practice," he says. "I was trying to impress everyone, trying to get a game. I didn't chill out and relax and manage myself."

The outcome when he returned home was a bulging disc in his back, and as NSW's sports science team started to establish a rehab program for their injured quick, his bowling action came sharply into focus. Uniquely front-on and the source of that terrifying pace, Cockley was told it was what had caused his injury. And unless he could get more side-on in his delivery stride, they told him, his problems would only worsen.

So he spent the first of many off-seasons essentially re-learning how to bowl, a slow and painstaking process of reinvention that countless young quicks go through in order to protect their bodies from the strain of cricket's most damaging craft.

Over the next few months, he learnt to manoeuvre himself and get side-on when he bowled. But it just wasn't the same. His pace, that frightening pace, was gone.

Ironically, it was as he battled a cluttered mind and a mish-mashed action that Cockley's career took another significant upswing. National selectors, seemingly unaware of his turbulent off-season, wanted a closer look at him. And when Lee and Peter Siddle were forced home from Australia's ODI tour of India, he was flown to the subcontinent and launched into the national consciousness.

At Australian training in Mumbai // Getty
At Australian training in Mumbai // Getty

With Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey among his new teammates, Cockley was inked in on the team sheet for the final match of the series and told to ready himself to take on Tendulkar and Sehwag and Dhoni and co. But his international career literally never got out of first gear; as he sat on the bus outside the team's Mumbai hotel, management confirmed the match had been called off, the realisation of a childhood dream washed away in 40 inches of rain from a vicious tropical cyclone.

"That was my 'Close to debuting for Australia' story," he says. "A near bus ride to the ground."

Two weeks later, back in Blues colours for a one-day match in Perth but still grappling with his re-worked action, he felt another surge of pain in his back and walked gingerly off the WACA Ground just four overs into his spell.

He was just 23. He never played for NSW again.

*****

January 2011. Cockley is slumped alone in the rundown changerooms at North Sydney Oval, tears streaming down his face, his broken body screaming at him once again. Outside, he can hear the game going on without him, just as it has for almost 18 months; the familiar sound of bat on ball, the polite applause of a handful of spectators, the words of encouragement from his teammates that echo across the playing field and whip through the empty old grandstands.

That morning, he had been feeling better than he had in years. Not only was he back playing cricket again, but he was back to his old self, bowling lightning quick and terrifying batsmen.

For more than a year, it just hadn't been working. He'd had a stress fracture in his back. A tear in his side. Another tear in his side. More changes to his action. All the while, he'd watched the new breed of quicks emerge at NSW. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were already contracted and Pat Cummins was turning heads. These bright young things would all have their fair share of injuries over the years, but in Cockley's eyes, they were playing cricket and he wasn't. And that was all that mattered. His patience finally ran out.

"'I'm done with this action stuff'," he remembers saying. "'I'm going back to what I used to do'. The way I was going, I was going to end up uncontracted and done. And if I was going to do that, I was going to go back to doing it my way and doing what got me there. So I went back to my old action and it clicked straight away."

Cockley struggled to get on the park for more than two years // Getty
Cockley struggled to get on the park for more than two years // Getty

It was a new year but it was the same old Burt Cockley. Fast, scary – and far too eager to impress.

"As soon as I got back I was like 'I've got to start bowling quick again, I've got to start performing and getting wickets'," he says. "So I came out and just went to bowl as hard as I could."

He was partway through his third over of a T20 club match, a wicket already to his name, when he fired in a fierce bouncer that thudded into the wicketkeeper's gloves. That was when he felt it – a strange sensation in his left knee. He tried his best to ignore it as he walked slowly back to the top of his mark. It didn't hurt, not even a little bit. But with every step that he took, there was definitely something shifting. It felt unstable. It felt … wrong.

But after so long out of the game, he wasn't going to let it stop him bowling. So as he reached his bowling mark at the Fig Tree End of the ground, he turned and ran in again, part of his knee continuing to shift beneath him with every stride.

"As soon as I hit my front leg on the crease, I collapsed," he remembers. "I just collapsed on the ground. I was in agony."

