Jonny: 'a true rugby man'
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Mr Mitchell pictured in January 2006, just months after his rugby match accident
HEARTFELT tributes have been paid to dad-of-two Jonny Mitchell, the paralysed former North Berwick rugby captain who died on Monday.
Mr Mitchell suffered severe spinal injuries in a match against Hawick Linden in September 2005, leaving him wheelchair-bound. The 30-year-old died peacefully at his Gullane home shortly after midnight. He is said to have died from natural causes.
Mr Mitchell, who lived in a specially adapted house on Hopetoun Terrace, leaves behind wife Joanne and daughters Abby and Lucy.
Messages of condolence have flooded in from across the rugby community, praising the heroic dad-of-two, who may receive a lasting tribute from the rugby club he had captained with distinction before sustaining his horrific injury.
When the Courier spoke to Mr Mitchell in January 2006 he described the moment that changed his life.
"I have taken quite a few knocks to the head before but I have never had the feeling I had then," he said.
"I have never lost all sensation before. You never think it will happen to you and that it will affect the rest of your life."
He added: "You can just slip into depression mode if you're not doing anything. There are days when I feel down but it is usually when I am not doing anything. I have to be strong and get things done.
"I keep working away and hopefully something will come back."
According to friends in North Berwick, Mr Mitchell had taken on a new job with a social enterprise project about six months ago and had been involved in talking to businesses on how to provide work opportunities for mobility-challenged people. He was an apprentice alarm engineer before his accident.
The rugby community, including a number of Scotland internationalists, rallied around Mr Mitchell following his injury, raising thousands of pounds for a trust fund to help him adapt to his new life. Large numbers of people touched by his story, both in East Lothian and beyond, joined in the amazing fundraising effort.
Ken Macauley, North Berwick RFC's director of rugby, said the club had been inundated with supportive messages since Mr Mitchell's death.
"We have had dozens and dozens of messages," he said.
"There have been comments left on our website, emails, text messages, all sorts."
Other East Lothian rugby clubs rushed to offer their support as news spread of Jonny's passing on Monday. Haddington RFC stated: "Today we lost a true rugby man in Jonny Mitchell. Haddington RFC would like to pass on our thoughts and sincere condolences to Jonny's family and the town of North Berwick, which will miss such a genuine character."
Davy Gray, president of Hawick Linden RFC when Mr Mitchell suffered his injuries, also offered his support, saying: "May I express with great sadness my deepest sympathy to all at North Berwick again with the passing of Jonny Mitchell. All of us were deeply affected when Jonny got hurt on that fateful day in September 2005 and he was never far from our thoughts."
Jim Littlefair, North Berwick RFC president and chairman of rugby injury charity Hearts and Balls, helped establish Jonny's trust fund.
He said: "Jonny never once said 'Why me?' and, as an experienced front-row player, he accepted that what happened to him was just a freak accident. He was a tremendous character and was passionate about the game of rugby. He always said that, if he could, he'd be back training with the team.
"Jonny's death is a terrible loss for the club and everyone involved with rugby. All of our lives changed the day Jonny was injured and he's been in our thoughts since that day and he will remain there."
Ian McLauchlan, president of the SRU, added: "Jonny showed such tremendous courage in the face of adversity. He loved the game of rugby and even after his injury didn't turn away from the sport."
Iain Dove, North Berwick's 1st XV manager, also paid tribute to the former front-row forward, who despite his injuries had maintained a love of rugby and a close attachment to the North Berwick club.
"Jonny was still very much a prominent member of the club," he told the Courier. "He often came to our matches and always had comments to pass on and offered constructive criticism to the team. We've had a lot of messages of support since he passed away."
One of the many North Berwick matches that Mr Mitchell attended was the Regional Bowl Final at Murrayfield in April 2010 and he sat proudly in the stands as he watched his team defeat Strathmore to complete a league and cup double.
Mr Dove added that the rugby club had not yet considered any permanent tribute to Mr Mitchell but said it would likely be something the club would discuss in the coming weeks.
A fiercely competitive hooker with a genuine passion for the game of rugby, Mr Mitchell came up through the North Berwick High School ranks into the rugby club's 1st XV.
His commitment, skill and leadership qualities saw him appointed club captain at the age of only 20 and he skippered the team for three seasons before the tragic accident.
It was in the very first scrum of an away match at Hawick Linden's Volunteer Park on September 10, 2005, that Mr Mitchell suffered his life-changing spinal injuries.
He spent some eight months in hospital undergoing treatment and rigorous physiotherapy before he was able to move into his new home in Gullane.
Soon after his accident he spent several weekends at North Berwick respite care home Leuchie House, where he was a well-known face.
Mairi O'Keefe, Leuchie's director, said "Jonny's death is very sad.
"He used to come here after his injury, he'd stay for Christmas and for New Year. Lots of people here knew him."
Elma Danks, treasurer of North Berwick Community Council, who knew Mr Mitchell well in his younger days - as a teenager he used to be a regular on the community council's cinema trips when Mrs Danks chaired the group - also paid her respects, adding that the planting of a 'memory tree' in Quality Street, to remember those who died young, just days before Mr Mitchell's passing had been made more "poignant" by his death.
"He was always so full of fun and so full of mischief, and always very positive following the accident," she said.
"He wouldn't think 'I can't cope with that', so that obviously held him in such good stead after the accident. He was very positive that he would be able to come back and be with his family and see his children growing up.
"I think it was rather poignant that the memory tree was planted on Quality Street less than two weeks ago."
Mr Mitchell's funeral takes place at St Andrew Blackadder Church in North Berwick on Tuesday at 11.15am, with all family and friends invited.
Donations will be taken for the Friends of the Edington and Hearts and Balls. Mr Mitchell's family has requested that no black ties be worn at the service.