WHEN I was 17, I didn’t know where I was going in life.
I was seriously considering dropping out of college in Wakefield as the academic route definitely wasn’t for me.
As I walked past the careers office one day, I decided to pop my head in and see what possible options there were, and the Armed Forces certainly appealed to me.
The Army invited me along to a two-day training course in Scotland to see if I was suitable to sign up, and I soon had my start date from there.
I was told initially to apply for the Infantry at first, but I felt I had more to offer and ended up applying to join the Royal Engineers – who take on varied roles from drivers to electricians and almost everything in between – and gained qualifications in bricklaying.
The course took 11 months to complete down in Kent, and I was playing rugby for my regiment every Wednesday, before coming back to play for my local amateur side Normanton Knights every Saturday.
I certainly think it gave me some very useful life skills and discipline that I took with me through my rugby career.Ben Cockayne
Once I had finished my course and the training, I was then a fully fledged Royal Engineer and subsequently posted to Germany, which, sadly, meant that my rugby had to be put on hold.
I would play for Normanton during my leave, although it was difficult at times.
I’m very proud of what I achieved in that part of my life – but for me I don’t think I joined up at the right time.
There possibly may never have been a right time, but I joined at a time where I was a little bit lost, and a bit cheesed off with a lack of opportunities elsewhere.
I did about three-and-a-half-years in the Army in total – 18 months in training, and two years serving.
I served in Germany, briefly in Northern Ireland building some helipads, and, in the summer of 2003, Iraq.
It was tough and scary at times as a 19-year-old kid, particularly when we had to take cover from enemy fire in a hole in the floor for hours at a time – taking a few hospital passes from Ash Robson (York City Knights full-back) now seems like nothing!
I certainly think it gave me some very useful life skills and discipline that I took with me through my rugby career.
It shaped me into a proper adult, where I learned how to always be punctual, always be the hardest worker in the team, and to look after myself – cooking, cleaning that sort of stuff.
After leaving the Army, I got a trial at Wakefield Trinity Under-21s with Johnny Thompson. However, their head coach at the time, Shane McNally, thought I was too small to make it at first-grade at Super League level.
From there, I played one game for Hunslet and Roy Sampson said the same thing.
My last chance was given to me by the late St John Ellis at Doncaster, who invited me to pre-season training and to play in a few trial games in the Arriva Trains Cup.
I was a half-back at that point, so I would be an understudy to Graham Holroyd and Latham Tawhai.
On the eve of the season, Doncaster unexpectedly lost their full-back at the time, and the gaffer turned to me in training and said: “Can you play there young ‘un?”
“No, but I’m keen as mustard and I’ll give it a go!” I replied, and in that 2006 season I went on to play 22 games in the No 1 shirt.
It was a very good Doncaster team that year with a lot of experience at that level, which made the transition easy for me.
Hull KR had just been promoted to Super League when I got the call from them, and I snapped their hand off at the opportunity to play full-time at the top level.
I went on to play more than 250 games in Super League (including two years back at Wakefield) despite being told I would never make it, and my testimonial year is now drawing to a close.
I’m 34 now, and I’m very lucky to have enjoyed two careers that are both very different, but do share similar values.
It feels like I’ve gone full circle now as I’m getting a run in the halves again for York this year under an excellent young British coach in James Ford.
It almost feels like I’ve been given a new lease of life, and I’m currently in talks about possibly playing on next year, too.
At the moment, we’re second in Betfred League 1 just behind Bradford Bulls, and I’m loving being surrounded by a group of young, hungry and talented blokes, playing in front of big crowds at Bootham Crescent.
When I look back now, I had some of the best times of my life serving in the Royal Engineers.
I made some friends for life also, who I still see 15 years on.
I would recommend it to any kid that may be lacking a bit of direction, or anybody that feels that they can’t accomplish anything – have a look and you might surprise yourself!
The Knights play Newcastle Thunder at Bootham Crescent this Sunday (July 1, 3pm) and we’re celebrating the Armed Forces Day at the game.
All Ministry of Defence ID holders and Veteran pass holders can watch the game completely free.
Come along and see us in action. I hope we can put on a show to say thank you to all our service men and women for their incredible service to this country.