Carl Hayman on his shock dementia diagnosis and how it affected his family

The former All Black was floored when he learnt he had early-onset dementia
Carl Hayman in a black polo shirt and navy blue cap sits in a rugby stadium looking out to the field

Carl Hayman’s children call it “Daddyland” when their father, the former All Black great, zones out.

“They say, ‘Daddy’s gone to Daddyland again,'” explains Carl of his frequent lapses in concentration.

Two years ago, Carl, 43, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, a debilitating illness that currently has no cure. It’s believed to be the result of the numerous knocks to the head he suffered while playing our national game.

“The wheels are turning, but the mice aren’t running that fast,” he says of his failing mind, which he documents in his new memoir Head On.

“I thought I could sit here and say nothing about this or I could warn other rugby players about what can happen when you experience repeated hits to the head and concussions.”

Carl, who spent a year drafting the book with a ghost writer, admits it wasn’t an easy process.

“It’s very hard to make yourself vulnerable in that way,” admits the father-of-four. “It was an emotional roller-coaster reliving what I’ve gone through and some of the bad decisions I’ve made.”

Those bad decisions include drinking too much, domestic abuse and brushes with the law while living in France, where the former All Black tighthead prop spent five years playing and another two years coaching a French rugby side.

With fellow All Blacks Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock.

His behaviour ended the marriage to the mother of his daughter Sophie, 10, and sons Taylor, nine, and Charlie, eight. Carl also has a two-year-old daughter, Genevieve, with British athlete Kiko Matthews.

“I wasn’t in a good place for a long time,” he recalls. “I had headaches, depression, anxiety and dizzy spells. My short-term memory was also bad.”

It wasn’t until a Welsh rugby-playing friend, who had received a similar diagnosis, urged Carl to undergo testing that he realised the source of his issues. After ACC denied his claim, Carl funded the procedure himself, flying to the UK to be tested for early-onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head trauma that includes behavioural and mood problems.

One doctor told Carl he wouldn’t expect to see a scan like his for a 70-year-old, let alone someone not yet in their mid-forties.

The diagnosis “floored” him, but Carl admits it was a relief to finally put a name to some of the mental health issues he’d been facing.

“How I explain it is that everyone has a bucket full of brain energy, but my bucket is half-full and has holes in it! It means that I can remember most of the 45 games I played for the All Blacks, but not what I did yesterday. Or when I was applying for my son’s passport, I forgot his name! And then there are the times I’ll be talking to my kids and go to Daddyland or forget to turn off the stove. I have to put Post-It notes around the house to remind me to do things like turn appliances off. And I keep a diary so I know what I need to do each day.”

Carl’s illness also robbed him of his relationship with Kiko, who returned to the UK with their daughter in January.

“The nature of our relationship changed when I was diagnosed because Kiko became my carer, and was always looking after me and reminding me to take my medication. It definitely put a strain on our relationship.”

He isn’t ready to call time on their relationship and is keen to reconnect with Kiko when he competes in an Ironman competition in Wales in August.

“I’m hoping there will be a happy ending for us,” he says.

In the meantime, work at the New Plymouth charter boat company Carl bought three years ago keeps him busy. “I look after the boat and the maintenance while my staff run the business. It’s not full-time, so it gives me flexibility in my day.”

Carl spends his days on the water.

That usually includes some form of exercise, from running to cycling. “Exercise has been a massive part of my life since I was five and first picked up a rugby ball. It’s also great for my mental health. The irony is that my body is fine – it can run marathons and do triathlons. It’s thinking my way through the day that’s hard.”

Carl admits acceptance is a big part of his new normal. Surprisingly, he’s not angry about the sport that has taken so much from him.

“Rugby gave me a lot – I travelled the world, made lifelong friends and earned a good salary. It also gave me confidence and fitness. But while all players expect to have sore backs and bad knees, no one expects to have dementia in their forties. I wish I’d known about the risks involved, which would have helped me better monitor my brain health.”

Related stories