The former Leeds Rhinos rugby star, who has been battling Motor Neurone Disease for the last five years, has died. Mark Arnold pays tribute to a man whose passion to make a difference reflects Christ’s devotion to those with disabilities

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Leeds Rhinos’ Rob Burrow scores his side’s second try. Credit: Action Images / Craig Brough 

On Sunday we heard the sad news that 41-year-old Rob Burrow CBE had died. Burrow was a former rugby league player for Leeds Rhinos and a high-profile campaigner for Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a condition that he was diagnosed with in 2019.

His family announced the news in a statement: “Rob has always been a true inspiration throughout his life, whether that was on the rugby league field or during his battle with MND. He never allowed others to define what he could achieve and believed in his ability to do more.”

Carried over the finish line

As far as we know, Burrow never expressed a faith, but his belief in himself and his God-given abilities shone through during his distinguished sporting career and his work to increase public awareness of MND. His sterling efforts raised more than £15 million for research into the degenerative disease.

In 2023, Burrow, who by then could no longer walk, was carried across the finish line of the Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon by his former teammate and great friend Kevin Sinfield CBE. For me, this resonated, as I considered the story in the Gospels of a disabled man’s friends carrying him to see Jesus.

In lowering him through the roof to meet Christ, they showed great love by not allowing obstacles to get in their way. Carrying a friend to help them reach their goal, whether physically or metaphorically, is something we can all do.

A recent BBC report described Burrow as “relentless”. I think this is a great word to characterise him; it illustrates how he played his rugby – with focus and passion – but also how in these last few years he picked up life, tucked it under his arm, and charged, head down, towards the try line with it. I think it’s fair to say that he also kicked it over the metaphorical goal for the extra two points.

Burrow’s family commented that “Rob never accepted that he couldn’t do something. He just found his way of doing it better than anyone else.” His example can teach us that until the final whistle is blown, the game isn’t over. Even though life’s game is sadly now over for Burrow, the work he started continues on and will have significant impact in the future for others battling the disease.

Relentlessness can be a positive Christian attribute for us all to aspire to as we run the good race, seeking to live a Christ-like life in a way that makes a difference to others, doing all that God is calling us into.

Just as in Christ’s day, disabled people too often find themselves on the margins

Burrow’s latter years inspired many who, like him, live with a degenerative condition; his life showed them that they too could still achieve important things. Just as in Christ’s day, disabled people still too often find themselves on the margins, excluded, sidelined; Rob Burrow’s life shows us that, as with the disabled people Jesus met, everyone can be included, belong and make a real difference.

Rob Burrow brought hope to people with MND and we can all learn from his example, whether we are disabled ourselves or journey with someone who is. It can be easy to give up, accept less and get used to decline.

Let us all be inspired by his life and his legacy, and let us pick up life’s rugby ball, and charge for the try line once more. In Christ we have a captain, charging alongside us, and when our time comes to cross the try line we can say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Rob Burrow is survived by his wife, Lindsey, and their children Macy, Maya and Jackson.