And no wonder; that previous ball, he would learn, he had hyperextended his knee, snapped his ACL and torn his meniscus. Then he'd tried to keep bowling.

For Cockley, the fallout was sickeningly familiar – more surgery, more rehab, and more bloody action changes.

It got worse; during surgery, he contracted a potentially lethal staph infection, turning what should have been a one-day procedure into almost two weeks in and out of hospital. Every time the doctors sliced him open to flush out the deadly bacteria and rebuild his knee, his weight dropped, his mood darkened and his enthusiasm for the game he loved – the game that represented his very existence – plummeted.

"I was shattered," he says. "I'd gone through those two seasons of just injury after injury after injury and then this happened. So I thought 'I'm done'.

"Cricket was my identity. People would say 'Who's Burt?' 'Oh, Burt's the cricketer'. But I couldn't even play cricket anymore.

"I struggled without it. That was the point where I started getting really low. It was all like a blur when I think about it now. I couldn't get out of bed.

"I didn't even really want to get out of bed."

It was during those years out of the game that Cockley found himself lying alone in that empty apartment; wide awake, struggling to breathe and unable to run away any longer from his own thoughts.

*****

Burt Cockley had never seen his father cry, so he knew something was terribly wrong. As the final months of his schooling life were coming to an end, he got a surprise call to the headmaster's office and was unexpectedly greeted by his dad, the man who had single-handedly raised him since he was a baby.

Cockley can't remember what life was like when his mum was around. Barely a year old when she left, he was blissfully unaware of the life-altering moment that his family splintered around him.

It wasn't until he was much older that he realised just how different his family was, particularly in the working-class Hunter region of New South Wales more than three decades ago. There was him and seven brothers and sisters, some full siblings, some half-siblings and most much older than him. And there was his dad, Ron, whose role as the family's sole breadwinner was compromised by a crippling back injury suffered from years working on the railways, leaving him to rely on a disability pension to feed his family.

Cockley and his father // Instagram
Cockley and his father // Instagram

This was Cockley's childhood; it was a loving family – "a great family", he says – but certainly not a traditional family.

“Dad did a great job and taught me everything that contributed to me becoming an athlete … working hard and toughness and all of those things," he says. "A lot of things that made me the person I am, came from that strong figure that my dad was.

"But you miss that mother figure. It was really a male-dominated household and Dad was essentially the mum and dad, doing the best that he could.

"I think at times I missed out on what it was like to have a mum and that caring, nurturing figure in my life.”

By the time Burt had reached his late teens, his two oldest siblings, Ronnie and Vincent, were living together in north Queensland. They were typical older brothers; they used to crack open a couple of beers and give Burt a call to light-heartedly rib their youngest sibling, the kind of conversations most brothers have. There was a significant age gap between Burt and the older boys, and they were technically only half-brothers, but their bond was solid.

"Vincent would always say 'I don't want a little brother who doesn't know how to defend himself'," Cockley remembers. "He'd always be trying to teach me how to fight and roughing me up. It was typical brotherly love, tough love. It wasn't causing harm. He was my older brother and he was taking care of me."

No-one knew at the time, but Vincent was the one who needed taking care of. That's why Burt's dad was in the headmaster's office that day with tears streaming down his face.

It was Ronnie who found him; his best mate and closest ally hanging lifelessly in their backyard, leaving behind only unimaginable grief that softens over time, but never truly goes away. A moment no family should ever experience, but one that so many do.

"There were no signs that anything was wrong," Burt says. "He wasn't acting differently and it just came out of nowhere. He was a larger than life character who lived for a good time. He was the kind of person you would never expect to do that, so it rattled everyone. We didn't know how to process it. I was like 'Shit, how can that happen to such a good person? How could he be struggling like that?'

"That's what hurts the most. You're left thinking, 'Where did that come from, and why?'. There's no answer to that, and that's why it's hard to ever get closure."

The tragic loss brought the family closer. They talked more often, and made sure they checked in on each other, but they never properly sat and opened up about feelings and emotions. Having grown up in a male-dominated household before shifting into the male-dominated world of professional sport, Cockley did what everyone else around him did: he bottled everything up. At a time when he was throwing himself into a cricket career that would contain no end of emotional highs and lows, it was a recipe for disaster. But he had never known any other way.

