#TackleTheToughStuff: Neil Flavell

20 May 2022

#TackleTheToughStuff: Neil Flavell

Written in loving memory of Ava-Marie Flavell.

Neil Flavell, or as he’s known to the Rugby League masses, Max the Warrior, has been part of the Wigan Warriors club for over 20 years. 

After first running out during a Challenge Cup match against Whitehaven in 2000 dressed as Kelvin the Gorilla, Neil has stayed with the club as mascot for 23 seasons.

“I love the club, I love the game. I’ve had the privilege of running out at iconic stadiums such as Wembley, Old Trafford and Camp Nou, and next week will be at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, too."

Away from the Warriors, Neil is a devoted family man. But, during his 18th season with the club, the unimaginable happened.

Just two years after the birth of his son, Luke, who is now 17, Neil and his wife fell pregnant again twice and had two miscarriages. After that, they believed their chance to have more children had passed.

But when Luke was 12, the family found out they were having a little miracle baby. And it was a shock, a happy surprise. Neil and his wife, Louise, were 38 and 39 at the time yet, against the odds, had a little miracle coming along.

During the early stages of the pregnancy everything was normal, but after 14 or 15 weeks they realised their baby wasn’t growing. Doctors weren’t sure of the problem but brought Neil and his wife Louise in for regular check-ups. 

Their little miracle was due on Christmas Day 2017. However, in mid-November Neil and Louise attended hospital where Doctor Alice Bird – a highly respected doctor now working at Liverpool Women’s hospital – saw the couple and addressed the complications with their pregnancy. 

“She was looking into it and said 'right, we’re going to have to deliver with an emergency c-section'. So, on the 15th of November 2017, Ava-Marie was born. 3.1 pounds she was born.

“She was born just like any other premature baby, no visible differences in her appearances other than being very small. But at about 3 weeks old the doctor said they want to test her for Edwards syndrome. We knew nothing about Edwards Syndrome."

Edwards' syndrome, also known as trisomy 18, is a rare but serious condition. Babies born with Edwards' syndrome have an extra chromosome 18 present in all cells. This is called full Edwards' syndrome. The effects of full Edward's syndrome are often more severe.

“She looked like a typical baby, so no one really looked into her having any kind of syndrome, they believed she was just small and not growing. The three things they look for in a baby born with Edwards’ is a cleft lip, low ears, and crossed fingers. She didn’t have any of these so they just treated her as a regular premature baby at first."

Unfortunately, the prospects for a baby with Edwards are very different, with only one in 10,000 surviving birth, and only 1 in 1000 living until they’re one. 

"It was horrible telling Luke. That was the worst thing, when we told him about Edwards Syndrome. I sat Luke down when we first learned of her diagnosis, I told him she’s got something that not many children live with. I said she might not live long. 

"What upset me most, he said 'dad, she’ll be gone before grandma', and that really hit me. 

"At that moment, my wife Louise and I decided, we were fortunate to have even had Ava-Marie, so all we can do now is give her everything we can while we’ve got her."

Ava-Marie passed away on the 15th of February 2018 at 89 days old.

"From then on I always wear the blue ribbon, not just on Max but at work, and in life. People do ask. There’s a little girl, the younger sister of Luke’s teammate, she’s about 6 or 7 and she asked me about the ribbon. So I told her and she said 'Oh dear', so I gave her dad a little ribbon to give to her. She’s always asking about the blue ribbon and Ava-Marie."

During this unimaginably difficult time, Neil explained the situation to Wigan Warriors and credits the club and specifically Kris Radlinski for his response.

"Me and Louise were in the hospital every day, going in first thing in the morning and staying through to the evening every day. The club, the office staff, Kris Radlinski – they were fantastic. They immediately did a raffle.

"They were giving hampers out to local charities around the time as it was nearing Christmas. They put a hamper together, raffled it off, and gave us the money towards Ava-Marie to cover whatever we needed for her. 

"One day I was in hospital and I got a text from Radds saying ‘I’ve dropped a hamper outside your house’. So they left us a Christmas hamper.

"We honestly couldn’t fault Wigan, they’re just a great club and I’ve known Rads since I started my mascot job. Obviously Rads was a player at that time, he’s only a month older than me, and I know what a top bloke he is. He’s a caring bloke. And the club were very good."

When talking about how he coped with every parents’ worst nightmare of losing a child, Neil championed the power of talking about it. 

"It’s still hard now, and I’ll be entirely honest with you I’m having a bit of counselling now. I’ve been a bit down lately. My work have sorted out counselling for me.

"It’s hard, but Louise and I keep going, we stay together. And we stay strong for Luke more than anything. He’s gone through it just as much as we have, and he still keeps going. Honestly, I can’t put into words just how proud I am of him. He gives everything his all.

"If I had to give any advice to anyone who’s experiencing something similar, or might one day unfortunately go through it, is simply that you’ve got to talk to people. 

“The thing I always remember the counsellor said to me is 'It happened, it’s how you deal with it'. You’ve got to look at it and work out what is the absolute best way you can deal with this situation. 

"The way I looked at it, the thing that helped me, was saying we’ve got her. She’s a miracle. We weren’t supposed to have her but yet did. So many children aren’t born, most miscarry if they have Edwards Syndrome. We only had her for 89 days, but in those 89 days all she knew was love. Pure love."