"I turned to my sport even more," he says.

"If I was going through a bit of a funk, I would go to the gym and try and lift every weight in the gym, or I used to go bowl a cricket ball as fast as I possibly could and break my body. Every time I was working through something, the only way I knew I could work through it was physically.

"I'd never experienced death before … and it meant I really wanted to make something of myself. (Vincent) was in the back of my mind a lot with what I was doing. I was working hard for things because I recognised that life's so precious.

"Instead of talking, sport was a way of expressing how I was feeling. It worked for a while, but it's also not very healthy. I self-destructed doing that, so I had to find other ways to regulate how I was feeling.

"I was never able to verbalise anything until I was struggling physically with my cricket later on."

It was at an Irish bar in India that he would meet the American who would change all that.

*****

Their first meeting was brief. Cockley was at the after-party of the inaugural T20 Champions League in 2009, celebrating New South Wales' title. Rachel was there, too, as one of the cheerleaders hired to bring some American-style glamour to the tournament.

The dark-haired, broad-shouldered athlete from the Hunter and the blonde psychology student from America's mid-west were living proof that opposites attract. So much so that over the next few years, from opposite sides of the world, they built a relationship.

Burt and Rachel together in 2010 // Instagram
Burt and Rachel together in 2010 // Instagram

And as their connection grew, as Burt's injuries piled up and he started to lock himself away in that Sydney apartment, what made them different became even more apparent. And it brought them even closer.

"I think Burt and I represent the extreme ends of masculinity and femininity," Rachel explains. "I'm not just a woman, but I'm very sensitive and extremely emotional. I grew up with parents who actively talked about feelings and emotions and how to overcome sad and stressful feelings. This was a natural way to communicate for me.

"Burt grew up with his dad – a very dedicated full-time father, he's a true-blue Aussie bloke. He believes in hard work and toughness and dedication."

For Cockley, Rachel was exactly what he needed at exactly the right time. He wasn't 'Burt the cricketer' to her. He was just Burt. So for the first time in his life, he started talking. Really talking.

"She was awesome at getting me to speak about how I was feeling and what I was going through," Cockley says. "No-one had ever spoken to me like that. I'd never had someone say, 'Hey, how are you going today? How are you feeling? You look upset - what's wrong?'. I'd never had that, and it was really weird. I was like, 'Why are you asking me that?'.

"She planted the seed for me to start talking. Every time I hurt myself, I struggled emotionally. There was something inside that I was struggling with and I pushed my body harder and harder until I broke myself again."

It was Rachel's willingness to listen, and Cockley's promise to never repeat his family's heartbreaking past, that slowly lifted him out of his funk.

"I don't know what Vincent went through leading up to him doing what he did," he says. "I couldn't imagine what someone would be going through to do that. I definitely went through periods of depression, but I never got to that point. And now that I've been touched by someone who's done that, who was so close to me, I like to be a bit more open about how I'm feeling. I don't want to get to the point where I'm closed off and not talking and not expressing myself. I make the effort now to talk about how I'm feeling.

"It's funny what a negative experience can do to other people."

*****

After four years on contract at New South Wales, half of which were spent on the sidelines, Cockley was finally cut loose. The year was 2012, and he was just 26.

He had been told there was a way back if he stayed in Sydney and regained his best form and fitness, but the rejection hurt. So in a desperate attempt to save his career, he chased a fresh start by moving to Darwin, and then Perth. Rachel joined him as they shifted their lives across the continent on nothing more than a vague hope of Cockley reigniting his career with Western Australia. And for once, albeit briefly, his body didn't let him down; after strong form in Perth's grade competition, he forced his way into WA's Shield side in early 2013, taking 14 wickets in three games to end his three-and-a-half-year exile from first-class cricket and earn another contract.

Cockley revived his career at Western Australia // Getty
Cockley revived his career at Western Australia // Getty

"Because of everything that I'd gone through, that was pretty special," he says. "I proved to myself that I could overcome whatever got put in front of me.

"And I was a different person. I wasn't holding on to cricket as tightly as I used to, so it was a lot more satisfying for me. It was like a second coming."

The following summer, Cockley's second coming lasted just three overs. In a practice match against the touring England side, his left knee finally gave up on him and he hobbled off the WACA Ground with his career again in ruins. Only this time, he knew it was for good.

"Straight away I was like, 'That's it, I'm done'," he says. "I was 27, Western Australia had a few young guys coming through, I only had a one-year contract and I was a liability. I tried to come back after the surgery on my knee, but I couldn't. So I came off contract … and that was it."

This time around, he was better equipped to handle the prospect of letting go of cricket. Years earlier, in his early days at the Blues, he had been asked a question that had hit him like a tonne of bricks: What's your back-up plan? Deep down, he knew he didn't have one. Being an athlete was who he was. But as his injuries piled up and he faced his cricketing mortality, he knew that had to change. And as a gym junkie from a young age, having immersed himself in the world of athletics all his life, fitness and sports science were a natural step.

Barely a month after his contract expired at the Warriors, he began a sports science degree at Perth's Edith Cowan University. Within a year, he had set up his own strength and conditioning business, both steps made possible with the help of WA Cricket and the Australian Cricketers Association. And just like his sport, he threw absolutely everything into it.

Cockley injures his knee against England in Perth // Getty
Cockley injures his knee against England in Perth // Getty

"It was a shift in me," he says. "School was something that I never tried to do well at, and I felt this was the chance for me.

"Cricket gave me the opportunity to do something I probably wouldn't have done otherwise. If it wasn't for cricket, I probably would still be back in Newcastle on a building site.

"I'm glad it all happened the way it did."

Studying and running a business in Perth wasn't exactly the life Cockley had mapped out, but he quickly found satisfaction and fulfilment in helping other athletes overcome the physical barriers he couldn't.

For a while, life was good. Then it was all turned upside down again – this time by a single phone call. Rachel's dad was sick – really sick – and she had to go home, for how long she didn't know. It soon became clear that she needed to be with her family on a more permanent basis, which meant Cockley did as well; just as she had been there for him when he was alone in that Sydney apartment, now he had to be there for her.

Before he could tie off the loose ends of their life in Perth – shutting down his business, finishing his studies, selling their home – Rachel's mother was diagnosed with cancer, just as her husband had been. As he struggled to wrap his head around all that was happening, they packed their bags and moved their lives to the other side of the world.

*****

Fortunately, Burt Cockley has had plenty of practice at reinventing himself. Like all those changes to his bowling action, like his personal transformation since Rachel came into his life, like a lifelong athlete going back to school, he has adapted and evolved.

Today, a week after his 33rd birthday, he's juggling as master’s degree with three separate strength and conditioning roles; with the Kansas University (KU) rugby and American football teams, and with USA Cricket.

Sitting in the back corner of an open-plan office at KU as the weather slowly warms up outside, two large computer screens stare back at him. On one screen is his old life; even from the faraway land of America's mid-west, Cockley watches as much cricket as he can, following the fortunes of his friends and former teammates wearing Baggy Green and Baggy Blue.

Cockley and his family in Kansas // Instagram
Cockley and his family in Kansas // Instagram

On the other is his new life; the culmination of six years of study on two continents, he's found a way to give back to cricket by completing his degree with a thesis on a subject he knows better than most: how to bowl fast and avoid injury. Through his studies, he has joined forces with Cricket Australia's team of sports scientists to try and help crack the code he simply couldn't during his playing career.

As he watches the adjacent screens, eyes flitting from one to the other, he can't deny that he misses playing. Misses his teammates. Misses competing. And most of all, misses bowling fast.

But those sentiments are no longer all-consuming. Ultimately, he has no regrets about playing a game that in some ways broke him, because nowadays, his perspective is greater than that. Cricket has taken so much out of him, but it has also given him everything he has. His education. His new identity. Rachel.

For that, he will forever be thankful.

If you or someone you know needs support, visit https://www.beyondblue.org.au/